Back in early May, when the Cleveland Indians were faced with the roster-crunching decision to let Erik Gonzalez or Giovanny Urshela go, Gonzalez might have saved his Indians career over the course of a single day — a double-header against the Toronto Blue Jays in which he went 4-for-8 with two doubles.
At the time, it still wasn’t a sure thing that Gonzalez would stay. After all, Giovanny Urshela was one of “Tito’s Guys,” and they are rarely swept aside for a younger — sometimes better — player of similar caliber. Whether it was Gonzalez’s big day against Toronto, or his track record of being a guy who can play just about every position and still hit the ball, he eventually won out, got to stay with Cleveland, and he’s been hitting well ever since.
From May 4 onward, with his position on the Indians firmly in place, Gonzalez has gone 9-for-29 with three doubles and a home run while playing every single infield position that doesn’t require sitting behind home plate, mostly as a late-game defensive replacement or at first base when a pinch-hitter causes some roster weirdness. Just about any player will tell you that coming into a game sporadically and not having a set schedule to get yourself prepared every game is a more difficult way to play baseball, yet here’s Gonzalez doing it, and doing it well enough to be fifth on the team in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement at 0.8 wins.
It’s more that just that, though. Sure, Gonzalez has proved he can play without a schedule — a feat on its own — but most (most) everything about his batting profile to this point shows a guy who has the potential to be a hitter in the majors. Maybe not a great hitter, but a decent hitter who can play above-average defense everywhere. That has to have more value than an occasional night spelling Jason Kipnis in the ninth inning because he’s likely to boot a ball into outer space.
Before getting into the good of Erik Gonzalez, it’s worth taking a moment to mention that projection systems absolutely do not see the good. ZiPS, Steamer, whatever you want to look at — they’re all tugging at his slash line trying to drag it down to the .255/.272/.418 he had last year with equally inconsistent playing time. Projection systems didn’t exactly love the offense of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, either.
To date, Gonzalez has spread the ball well over his 185 career plate appearances — 39.2 percent pulled, 38.3 percent up the middle, and 22.5 percent opposite field. More importantly, he’s also hit the ball hard 35.8 percent of the time. Over the last three seasons, among players with at least 180 plate appearances, Gonzalez ranks 138th in baseball (out of 522); ahead of players like Anthony Rendon and Buster Posey, and mere percentage points behind Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper.
If anything is going to be Gonzalez’s offensive undoing — the reason he’s forever stuck as an average/below-average hitting utility player — it’s making contact. Contact rate stabilizes around 100 plate appearances, meaning it’s one of the few things we have a clear snapshot of for Gonzalez going forward — he’s made contact just 67.1 percent of time. Going back to the leaderboard from above, Gonzalez ranks 496 (out of 522) in contact rate. This is the area where you can succeed if you mash like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, or peak Ryan Howard, but probably not when you’re Erik Gonzalez. I do think Gonzalez could make it as a hitter that spreads the ball all over the field, even if he never reaches double-digit home runs. But not if he can’t make contact with the ball in the first place.
All of this brings about the question: What should the Indians do with him?
Jason Kipnis continues to struggle, and he might not even be worth the wait for him to come around. Naturally, the easiest solution is to stick him at second and hope for the best. Given Gonzalez’s own potential struggles at making contact over long stretches of time, would the Indians actually be better off?
You can pretty much rule trading him at this point, too. If you’re an Indians fan watching Gonzalez play when he does, you can probably appreciate the intricacies of what makes him great. Other teams team aren’t going to acknowledge that. They can simply come in and negotiate with him as a run-of-the-mill utility bench guy and probably take him away for cash similar to Giovanny Urshela. It might eventually come down to that if Gonzalez doesn’t assert himself somewhere and other top prospects starting filling out the roster, but the Indians aren't going to be shopping him at the deadline hoping to get a decent return.
It’s a difficult situation for the Indians to be in if they really want to give Gonzalez additional playing time. But maybe they don’t? In the end, the right decision might just be to keep using him as a utility guy until someone inevitably gets hurt because this is baseball and baseball is pain.
I’ll be hitching my hype wagon to Gonzalez in the meantime, hoping he can get his contact issues figured out and keep slapping doubles all over the field until the end of days.