Oscar Gonzalez’s missile to left against Mike Clevinger on Tuesday night was just his fourth home run with the Guardians, but he picked a great time to deliver. On a night when the team’s bats were quiet, Gonzalez provided an unexpected lift that helped propel the team to victory over another likely playoff team.
That home run seems to me to also be a great analogy for Gonzalez as well.
Cleveland’s remarkable farm system has long been known, but Gonzalez was never a much-hyped part of that group. In fact, in the roster crunch at the end of last season he was not even added to the 40-man for protection. The Guardians were recently anointed the third-best farm system in all of baseball, but Gonzalez is not part of that calculus. He does not show up on any of Cleveland’s lists save for Guardians Baseball Insider, who ranked him 34th with an overall scouting grade of 40. Neither FanGraphs’ nor MLB Pipeline ranked him or provided scouting reports, but FanGraphs did slap an arbitrary 35 overall grade on Gonzalez (which you could assume would be true of MLB Pipeline as well, since the lowest-ranked Guardians prospects were given overall grade of 40). For the unfamiliar, anything below 45 on the 20-80 scouting scale is considered “below average,” and Gonzalez was expected to be something like a bench player at best.
When Cleveland’s front office asked “Are you ready, kids?” in late May, it was Gonzalez whose “Aye, aye captain!” caught their attention. And he’s paid off the front office’s trust in him, ranking sixth among Guardians hitters in fWAR (1.3), third in wRC+ (127), and third in wOBA (.345) this season. Despite his lack of notoriety, he’s claimed the right field spot and made a significant contribution to the Guardians’ playoff hopes.
How did he do so, though? Well, he’s hit the ball, of course. For someone who has always walked much less than struck out (his 0.16 BB/K in Cleveland is in line with MiLB numbers), hitting was always going to be key. But it’s the way Gonzalez has hit that has made a difference.
Terry Francona has used something of a platoon system with Gonzalez, preferring his right-handed bat in the lineup against right-handed pitching; however, Gonzalez does not have big splits that would necessitate a platoon. Against righties (140 PA), Gonzalez is hitting .319/.336/.504 with a wRC+ of 137, wOBA of .360, walk rate of 2.8%, and strikeout rate of 19.2%; perhaps important, 3 of his 4 home runs and 16 of his 20 doubles have come facing right-handed pitchers. The reverse splits, though? They’re not so bad. Against lefties (62 PA), Gonzalez is hitting .276/.323/.397 with a wRC+ of 102, wOBA of .311, walk rate of 4.8%, and strikeout rate of 25.8%.
No matter the handedness of the opposing pitcher, Gonzalez has hit better than league average; however, he’s not really doing it the way he did in the minors. In their write-up, GBI noted his power as “the main reason Gonzalez gets talked about as a prospect” and that his “entire value is tied to hitting for extra bases.” Aside from his 4 home runs, Gonzalez only has 20 other extra-base hits in 2022 for Cleveland. His ISO at the MLB level, .166, is not bad, but it’s not superlative either, placing him between Trent Grisham and Aledmys Diaz among other players with at least 200 plate appearances.
Like the rest of the Guardians batting order, he’s using the whole field to do damage. Cleveland has the third-lowest pull rate in MLB, and Gonzalez is mostly in line at 43%; similarly, the team (36.3%, fourth in MLB) and Gonzalez (34.4%, higher than any of his MiLB rates) are going up the middle far more often. And though Gonzalez has exceptional exit velocity (his max EV, 113.1 mph, is 91st percentile and leads the team), his combination of hard hit balls (44.4%) and launch angle (6.1 degrees) has led to fewer fly balls (28.5%) than he ever hit in the minors.
If this sounds somewhat like fellow outfielder Steven Kwan, that’s because it is. Kwan does not have Gonzalez’s power, but he’s hitting more line drives and spraying the ball around to fantastic effect. As Zack Meisel reported, Chris Valaika, Cleveland’s hitting coach, doesn’t try to convert everyone to a contact-first slap hitter, but tailors his coaching to the batter. Perhaps he did nothing at all to Gonzalez, but it seems like he’s helped him de-emphasize his power-first approach (which might not have played well at the MLB level anyway, at least not initially; see: Bradley, Bobby) and that has made a great difference this year.
Of course, Gonzalez still has a pretty small sample of experience at the big league level and the holes in his game may yet be exploited. The prospect evaluators are wrong sometimes, but usually not this universally off on a prospect. It does remind of another prospect the evaluators were not as high on, though. That prospect just happens to be one of the people Gonzalez can turn to, as well.
“I take every opportunity to talk to José [Ramírez] and the others with more experience who understand how the game should be played,” Gonzalez told MLB.com.
To hope Gonzalez can be another Ramírez is folly, but I do have hope he can continue to be a productive player this year — and in the postseason.