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Oscar Gonzalez, the human toolbox

He has all the raw juice that you could dream of. What will it become?

Los Angeles Angels v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We know Oscar Gonzalez is fast. We know Oscar Gonzalez can hit the ball hard. Now we know he can also throw the ball hard, as well.

Baseball Savant released its latest argument-silencing metric yesterday, revealing just who actually has the strongest throwing arm in the majors. Surprising takeaways included Nolan Arenado being merely average, José Ramírez actually coming in below average with his apparently leaky hose, and of all people Royals right fielder Nate Eaton in possession of the strongest arm in baseball with a 98.1 mph throw speed. In fifth though, SpongeBob himself, Cleveland’s own Oscar Gonzalez clocking a 96.3 mph average throw velocity. He’s been something special all year, a heap of potential and wonder, and this is just one more thing to fill up his toolbox.

We all know his flaws. He swings and misses at bad pitches too much (46.8% chase rate against the league average of 28.4%) and for all his power (91st percentile max exit velocity) he hits too many grounders and just doesn’t square up enough pitches with consistency. He’s also incredibly strong, built like a linebacker, and runs like a gazelle. If ever there was a heap of raw material that could become something, this is it. If he were an amateur, any scout worth his salt would break their neck getting him in the system.

The closest comparison, especially with this new arm strength metric, is Oneil Cruz on the Pirates. Like Cruz, Gonzalez throws, runs, and hits the ball super hard, it’s just that polish that he’s sorely lacking. Usually, when a guy is described as “toolsy” it’s some small dude who can kind of do everything decently, and they inevitably end up as a bench piece or utility guy. That seems wrong though, or at least a misnomer. For me, and what makes sense, is having a guy that has all the tools, and the raw materials that if put to correct use could be incredible. Cruz is that, and so is Gonzalez. It’s amazing on a team that has this many polished young players, you have essentially a tornado of chaos barely restrained into a baseball player, who wants nothing more than to smile, mash, and heave the ball.

That’s where it gets interesting. Gonzalez, as he is now, is eminently exploitable for pitchers. He does well against sliders and changeups — Savant giving him a +7 and +2 run value on those pitches — but fastballs kill him. A big part of this is, again, his incredible love of just swinging that damn bat. Usually, hitters do their most damage against the fastball. If anything it’s the goal of any hitter to actually get the pitcher to throw more fastballs, and then abuse them. That’s what Aaron Judge has done to great effect; it’s what powers Vladimir Gurrero Jr., and really any great hitter. The leaderboard of run values on four-seamers is basically just a list of all the best hitters, and then way down tied for 308th is Gonzalez. It’s odd, but again speaks to his willingness to destroy. He sees a fastball and he swings. He just gets eaten up by high fastballs, specifically.

This is where Gonzalez swung and missed on fastballs of all kinds in the shadow of the plate. Basically the area just around the edge of the zone.
Swing-and-miss fastball locations, shadow of the plate
Baseball Savant

This seems like a potentially adjustable situation, but how many times do we need to get enamored of Tyler Naquin only for him to stagnate?

What do you do with a player like this? With all that’s coming up from the minors, and the true cream of the crop has yet to make its way up, how do you find time to make it work with Gonzalez? On top of that, is there already any space for him in the outfield? if it were a couple of years ago, they could take the long view, but it feels like the window is beginning to open in earnest. They won the division a little earlier than they expected, but now that we have a baseline it’s fair to question what happens here.

It reminds me a bit of Tim Anderson. Anderson was never a big walk guy and famously got into baseball later in life than normal. He’s just such a supreme athlete that he was able to steadily improve year after year and become a fringe MVP-level player. Gonzalez is already way past where Anderson was even 400 games into his own career offensively, but Anderson had the luxury of playing for a terrible team for years and got to grow into his role. Plus he was good with a glove and plays shortstop, and I think we’re all familiar with playing an all-glove, no-bat guy at a key defensive position and then hoping for the best at the plate.

Outside of his arm, Gonzalez is dreadful defensively despite being one of the fastest 10% of players in the majors, finding himself in the 11th percentile of outs above average and in the 14th percentile in outfielder jump. Those feel like comfort issues as much as anything, but again, with what’s banging on the door the next year or so, along with who’s already on the squad, does the team try to make him work as a right fielder?

There’s no denying that Gonzalez is a tantalizing pack of tools. How can you not fall in love with a guy who hits the ball super hard when he runs into one, can sprint like Usain Bolt, and has a goddamn cannon on his shoulder? This is literally the raw clay that can be shaped into a superstar. And of all the organizations to have a guy like this, especially with what we’ve seen Chris Valaika, in particular, do for some of the young guys on the big club, he couldn’t be in a better place. He’s earned a place on the 2023 roster obviously, and it would be wonderful to see him make those small changes in launch angle and plate discipline that would truly unlock him as an offensive marvel. I’ve written that sentence too many times in the last decade or so, but it would be fun to have it work out this time around.