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Is Oscar Gonzalez unfortunate or exposed?

Attempting to diagnose the slugger’s struggles

Seattle Mariners v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In a 2022 season full of fun surprises, perhaps none were quite as fun as Oscar Gonzalez. From his unheralded prospect status to the SpongeBob walk-up music, he dared us to not love him and we declined. Doing things like this certainly helped.

Not to get all “what have you done for me lately” or anything, but that walk-off is feeling ancient as Gonzalez scuffles through a very rough start to 2023. Sample size is still microscopic, of course, but Gonzalez’s numbers are rather appalling: .132/.175/.184 with a -7 wRC+.

What has caused him to go from a 122 to -7 wRC+ is not immediately obvious. Many of Gonzalez’s metrics are not far off what he produced in 2022. For instance, he’s actually increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate, maintained the same average exit velocity and line drive rate when he connects, and his swing rate is down overall and outside the zone, but his swinging strike rate is hardly changed.

Likewise, pitchers are not varying their offerings compared to what he saw last year, as seen below.

Oscar Gonzalez has seen little change in the proportion of each kind of pitch he’s seen between 2022 and ‘23, 50% fastballs, 41% breaking, and 9% offspeed.

There’s a real element of luck to what is happening to Gonzalez, evidenced by his .161 BABIP and .279 xwOBA. Against fastballs in particular, Gonzalez seems to be unfortunate, with a .071 BABIP on those pitches leading to a gap between xwOBA and wOBA of .180. Last season, Gonzalez was quite fortunate against fastballs, with a BABIP of .387 leading to a wOBA of .344, which was 27 points higher than his xwOBA (.317).

But even if luck is a valid explanation for some of Gonzalez’s struggles, it shouldn’t represent that dramatic of a cliff. With small sample sizes, it’s hard to pinpoint a singular cause, though. Are pitchers locating differently when attacking Gonzalez this year? To a degree, yes. As seen below, while opposing pitchers are still working on the outside of the plate against Oscar, a greater percentage of pitches have been elevated compared with last year.

Oscar Gonzalez’s pitch heatmap for 2022 (left) and ‘23 (right).

This may, in part, have to do with his decreased swing rate. The pitches that have seen the biggest decrease in swing rate from Gonzalez are those in the zone, with his Z-swing% down to 67.8% this year after tracking at 76.5% in 2022. Unlike, say Steven Kwan, Gonzalez does not appear to have a preternaturally acute understanding of the strike zone; thus, pitchers may be exploiting a blind spot on the outside of the plate, as seen in the called strikes heatmaps below.

Oscar Gonzalez’s called strike heatmaps for 2022 (left) and ‘23 (right).

With time, it seems likely Gonzalez’s numbers could turn around, either through better strike recognition or simply because a sub-.200 BABIP is bound to correct itself eventually. And though Gonzalez may not be the 122-wRC+ hitter he was last year, he’s almost certainly going to put up better numbers than the -7 wRC+ he’s currently sporting.

Whether Cleveland has the time for him, though, seems unlikely. By wRC+, the Guardians are 9% worse than average, ranking 23rd among all MLB teams, lending a sense of urgency to improvement (at least as much as you can have in April). Additionally, Terry Francona is already showing his hand regarding Gonzalez, giving him just two starts and 10 PA since April 9.

When Gonzalez was hitting the ball last year, he was F.U.N. If he’s going to rediscover that form, however, it looks increasingly likely he’ll have to straighten out his luck in Columbus.