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Adrian Gonzalez can't pull the ball

Once an offensive rock, the Dodgers first baseman has lost his clout — because he hasn't done well when hitting the ball to right.

Nowadays, most of Gonzalez's long balls head the other way.
Nowadays, most of Gonzalez's long balls head the other way.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With everything that's gone wrong for the Dodgers in 2016 — they've relied on a rotation consisting of bubble gum, duct tape, and Kenta Maeda, and virtually all of their major-league outfielders have gotten hurt and/or sucked — the quiet hardship of their first baseman has mostly gone unnoticed. Adrian Gonzalez had a 127 wRC+ through his first three seasons in Los Angeles, and a 131 wRC+ in his career prior to 2016. This season, he's dipped to 114, which is a pretty steep dropoff for a previously steady hitter.

Note the caveat in the above paragraph: Not everyone has overlooked Gonzalez. Back in June, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan investigated the disappearance of Gonzalez's power. Sullivan's conclusion — that a back injury had forced him to hit the ball softer and increased his ground ball rate — still holds up, so I'd give that article a read. With that said, Gonzalez's 2016 has another interesting element that we shouldn't ignore.

In his pre-2016 career, Gonzalez was about an average pull hitter, but he excelled when going up the middle or the opposite way:

Split (2004-2015) Pull wRC+ Center wRC+ Opposite wRC+
Gonzalez 155 159 182
MLB 155 109 83

The latter characteristic hasn't changed in 2016 — if anything, it's become more pronounced. Gonzalez has notched a 179 wRC+ this year on balls hit up the middle, and a 217 wRC+ on balls hit the opposite way. The former trait, on the other hand, has taken a turn for the worse: Gonzalez's pull wRC+ has plummeted to 62, the fifth-worst mark among hitters with at least 100 such balls in play. Even with his skill to other fields, he's lost ground at the plate because of his failure to effectively pull the ball.

The shift, as is often the case with this sort of thing, has a hand in Gonzalez's pull struggles. In 2016, 72.6 percent of his balls in play have come against the shift, by far the highest mark of his career (from 2010 to 2015, he faced the shift 32.6 percent of the time). For a left-handed hitter like Gonzalez, that defensive adjustment can sap the effectiveness of pulled balls in a hurry.

Gonzalez can't blame this entirely on his opponents, though, since he's also made his pulled balls much easier to field. This season, he's made hard contact just 26.2 percent of the time on balls hit to right field; by contrast, he has a hard-hit rate of 36.1 percent on balls up the middle, and 37.2 percent on balls to left. Something has erased Gonzalez's solid contact on pulled balls, while leaving him unaffected when he goes to another field. But what?

It might be his aggression by pitch zone. This season, Gonzalez has offered more frequently at inside pitches: Per Brooks Baseball, he's swung at 43.5 percent of pitches on the inner fifth of the plate. Before 2016, he'd swung at those pitches just 39.7 percent of the time. Simultaneously, he's become more selective on pitches away from him (i.e., on the outer fifth of the plate), as those have seen their swing rate decrease from 27.4 percent to 21.5 percent.

Oddly enough, this doesn't jibe with the theory of Gonzalez's manager. In the words of the Orange County Register's Bill Plunkett, Dave Roberts "thinks he sees signs that Gonzalez has become too focused on trying to hit away from the shift this season," which has fomented the slugger's pedestrian play. Based on his swing patterns, I'd say the opposite is true. Gonzalez seems to have taken the David Ortiz route — he's attempted to break the shift by attacking it head-on. The problem is that, well, it hasn't worked. Gonzalez's increased aggression to right seems to have hurt him, although his patience elsewhere ensures he'll still do damage up the middle and to left.

Gonzalez has helped to alleviate this by taking a more even approach at the plate: He's yanked the ball to right 37.3 percent of the time this year, a bit lower than his 39.1 percent clip prior to that. Even that decrease in quantity can't make up for the massive decline in quality, however. Gonzalez remains an above-average hitter, thanks to his sterling plate discipline and his opposite-field ability, but if he keeps pulling the ball this weakly, he'll stay at this offensive echelon.

Whatever has hampered Gonzalez this year, be it the physical pain in his back or the metaphorical pain he's had with balls to right field, the Dodgers better hope he moves past it. Even with the Giants slumping in the NL West, the Dodgers still find themselves a game out of first place. They'll need their first baseman to carry the offense once again, and for that to happen, he'll need to resolve whatever has held back his pull power.

. . .

All statistics as of Saturday, August 14th.

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and MASN Sports, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.