The 2017 Houston Astros are off to the best start in Major League Baseball at 47-24. This is not surprising, considering their offensive is led by three young all-stars in Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. However, after Altuve, their top offensive player of 2017 is not Correa or Springer, but rather Marwin Gonzalez. Unlike the others, Gonzalez is not a household name. In fact, he is not even listed on the All-Star Game Ballot.
Just how much better is Marwin Gonzalez in 2017 compared to past seasons? The statistics show an incredible turnaround.
In less than 40 percent of the games that he played in 2016, Gonzalez has almost matched his single-season career-high in home runs, while putting up an OBP above .400 and quintupling his fWAR. But what could have changed an average utility player into one of the best offensive players on the team?
The answer is that Gonzalez has changed his approach at the plate. He’s getting on base more via the walk. His walk rate, which is defined as walks per plate appearance, is currently at a career-high 11.9 percent. This is more than double his previous high of 5.9 percent back in 2012, his first season in the majors. And, conversely, while he is walking more, Gonzalez is also striking out less than he has in the previous two seasons.
This trend is clearly the result of a change in Gonzalez’s approach at the plate. A hitter generally needs to balance patience and aggressiveness in order to succeed. Overall, Gonzalez’s swing rate is down 15 percent, which is mostly the result of a swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone that has fallen by 20 percent. This both impacts the pitches that he is swinging at in the zone, and has led to the increase in walks. Pitchers have to choose between throwing Gonzalez strikes that he can hit, or balls that he won’t swing at.
And, by being more selective when he does swing, Gonzalez is also making more contact. On all pitches he is making contact approximately 8 percent more but on pitches outside of the strike zone he is making contact 22 percent more often. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t swinging at bad pitches, but it probably is a sign that he’s swinging at less bad pitches, so that when he does swing, he still has a good chance of making contact with the ball. Compared to the rest of the league this adjustment at the plate is one of the biggest in the league. For all hitters with over 150 plate appearances, his change in swing rate is the fourth largest while his increase in contact is the eighth largest in Major League Baseball. The results have been drastic; Gonzalez’s swinging strike rate has decreased 36 percent, and that’s in turn has led to the improved strikeout rate.
Getting on base more often is just part of the story for Gonzalez. His increased contact rate is what in part has turned him into one of the best offensive players on the Astros, but he’s also added power. Compared to 2016, his slugging percentage has increased 184 points to .585, and his isolated power (defined as slugging minus batting average) has almost doubled. The main cause: he’s hitting more fly balls than last season, and the rate at which those fly balls turn into home runs has more than doubled.
Balls in Play
Unfortunately, the reason for this uptick in home runs is not exactly clear. Gonzalez’s BABIP on fly balls has more than doubled, from .130 to .265, which could be a sign that they’re traveling farther, turning into gap shots and wall-balls more often and easy outs less. Interestingly, his fly balls are being hit more often to the opposite field, whereas players such as Daniel Murphy and Jay Bruce have added power by making adjustments to pull the ball more.
While he has already had more success this season, I think if he took some notes from Bruce and adjusted his swing in addition to his approach he could be even better. So far, of his 12 home runs during the 2017 season, eight of them have been pulled and four have been hit to center field, with none going to the opposite field. Pulling could be a way to even more improvement.
Marwin Gonzalez - Home Runs
Marwin Gonzalez is truly having a career year in 2017. The changes in approach at the plate are already paying dividends and have made him a valuable offensive piece to the best team in Major League Baseball. With a few more adjustments, however, he might be able to become one of the better players in the game. But even if he can just maintain this performance, his improvements might allow him to move from utility guy to full-time starter after he becomes a free agent next year.
Seth Rubin is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Baseball Prospectus Local Mets site. You can follow him on Twitter at @sethrubin.