Erik González continues a grand baseball tradition: talented position players getting squeezed out of Cleveland.
The Cleveland lineups of the 90s were ferocious. Nearly every player became a Hall of Fame candidate, with a handful getting inducted. They’re one of those teams for which, years later, it’s easy to recall the lineup from memory:
- C: Sandy Alomar, Jr.
- 1B: Paul Sorrento/Jim Thome
- 2B: Carlos Baerga/Roberto Alomar
- 3B: Jim Thome/Travis Fryman
- SS: Omar Vizquel
- LF: Albert Belle
- CF: Kenny Lofton
- RF: Manny Ramirez
- DH: David Justice/Eddie Murray
They never won a championship— and still haven’t since 1948— but the starting lineups were among the greatest in history. Each year, it seemed a few Cleveland players would be snubbed from the All-Star Game; otherwise there wouldn’t be enough roster spots for the rest of the American League teams!
A side effect of having so many incredible players was their best prospects had no upwards mobility. As a result, several players who couldn’t crack the Cleveland lineup were strewn about the league via trades. Brian Giles, Sean Casey, and Brandon Phillips all came up through the Cleveland system, but found refuge and success with different clubs.
Today’s Cleveland lineups are significantly less intimidating. If you can name two starting outfielders, you are a true devotee of the game. If you can name three, you probably cheated.*
However, there is one area that could compete with their 90s predecessors: the infield. One could argue that Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez are the very best in baseball at their positions, regardless of whether Ramirez plays second base or third. Add in Jason Kipnis, who isn’t a star anymore but still commands a starter’s salary, and it’s nearly impossible for a young infielder to break through.
Introducing Erik González
Erik González is just the right kind of player to get blocked by the infield glass ceiling. After signing with Cleveland as a 17-year-old from the Dominican Republic, he spent nine years hacking through the minors. While he never cracked a top 100 prospects list, he drew praise for a his defense at shortstop and made enough contact to bubble up to the majors in 2016 and 2017. He spent all of 2018 on the major league roster, but played sparingly.
Entering his age-27 season in 2019 and out of minor league options, Cleveland had to commit to keeping him on the roster all year once again or cut him loose. They chose door number three instead, trading him to Pittsburgh for Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff in November.
Now that he’s no longer blocked, González won the starting shortstop gig for the Pirates. He’s no Lindor, of course, but he actually could be an above average starter.
Room to Grow
The biggest flaws in González’ profile are patience and power. His career walk rate is just 3.2 percent in 279 MLB plate appearances. His minor league rate of 5.2 percent isn’t much better. The result is a career .291 on base percentage in the majors and .314 down below.
However, there’s reason to believe that with a new organization comes a new approach. After amassing just nine walks in roughly half a season’s worth of playing time, González walked seven times in Spring Training. The usual caveats of “spring stats don’t mean anything” and “small sample size” both apply, but it’s hard to ignore a jump from 3.2 percent walk rate to 13.5.
Generally, if a player doesn’t get on base enough, he has to at least hit for power. González never had a knack for extra base hits. His career ISO is .125 in both the major and minor leagues.
Statcast shows room for improvement. Among players with at least 100 batted ball events in 2018, González’ 89.6 MPH average exit velocity placed 100th out of 390 batters. His 42.2 percent hard hit rate (greater than 95 MPH exit velocity) placed 84th. Apparently, there is some magnitude of latent power.
If he hits the ball harder than most players, where are the extra base hits? It turns out they’re buried in the ground. His 3.4 degree average launch angle was 15th lowest in baseball. It’s hard to get past first base on a ground ball. However, if he can adjust his launch angle upward a little, perhaps he can tap into some of his pop.
A New Ceiling
Even if he makes adjustments to his approach and launch angle, González probably won’t become more than a league average hitter. That’s okay!
González hasn’t accrued enough playing time for any accurate statistical analysis of his defense, but he impressed Pirates GM Neil Huntington all the same. As told to Chris Adamski at triblive.com:
We feel like we got a young Freddy Galvis.
Let’s take Huntington at his word. Freddy Galvis is one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball. He peaked at 14.9 UZR in 2016 with the Phillies. He only hit .241/.274/.399 that year, but was worth 2.3 fWAR thanks to his glove.
To date, González and Galvis share an identical 77 wRC+ for their careers. The latter has enjoyed considerably more playing time, but the former has much more potential. If González can reach 95-100 wRC+ with a Galvis-level glove, he will be a three-win player. That opportunity could never exist in Cleveland, but Pittsburgh is certainly happy to let him realize his true talent level.
*According to Roster Resource, their starters are Jake Bauers in left field, Leonys Martín in center, and Tyler Naquin in right.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983