I always enjoy writing about Pirates, especially when it is not in a negative way. That presents an interesting case with the under-the-radar breakout from Erik González, the Pirates’ third baseman and shortstop. Coming into week five of the season, he has a slash of .349/.349/.558. This is coming from a player who has basically been identical from year-to-year, so what should we make of him?
González came up through the Cleveland Indians’ organization until he became a Pirate in 2019. He was the starting shortstop for Pittsburgh until a collision with Starling Marte early in the 2019 season landed him on the 60-day IL with a fractured clavicle. Kevin Newman took over for González during his absence, and he took the job and ran with it. Newman batted a respectable .308/.353/.446 slash in 2019 and displaced González, that is until González started heating up early this season. On the surface, Newman and González actually look like identical players. As of right now, the Pirates are shuffling around González at third and short with Colin Moran switching between third and first.
At a glance, it really just looks like González has had a solid week-long stretch elevating his numbers, especially if you look at the game log. From the beginning of the season through August 5, he had a .261/.261/.348 slash, which is pretty much about what you would expect from him. In the five-game stretch with the Tigers and the Reds after August 5, he had a .450 batting average with an .800 slugging percentage and 1.250 OPS! That includes a strong double off of one of the best pitchers of 2020, Sonny Gray, that had a 103 MPH exit velocity.
The Statcast numbers, while still in a small sample size, provide some strong evidence that González may be turning into a new and improved player. He is in the 97th percentile or better in Hard Hit%, xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG. He is also in the 92nd percentile in Exit Velocity. The slugging and contact rankings are among the most striking for a player that hasn’t ever really showcased any sort of power and still has only one homer on the year. A lot of González’s “power” shown in his slugging percentage comes from his doubles ability.
What’s Driving the Hot Streak and/or Breakout?
All of this leads to the question: What is González doing differently that is leading to this success? For one, he is absolutely crushing the ball. He has a Hard Hit percentage of 58.3%, which as previously mentioned was good for the top 2% of the league. That puts him at 7th in the league, and he is 17th in the league in Brls/PA %. Those are an extreme outlier for his career as is the average exit velocity that also jumped this year.
|Season||Barrel %||Exit Velocity|
Another significant change to his profile has been a drastic increase in line drives while decreasing the number of grounders. Throughout his entire career, González has consistently and frequently put the ball on the ground. For the majority of players (especially with one who has a sprint speed in the 56th percentile like González), this is not going to produce a lot with the bat. Like the hard contact numbers for 2020, he also has an outlier, elevated launch angle in 2020. This is likely the primary driver for his .349 average when in the past he had been around a .250-to-.260 hitter.
Will The Real Erik González Please Stand Up?
Even though the underlying numbers largely support the mini-breakout that González is having early on in 2020, is this a new and improved player or is it just a hot streak? The answer is both.
Let’s start with the “hot streak” numbers that likely will not sustain throughout a larger sample size. The biggest outlier is hard contact. González has never been a player who hit the ball hard at all in his career. The consistency with which he is hitting the ball hard is unsustainable even for MVP-level players. During this hot streak, González still isn’t in that echelon of players in terms of results.
One explanation for a rise in hard contact could be an improvement in plate discipline which can help a minimal power hitter develop a little more hard contact ability. However, González is swinging at pretty much the same types of pitches at the same rates that he always has. He’s not laying off bad pitches and forcing pitchers to throw in the strike zone so he can crush it; he is simply getting lucky.
Another support of the numbers for González that is entirely hot streak dependent is his elevated BABIP and ISO. To be clear, he has a .400 BABIP and a .209 ISO. The BABIP is wholly unsustainable even for MVP-level players (again). González has always been a high-BABIP type of bat, but this is a different level. The ISO isn’t unheard of, but for González, it’s pretty unrealistic. This goes hand in hand with the power numbers being primarily hot streak dependent.
Then, what is sustainable, and what are genuine improvements for González? For one, the batting average could easily be more in the .285-.300 range instead of the .250-.260 range. One thing that González does extremely well is make contact. He basically never walks, and he doesn’t strike out an absurd amount. He puts the ball in play. That’s not a great thing if you are hitting it on the ground with consistency like González had been. The elevated launch angle that’s resulting in more line drives and fewer grounders will significantly improve the batting average possibility for González and can be maintained. That’s not to say that it will be maintained, but it is a lot more likely than him maintaining an outlandish Hard Hit %.
Who, then, is Erik González? Realistically, he could have a slash of .308/.353/.446 if he maintains the launch angle improvements. If that slash looks familiar, it’s because it is from earlier. Specifically, it is Kevin Newman’s slash from 2019. An answer to the question posed could be that Erik González is Kevin Newman, and the Pirates have a cloning machine.