Why Oscar Gonzalez is Cleveland’s Biggest Wild Card

The slugger can lead the Guardians to new heights. How can he do it?

The Cleveland Guardians will lean on its usual cast of characters like José Ramírez, Andrés Giménez, and their pitching staff to win games in 2023 as they did the year prior. But there’s one name catching a lot of attention as a critical player for the Guardians this season, and rightfully so.

Oscar Gonzalez provided a spark as a corner outfielder that can hit for both power and average and is popular with fans, something Cleveland baseball fans probably haven’t seen since the early days of Manny Ramirez in the 1990s. Last season, Gonzalez finished .296/.327/.461 in 91 games, swatting 11 home runs with 43 RBI. Gonzalez finished the 2022 season on a tear, hitting .312/.351/.489 with six home runs and 20 RBI over his last 34 regular-season games.

Despite playing in only 91 games last season, Gonzalez registered a 2.1 WAR season while displaying a .345 BABIP, .339 wOBA and a BACON (batting average on contact) of .370, according to Statcast. His BABIP and BACON ranked in the 91st and 90th percentile, respectively, for all hitters in 2022.

And yet, nobody really knows what to expect from him this season because while Gonzalez’s numbers prove the talent is there, his tendencies show that he still has some growing to do.

Gonzalez’s growth might be best displayed in his ability, or lack thereof, to lay off pitches outside the strike zone and hone in on his aggressiveness at the plate. He offered a swing at 47.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, which ranked in the first percentile and was over 15 percent higher than the MLB average. His chase rate of 46.6 percent ranked in the first percentile, and his walk rate of 3.9 percent was in the fourth percentile. Amazingly, Gonzalez could still make contact on pitches that he chased at a rate of 61.5 percent.

Yes, Gonzalez’s numbers improved as the season went on, but pitchers could use his weakness to their advantage to get him out when they could.

Gonzalez swung at 59.3 percent of all pitches he saw last season, including a swing rate of 43.8 percent at the first pitch alone. This aggressiveness, while key to his offensive prowess, can get him into trouble when he doesn’t display he can let a pitch go by him.

According to Baseball Reference, in 208 at-bats that reached two strikes, Gonzalez slashed .216/.238/.332 with 75 strikeouts for a strikeout rate of 36 percent. In at-bats that reached an 0-2 count, the numbers aren’t any better. Gonzalez hit .194/.202/.296 with 41 strikeouts in 108 at-bats for a strikeout rate of 38 percent.

These may seem like cherry-picked stats, but once pitchers can get Gonzalez to two strikes, he has yet to show he can adequately make the adjustment to get on base, even if he reaches via a walk. In the instances mentioned above, Gonzalez worked the count into a free pass just seven times combined.

Of the 1,409 pitches Gonzalez saw all season, 33.2 percent came on two-strike counts, a rate that ranked in the fourth percentile.

Based on the strike zone’s four quadrants, Gonzalez, a right-handed hitter, sees his worst production on pitches down and away. He sees the highest rate of pitches (24 percent), whiff rate (47 percent), number of swings (158), and misses by zone (75.) But he also has the most hits by zone (15), second-highest BABIP (.300), and second-highest wOBA (.295) from that same area.

A level of hope that Guardians fans can hang their hat on is the snippet of good hitting they saw in the postseason. Gonzalez delivered two game-winning hits across the Guardians’ two postseason series, hitting .333/.400/.667 in the Wild Card Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The highlight of that series came when he sent a 1-0 Corey Kluber pitch into the left-field bleachers for a 1-0 series-clinching win after 15 scoreless innings.

Gonzalez has shown that he can get to outside pitches when he gets them, but when he helps the opposing pitcher by getting into quick, two-strike counts, he struggles to set himself up for success by failing to adjust when these pitchers know they can get him out by not throwing strikes.

Featured image by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

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