Yes, the champagne has barely dried following the Astros and their World Series celebration. Alas, it is never too early to think about next year, especially when you blog about the team.
Marwin Gonzalez enjoyed great professional success in 2017. The Astros happened to be the benefactors of this success. It was quite an unexpected development, though.
At least to the fans who were not privy to Gonzalez’s processes and the Astros’ internal analysis.
Gonzalez entered the 2017 season with a major league career that started in 2012 with a 2.0 WAR. 1.7 WAR of this 2.0 WAR total following the 2016 season was provided courtesy of his 2015 performance. Heck, Gonzalez actually cost the Astros -0.4 wins in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Minus a 44-game stint in the minors in 2013, Gonzalez has been a staple on the Astros’ active roster. He and Jose Altuve experienced some terrible baseball before the team’s recent successes. Unlike Altuve, though, Gonzalez wasn’t viewed as much more than a capable backup. He brought versatility with the glove but little else.
Fast forward to 2017 and all of the previous assumptions about Gonzalez were put on hold. The 28-year old set new career-highs across the board. For example, Gonzalez posted an 144 wRC+, which was 33 runs higher than his previous career-high in 2015. His Isolated Power (ISO) jumped from a previous career-high in 2015, .163, to .226 in 2017. A new career-high in home runs (23) was also established. If you didn’t notice, the word of the day is “career-high”.
Surprisingly, Gonzalez led the Astros offense in RBI (90) that also featured Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer. Helpful note: RBI should not be an indicator of offensive prowess. But it is still worth pointing out.
The question is whether we have seen Gonzalez have his career year? Could he be a candidate for regression?
Per the Steamer projections from Fangraphs, Gonzalez is currently projected to hit .262/.320/.431 in 488 plate appearances in 2018. Basically, he is projected to become roughly a league average hitter (102 wRC+) next season. Of course, projections are not infallible.
However, it is quite possible that we have witnessed Gonzalez’s ceiling. And it is also possible that he won’t approach his 2017 level of production again.
For example, Gonzalez’s expected xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-Base Average) was .320. His actual wOBA was .387. If you subtract his xwOBA and wOBA, you come away with a difference of .067. Essentially, Gonzalez should’ve posted an average wOBA based on batted ball data rather than the great-to-excellent wOBA that he actually posted. Per Statcast leaderboards, this difference is tied for the twelfth-highest with Reds’ shortstop Zack Cozart in baseball this past season. This is a possible warning sign of future regression.
If you hop over to the batted ball profile on Fangraphs, you will notice that Gonzalez started hitting the ball to the opposite field in 2017. Outside of his 2014 season – 27.7% – Gonzalez had not hit the ball to the opposite field as much as he did this past season – 24.7% – which was something. The increase in opposite field between 2016 and 2017 – 6.7% – also led to a decrease – 8.9% – in him pulling the ball. The difference between these two can be attributed to Gonzalez hitting the ball to the center field more often, which is to be expected when the hit profile changes.
Interesting tidbit: Gonzalez had an average exit velocity of 88.51 MPH. The league average? 87.32 MPH.
Basically, Gonzalez started hitting the ball to the opposite and center field more often than he has the past few seasons. He also hit the ball more softly by roughly 4% while hitting more fly balls by roughly 4% when compared to his 2016 data. In turn, his ground ball rate dropped by 3.5%. This would explain the notable increase in home runs.
At this point, I am not sure which Gonzalez we will see in 2018. I would be thrilled to see the 2017 version again, but the possibility of regression is there. If Gonzalez can maintain a similar batted ball profile next season then his 2017 production could be his new norm. If he can’t, well, it’ll be interesting to watch.
**Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Statcast and MLB.com**