How Adrian Gonzalez has managed to live up to the hype

by: Rob Bradford on Fri, 09/23/2011 - 7:53am

Within the panic, in among the pennant race chaos, stands Adrian Gonzalez.

In these times of uneasiness for Red Sox followers, as their team heads for a three-game series in New York carrying just a two-game lead in the American League wild card race, Gonzalez symbolizes what the Sox hope to be -- consistent, resilient, productive … ice bags be darned.

With six games to go in his first season as a member of the Sox, Gonzalez is -- to borrow a phrase from former NFL coach Dennis Green -- who we thought he was (and then some). He is, in short, exactly the kind of offensive player the Red Sox desperately need to ride the rest of the way.

But the story of Gonzalez and how he made it to this point isn't defined by the MVP credentials. Yes, he has the best batting average in the American League (.341), along with the second-most RBI (116) and fourth-best OPS (.967). The real story is how the first baseman made it to this point.

Perhaps the best place to start when looking at Gonzalez' team-leading 153 games is the last week. It is, after all, a microcosm of what we're talking about. 

In case it hadn't been noticed, since Monday Gonzalez has as many hits (10) as any player in baseball while carrying a .625 batting average and 1.604 OPS. It is no coincidence. In a year-long wave of adjustments, the Sox' No. 3 hitter made yet another subtle alteration, one that set him down this path.

"I don't know if you noticed, but I went to a different stance," Gonzalez said, citing a change he made heading into the series-opener against the Orioles. "I started tapping so I could get a little bit of rhythm and keep my head still. My head was going forward too much and I couldn't control it. I was trying different things to control it, spread it out wide, getting closer. All these things and nothing allowed me to see the ball and recognize pitches. 

"So, I was just trying to go fastball, but I was fouling off pitches because I was late and my body was drifting, and so when you foul off a pitch you should hit you put yourself in a two-strike hole and they make a pitch and you don't recognize and you try and go get it. Now all of a sudden yesterday I'm putting the balls in play instead of fouling them off."

Sure enough, there it was. Just as the pitcher was getting ready to release the ball, Gonzalez' front foot moved quickly back toward his left foot, tapped the ground in front of it, and only then strode toward the offering.

As the numbers suggested, the payoff was instant.

"I do all kind of things because it's all about what feels good now. I've tried multiple things without tapping," said Gonzalez, who estimates he changes his batting stance approximately 10 times each season. "Tapping is like a last resort because if a pitcher sidesteps and he's really quick to the plate you need more time. So then you rush."

It has been these sort of adjustments that have led Gonzalez to his current lot in life. Some of come out of convenience -- the kind of changes that a hitter will use to simply avoid the usual bad habits that can creep in over the course of a season -- while others were born out of necessity. When you're living life with the issues of a surgically repaired shoulder and problematic neck muscles, such measures are a necessity.

Sure, there have been just the 10 home runs after the All-Star break compared to the 17 before, but, for Gonzalez, it is a result that can be explained away.

"My approach and my swing changed to more of a contact swing with my shoulder," he said. "That's been my swing more or less this year. The lower average, more power swing I had a couple of years back I haven't been able to find, but I still had the swing where I had the line drive up the middle the other way. I've hit it hard and low, which is what I've had, so that's what I've gone with and I've stuck with it.

"Whenever you shorten everything up just to put balls in play you're going to have more average and less power. When you try to get more out of it, you're going to have less average and more power."

So, has he at least attempted to dust off the big, hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park swing in the recent months? 

"Plenty of times," Gonzalez responded. "You try it for a couple of days, it doesn't work and you go back to just putting the ball in play. You don't want to create any bad habits and put yourself in a long slump. There's times you give it a shot and see if you can get that feel, but you're not going to stay with it and put yourself in a deep hole. It's going to change every day.

"There are situations where you try to open it up, see what you've got and see how it feels. If the timing isn't there you pick and choose your spots when you can get out of your swing and be smart about it. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is that we win games. We have guys who are hitting the ball for power and scoring runs, so home runs aren't really a big issue with this team. San Diego, we needed home runs, so that's what I tried to do. Here, I just need to get on base and keep the line moving."

But while the alterations and the subsequent results impress, the story of Gonzalez' inaugural American League season is also about the left-handed hitter's remarkable consistency and self-awareness.

Ask Gonzalez the biggest difference between AL pitchers and their counterparts in the National League and he will point to the simple fact that in his old league they are much more aggressive, looking for quick innings, while American League hitters strive for the strikeout. For the Sox slugger, that, however, doesn't matter.

"They're going to pitch to me the way they think they are going to get me out. They try to get me to look in so they can open up away. That's what every team has done since I came up," he said. "Everybody thinks my weakness is in, and if it's in for a strike I'm pretty good at it, if it's in for a ball I chase out of the zone just like any hitter.

"I haven't walked. I think I've controlled the strike zone pretty well and I have been able to put the ball in play that are strikes, and my average is up because of it. A lot of times walks come when you foul pitches off that you don't get to put in play and you work the count more. This year I've been putting balls in play, so that's why my walks are down. My average is up and my on-base is the same. It's just more hits, less walks."

He's right.

Gonzalez has 25 fewer walks this season than last, but his on-base percentage is at .409 compared to .393 last season. And it is precisely due the reason he identified.

According to BaseballAnalytics.org, no hitter in the majors has a higher batting average on balls in the strike zone (.429). And that is why teams typically attempt to get Gonzalez to chase out of the zone, the reason he has seen the sixth-most pitches off the plate of any player this season. If the ball is a strike and the 29-year-old swings, he's going to have a better chance at producing than most. If not, well, keep in mind that on pitches out of the strike zone his average dips to .202 with just three home runs.

"That's why I'm off the plate because I have longer arms and a longer bat so I can cover it," he said. "They don't really pitch me inside with strikes. They really just don't throw me strikes."

What really stands out when looking at the approach toward Gonzalez, and Gonzalez' approach toward his opponents, is that living the life of a Red Sox really hasn't changed much. New league, new lineup, it hasn't meant much of a difference.

The BaseballAnalytics.org program shows that this season 42 percent of the pitches Gonzalez has seen in 2011 have been in the strike zone, the exact same number as last season. And of those pitches he has put 31 percent in play, again, identical to '10.

No more better pitches to hit because of lineup protection, and no different approach. Just Gonzalez being Gonzalez, an image the Sox will once again have to be banking on for these final two series.

"With this lineup," he said, "you just do what you do and contribute."