Can Marwin Gonzalez keep this going?

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The 2017 Houston Astros have six All-Stars, and utility player Marwin Gonzalez has more Wins Above Replacement than two of them. And he hasn’t even had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

With four Astros currently in the top 12 in the American League in batting average, Gonzalez is hitting .308, good for 14th place overall if he had more than his current 258 plate appearances. Throw in 16 home runs, 53 RBIs, a .967 OPS and a 164 OPS+ and you’ve got an exceptional first half. When you consider that it’s coming from a guy whose traditional value has been his versatility and not his bat, you understand the great problem Gonzalez has presented manager A.J. Hinch in 2017.

It really began when those pesky Rangers from Arlington came to town. In the second game of a four-game series, Gonzalez homered twice as the Astros charged back from a 5-0 deficit to steal the game, 8-7. The game-changing dagger was Gonzalez’s two-out grand slam in the bottom of the eighth that turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead.

Marwin’s season so far presents two questions:

  1. What the hell is going on?
  2. Who cares why it’s happening; can he keep it up? Please?

What the hell is going on?

Marwin’s having a career year, that’s what’s going on.

Coming into 2017, Gonzalez had a career slash line of .257/.298/.389, pretty average overall. Flash forward to the All-Star break this season and his slash line is .308/.391/.576, all career-highs. For reference, Marwin’s prior career-bests for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were .279 (2015), .327 (2014), and .442 (2015), respectively.

Looking beyond the slash line, Gonzalez already has career-highs in home runs (16), runs batted in (53) and wins above replacement (2.2). Even Gonzalez’s value metrics are off the charts for him; his OPS+ of 164, oWAR (offensive-isolated wins above replacement) of 2.7 and Rbat (number of runs better or worse than league average) of 20 are all career-highs. That 2.7 oWAR is good for 10th place in the AL.

But for all of those career-highs, several key batting indicators haven’t changed much for Gonzalez in 2017. His batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is .338, but not significantly higher than 2014 (.330). His line drive percentage of 20% is actually down compared to each year since 2013. His strikeout rate is 20.2%, about where it’s been the last two years. And his groundball to flyball ratio hasn’t changed much since 2015. So what has changed?

Marwin Gonzalez has been a much more patient batter in 2017 than at any point in his career. And as a result, he’s seeing more mistakes and taking advantage.

The average number of pitches Gonzalez has seen per plate appearance in 2017 is 4.26, up from 3.68 a season ago. His first pitch swing percentage is down to 20.5%, compared to 29.2% in 2016. He’s seen 3-0 counts on 5.8% and 3-1 counts on 10.5% of plate appearances, up from 3.7% and 6.5%, respectively, last year. Common sense would suggest that Gonzalez would see more hittable pitches as a result.

His patience seems to be paying off. Marwin’s walk percentage is 10.5%, about twice the rate in his career before this season. Gonzalez’s extra-base hit percentage is up to 10.9%, well above the MLB average of 7.6%. And his swinging strike percentage of 14% is five points lower than 2016.

Gonzalez already has 18 hits after seeing 5 or more pitches in an at-bat, closing in on his career high of 26 last year. Seven of Marwin’s 16 home runs in 2017 have come after seeing 5 or more pitches in an at-bat. He had just six of such home runs coming into this season.

Throw in a lineup with four of the top 12 batting averages in the American League, and the overall picture comes together. With greater maturity and patience at the plate combined with more opportunities with runners on base, it’s no wonder Gonzalez’s numbers look the way they do.

Who cares why it’s happening; can he keep it up? Please?

It’s not often a player entering his sixth MLB season makes a leap as drastic as Marwin in 2017; Baseball-Reference’s similar players include the likes of career-.249 hitter Andre Rodgers and Eric Soderholm, the former AL Comeback Player of the Year. Rodgers never hit more than 12 homers in a season, and Soderholm was a league-average player aside from two seasons with the White Sox.

My point is that it is extremely rare for a league-average utility-man to find another gear at the plate at this stage in his career. But looking at the reasons for the sudden surge should give us a better idea.

While Gonzalez may be getting lucky at the plate, his more patient approach should stand the test of time. As long as he continues to see more pitches and be picky about which ones he’s swinging at, Gonzalez’s success in 2017 should endure. If he falls back on old habits though, we could see a regression to the mean after the All-Star break.

Hinch and the Astros (and their fans at Hometown By Us) hope Mar-WIN can keep this thing going.

 

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