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What's going on with Adrian Gonzalez?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 7, 2012 11:14 AM

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Adrian Gonzalez has never had a game as bad as his 0-for-8, three-pitches-and-sit performance against Orioles DH/closer Chris Davis Sunday, and he'll never have a day that bad again. Heck, few players in history will ever have a day that bad. It was sub-Crespoian, the full Grebeck but worse, a one-man tribute to Tony Clark's 2002 season that went way too far to make its point.

It's easy to get caught up in the misery of Gonzalez's Sunday performance and Red Sox season as a whole, in which one apparent rock-bottom moment is just a precursor to the next. And we have become caught up in it, probably sometime, oh, after his sixth out without a hit Sunday. Turn on your sports radio station of choice today and chances are you'll hear a half-dozen frustrated callers dry-roasting Gonzalez before you even hear that ubiquitous 1-877-Cars-For-Kids jingle once.

The backlash is inevitable around here, and the media has sharpened their claws as well -- his decision to skip out on his postgame cliche-spewing duties yesterday was probably born from frustration, but it makes him look unaccountable on a team in which leadership seems to be an issue that has carried over from last September.

And he does himself no favors with his passive demeanor. He only occasionally offers glimpses into his competitiveness, such as Wednesday night when he spiked his bat after whiffing in a key spot in the seventh inning. When a player looks like he doesn't care or doesn't play the media game properly, it can lead to irreparable damage to his perception. Doubt it? Then consider:

Player A: 606 games, .824 OPS, 80 homers, 286 RBIs, .264/.370/.455, generally excellent defense, took his sweet time running out groundballs, earned $70 million.

Player B: 612 games, .814 OPS, 80 homers, 374 RBIs, .290/.346/.468, generally excellent defense, took his sweet time running out groundballs, earned $55.5 million.

Player A is J.D. Drew. Player B is Mike Lowell. Their stats during their Red Sox careers are fairly similar, save for RBIs. Their legacies are not.

Because Gonzalez has the charisma of a rosin bag when he's not standing in the batter's box -- I guarantee you those among us who didn't like Manny Ramirez still miss him on that must-watch level -- his entire perception is tied to his production. For his first half-season of his Red Sox career, it worked, because Gonzalez was wonderful, meeting even the massive expectations at this address, and making this breakdown from Joe Posnanski, in which he ranked Gonzalez as the third-best player in baseball, seem more than logical:

(The link has disappeared, but a hat-tip to Ted's Army, which had the Poz text.)

Here are Adrian Gonzalez?s last five seasons, if you simply doubled his road numbers:

2010: .315/.402/.578, 42 doubles, 40 homers, 92 runs, 118 RBIs

2009: .306/.402/.643, 30 doubles, 56 homers, 118 runs, 126 RBIs

2008: .308/.368/.578, 40 doubles, 44 homers, 126 runs, 140 RBIs

2007: .295/.358/.570, 64 doubles, 40 homers, 114 runs, 128 RBIs

2006: .311/.378/.527, 44 doubles, 28 homers, 108 runs, 88 RBIs

Yes, that's SIXTY-FOUR doubles in 2007. Yes, that's FIFTY-SIX homers in 2009.

Adrian Gonzalez has been a great baseball player for five years. Some people know that. And, frankly, some people don't. And the reason some people don't is because he played half his games in the hitters coffin that is Petco Park. So people look at Gonzalez's career numbers, see that he's hitting .284/.368/.507 and they think, 'Oh, that's nice. He's a nice player.'

But on the road, the man is hitting .303/.376/.568, which is a lot more than nice. And the last two years, on the road, he's hitting .311/.402/.611, which is scary good.

And now he's going to play half his games in Fenway Park, a great hitters' park. It is not a great HOME RUN park -- it's actually a below-average home run park now -- but it's a great hitters' park, the best in the league for doubles, and Adrian Gonzalez is a great hitter.

I think he will be the American League MVP.

gonzalezadrianfinn57.jpgSuch a sentiment then was as common as the is-he-really-cut-out-for-Boston? chirping now.

He was supposed to be the Red Sox' answer to Mark Teixeira, at last the winning counter-move to Teixeira's decision to scorn the Red Sox for the Bronx before the 2009 season. Though his first half, he was Teixeira's superior, hitting .354 with 17 homers and 77 RBIs through 89 games. The Nation was smitten, and raise your hand if you were among those to suggest he was the Red Sox' best hitter since Ted Williams. In a May 23 column headlined "Boston Quickly Falling For Sweet-Swinging Adrian Gonzalez," Dan Shaughnessy wrote in a column for Sports Illustrated, "At Fenway, Gonzalez might be a better fit than Teixeira."

It's been less than a year. It feels like so much longer. As Pete Abraham pointed out in a post overflowing with common sense and context this afternoon, Gonzalez is averaging homer per 65.66 at-bats at Fenway since last July 15. Go back and read Posnanski's words, then try to make sense of how it's come to this. Unless he's hiding an injury or his shoulder problems sapped him of some power, his struggles, particularly in ballpark that should suit him perfectly, make no sense.

Yet the numbers are undeiable. In 437 plate appearances (378 at-bats) dating to last year's All-Star break, Gonzalez has hit .302 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs. I know he doesn't get to fatten up his stats against Clay Buchholz like all of the other alleged power-hitting first baseman do, but still, that's pretty feeble.

How feeble? Well, since you're into this sort of thing. Punching in Gonzalez's numbers over the past 97 games dating to last year's midsummer break, I searched baseball-reference's play index for first baseman who have hit .290 or higher with 14 or fewer homers and 60 or fewer RBIs in approximately 400 plate appearances over a single season. It's an inexact tactic, I know, but a telling one in terms of comparisons to Gonzalez's level of production.

Let's just say the results did not include the prime years of Teixeira. The players who popped up were mostly decent players on the wrong side of 30, such as 2004 J.T. Snow (.327-12-60), 1997 Will Clark (.326-12-50), 1983 Steve Garvey (.294-14-59), and 1982 Tom Paciorek (.312-11-55).

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Gregg Jefferies made an appearance, hitting .325 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs at age 26 in '94. And then there was -- gulp -- Scott Hatteberg, who hit .310 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs for the 2007 Reds at age 37. Pretty sure the "Moneyball" fictional hero didn't make $21 million that year.

Gonzalez's ongoing -- well, what would you call it, decent-ness? -- clouds common sense and perspective. Of course there is backlash and frustration; he's supposed to be able to carry the team in times like these, and instead he's part of the problem. But let's not throw him into the Theo Epstein Horrendous Contracts pile and set it ablaze just yet.

On May 7 last year, Gonzalez was hitting .303 with three homers and 22 RBIs. He hit six homers -- including two against the Yankees -- over the next six games, and finished May hitting .329.

I'm confident he is going to snap out of this and go on one of those tears that only the truly elite hitters can pull off, and probably soon. But some evidence over his next eight at-bats or so sure would be reassuring. Because right now, all we can remember is his miserable Sunday, and that Gonzalez hasn't looked elite in too long.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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