It's the end of April, 2011. Adrian Gonzalez is hitting just .314/.379/.457. That's not bad at all, but it's not what Adrian Gonzalez, acquired for two of Boston's top prospects and soon to be handed a lucrative extension, is a Red Sox for. Things pick up in May for Gonzalez, as they tend to do, and he never looks back, finishing his first season with the Sox at .338/.410/.548.
He takes home a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove, finishes seventh in the MVP voting, makes the All-Star team, and just misses a battle title while leading the AL in hits. In a September where little went right for Boston en route to a historic collapse, Gonzalez mashed to the tune of .318/.455/.523, his third-best month of the season by split-adjusted OPS+. There's worry about his power in July, when he goes deep just twice, but Gonzalez offsets this by hitting .373 with a .449 on-base percentage. The slow start is forgotten, as it often is for Gonzalez, who for his career is about six percent worse in April than he is during the rest of the year.
The slow start in 2012 extended well beyond April. As of June 22, Gonzalez was hitting .253/.313/.392. While he had 22 doubles, he had gone deep just five times. It was unclear just what had caused Gonzalez's issues at the plate: as a 30-year-old in town for another six seasons, not knowing why he suddenly couldn't hit was panic-inducing.
You could glean clues from watching him. Gonzalez had always been a patient hitter, waiting for his pitch, but that changed in 2012. He claimed to be focusing too much on trying to hit for power now that his shoulder was healthy (and because it was expected of him), and it ruined his entire approach and timing. He would chase pitches outside of the zone he never would have before, and he looked fooled at times where Gonzalez normally would have put a ball into orbit. His pull power had vanished, and nearly all of his successes came by going the other way, a fact pitchers exploited by pitching him outside and erasing the threat of damage to right field.
Gonzalez was an unfocused mess at the plate, a strange situation for a hitter known for his vast knowledge of hitting as an art. His batting average and power dropped as he failed to make the kind of hard contact that had Boston interested in him to begin with, and his on-base percentage slipped with it. The only time when he remained Adrian Gonzalez-like was with men on base or in scoring position, lending a little more credence to the idea that this was a focus issue at the plate.
What had worked in the past wasn't working for Gonzalez now. That's when he decided to simplify, and react to what pitchers were throwing him rather than wait for a specific pitch in a specific count. It's not the Gonzalez of old, who could map out a plate appearance's trajectory while at the plate and crush the offering he was looking for at the appointed moment. It is, however, a return to the productive Gonzalez that Boston thought they had.
Since June 23, when Gonzalez went deep for just the sixth time in 2012, the first baseman has hit .378/.409/.607. The walks are way down, as Gonzalez isn't waiting for a pitch and extending his counts: he's using his pitch recognition and plate coverage to drive what pitchers give him to whatever field makes the most sense. While at first, there was a worrisome lack of distance between his average and on-base percentage, things have started to slide into place since the All-Star break, with Gonzalez hitting .369/.411/.654 in those 141 plate appearances.
It's difficult to complain about a stretch that's resulted in the AL's third-best OPS since the All-Star break, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. The walks that everyone expects from Gonzalez haven't been there, though. That will likely fall into place with time, though: right now, pitchers aren't shying away from giving Gonzalez pitches he can do something with. The test will be once they start to get gun shy around him at the plate once more; will Gonzalez be able to lay off those pitches, as he used to, or will he revert to looking unfocused once more? Given the way his career has gone, betting on the former is likely the smart move, especially given that he revamped his approach and succeeded at such a ridiculous level in the last two months despite the move into unfamiliar territory.
In general, Gonzalez is going to walk less with Boston than he did with San Diego anyway. The Padres never had a powerful -- or on most days, even useful -- lineup with which to surround Gonzalez with. He was the source of power, and a significant part of his walks came from pitchers who knew it would be easier to pitch to the last gasps of Brian Giles' career, or to a gimpy Ryan Ludwick, or to Chase Headley, who was good, but not Adrian Gonzalez good. With the Red Sox, if it's not Gonzalez, it's going to be someone else who can ruin a pitcher's night, and it's given him more pitches -- and opportunities -- to hit.
Because of that, his batting average with Boston (.325) far exceeds his San Diego output (.288). The on-base percentages are about the same -- .385 with Boston, .374 with San Diego -- and the overall output is roughly the same, with a 141 OPS+ as a Padre, 139 with the Red Sox. With many hitters, you would think that relying on a high batting average on balls in play is a risky tight rope to walk, but this is Adrian Gonzalez. He's always had a better-than-average BABIP, even in a park that routinely pumps out some of the league's worst BABIP rates, and moving to Boston was going to do nothing to slow that down.
Just like with his resurgence, he's using context to his advantage. If he continues to mash the rest of the way, his 2012 line -- now all the way up to .307/.352/.482 -- will once again mask a slow start. Just like an Adrian Gonzalez season should.