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The shrinking power of Adrian Gonzalez

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Just ask him about it.


Adrian Gonzalez never had the raw statistics as a Padre to make him a household name, but that's because Petco Park would eat raw statistics like they were piles of caramel corn. It was a sordid, gluttonous affair, with handfuls of RBIs and runs missing the park's maw and collecting on the floor, where they eventually were gathered up and disposed of. He still had really, really impressive raw statistics, though -- numbers that would have meant something to the back-of-the-baseball-card set even if he played in Texas. The adjusted numbers should have been good enough to make him one of the game's biggest stars.

In 2009, Gonzalez hit 40 home runs playing half of his games in Petco, and in his last San Diego season, he had dramatic splits -- .279/.383/.438 at home, .315/.402/.578 on the road. Add in that hitters usually hit better at home (relative to park effects) and that Fenway Park is something of a hitter's park, it wasn't outlandish for fans to expect 45 homers from Gonzalez in his first season in Boston. A 50-homer season wasn't out of the question.

Instead, he hit 27 homers in his only full season in Boston -- his lowest total since his first full season in 2006. Looked like a blip. Walked like a blip. Talked like a blip. Probably a blip. Except the next year, he had even less power, finishing with just 18 homers between the Red Sox and Dodgers. Before we could ask if it was another anomaly, Gonzalez answered the question on his own:

Gonzalez, 30, said he altered his swing when he injured his shoulder in 2010, his final season in San Diego. He had surgery after that season, then was traded to the Boston Red Sox. "Last year, I tried to go back to the swing I had before I got hurt," he said. "I tried it for the whole first half, with horrible results."

This isn't a blip. This is Adrian Gonzalez 2.0. I looked at two different swings from Gonzalez against Jason Hammel -- one from 2010 and 2013 -- and I couldn't tell the difference. But that says more about my nascent career as a scout than it does about Gonzalez's swing. He knows what's going on with his swing. He polishes it and fiddles with it like a retiree with a new sports car. And if he says he's less of a power hitter anymore, it's probably smart to believe him.

Gonzalez said he figures to lose about five to 10 home runs per season.

"I was a .280 hitter," he said. "Now I'm more of a .300 hitter."

Trading in an extra 10 homers for an extra 12 to 15 hits every year seems like a bad deal, but it's not like it would make him a bad hitter. The old Gonzalez would still be quite valuable making that swap. The problem, though, is that the swing isn't the only thing that's changed.

Year Walk rate Swings out of the strike zone Contact on pitches out of the strike zone
2008 10.6% 30.3% 57.8%
2009 17.5 24.8 65.7
2010 13.4 30.6 66.3
2011 10.3 33.3 70.1
2012 6.1 35.0 75.9
2013 9.7 31.2 74.3

Or, maybe the swing is the only thing that's changed, but it's affected Gonzalez's walk rate. It might not be a matter of exchanging home runs for singles and doubles, but exchanging home runs and walks for singles and doubles. The walk rates and swings out of the zone correlate, sure, but they might be outliers masquerading as trends. Or maybe they're trends masquerading as outliers. Tricky, that distinction.

When it comes to the contact on pitches out of the zone, though, there's a pretty clear trend. Gonzalez is making more contact on bad pitches. It's an approach that works for players like Vlad, Ichiro, and Pablo, but players with two names usually do better when they don't make contact on pitches out of the zone. It makes sense that a power-hungry swing wouldn't make as much contact with pitches out of the strike zone. But if those swings don't lead to poorly hit balls in play, maybe that's not a bad thing.

While the walk rate cratered in 2012, it's bounced back to something close to 2008/2011 rates so far this young season. It would be easy to make too much of that change in Gonzalez's game. But the contact on balls out of the zone is as high as ever. Maybe Gonzalez is becoming something of a bad-ball hitter (in addition to his already un-Panda approach with balls out of the zone in general) and, considering his early-season success with the Dodgers, maybe it's working for him. It's possible that his 2012 was a transitional season, and now he's arrived on the other side as Rod Carew.

But he's definitely a different player now. Just ask him. And while I wouldn't want to be the one paying him $100 million over the next five years to see if he can keep it going until he's 36, the Dodgers don't really care. They can afford to pay a premium for short-term success, even if it's still an open question as to how much success the new, reduced-power Gonzalez can have. The 2013 returns have been good when he's been in the lineup.

You rarely get a star player who acknowledges a complete reworking of his game. Here, then, is a fascinating case study.