June 30, 2009
You don't hear much said about how good of a hitter Adrian Gonzalez actually is. The main problem is his home park, Petco. Even though Gonzalez consistently performs better there than his teammates, the end product still drags down his overall line. That's why he has hit "just" .288/.357/.504 from 2006-2008 in spite of a very impressive .306/.367/.560 road line. The split is even more extreme this year, in Gonzalez' age-27 season: hitting .254/.428/.492 is great for someone stuck in Petco (the league is hitting a very ugly .222/.308/.351 there), but his performance on the road towers above that, as he's hitting .288/.401/.674.
Adjusting for context shows that Gonzalez is a beast at the plate, and one of the best hitters in the National League. You can't see it in his traditional numbers, however, which raises a few questions. How would Gonzalez do if he didn't have to deal with Petco for 81 games a year, and if he had a chance to check out that greener grass on the other side of the fence? There are a few ways to look at this, but what BP statistician Clay Davenport has done is to give you Gonzalez' 2009 season to date, translated into a few other parks. Below we have his actual numbers, followed by what he would do if his home park was Coors Field rather than Petco:
Home Park AB H HR BB SO R RBI AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA Petco 254 69 24 61 52 48 47 .272/.415/.587 .351 Home Park AB H HR BB SO R RBI AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA Coors 254 77 30 61 52 55 57 .303/.440/.701 .351
The bump in batting average is expected, given how many hits Petco takes away. The extra home runs, on the other hand, are something else. Petco is in San Diego, where the temperature is close to what Hit Tracker considers to be an average game temperature. This means that the ball does not move any easier through the air than in a neutral park-warm air is less dense than cold air, so the ball can move through it more easily, and therefore travel a greater distance. Put him in Coors, a mile above sea level where there is less air resistance or drag on the ball, and it will fly farther. Balls that didn't get any extra love from the air in San Diego will hit the bleachers in Colorado. Coors also has a higher BABIP than other parks due to the ball traveling farther, which is another reason that A-Gonz's average and slugging would shoot up.
Next we can see how Gonzalez would do not only out of Petco, but in a different league. The new Yankee Stadium has been hitter-friendly during its initial months of existence, though it has slowed down as of late; that doesn't stop Gonzalez from hypothetically tearing up the American League:
Gonzalez loses some Equivalent Average due to the relative difficulty involved with changing leagues-the American League is still superior to the senior circuit-but those raw numbers are still a sight. They're on par with what Albert Pujols has done this year, in what may be his best season yet. He doesn't have the boost from the lack of air resistance, but he's still well ahead of what your average hitter is doing in the Bronx these days (.267/.351/.466). By year's end, Yankee Stadium may have a different park factor, so if we ran these same numbers in October, his line may not be this positive. Then again, his translation for a neutral park yields a line of .299/.437/.646, so it's not as if he needs much help, other than for someone to get him out of Petco.
It should be noted that these translations are an estimate of sorts, and that different parks work in different ways depending on what kind of hitting you're dealing with. If you have a guy who is going to go deep no matter where he hits, there are very few places where he can go to receive a major boost in production. For hitters who often end up hitting balls to the warning track though, moving to a place like Coors is a great way to show superficial improvement. Gonzalez fits into both camps, as he's a serious power hitter who is hampered significantly by the dimensions of his home park. Sure, he hits better at Petco than most-check those league numbers again for reference-but as you can see by his translated numbers or even his road stats, not being at Petco would be best for his production.
The other issue Gonzalez is facing is the league itself. It's obvious at this point that opposing pitchers are scared of the havoc he can wreak, partially because he's just that good, and also because the rest of the Friars' lineup isn't very intimidating. He has drawn 10 intentional passes this year, which isn't too far off of last year's pace that gave him first base 18 times; if he finished with 700 plate appearances again, he would have four more IBB. Unintentional intentional walks are where it's at for A-Gonz though, as his walk rate has nearly doubled, from 10.7 percent in 2008 (a career high) to 19.4 percent this year. He had 74 unintentional walks all of last season, and already has accumulated 61 in 2009. This has also helped him cut down on strikeouts; he's on pace for 115 in 700 plate appearances, rather than 2008's 142.
Since the opposition has been loathe to pitch directly to him, he has cut down on his swings outside the zone, from 28 percent or more the previous two years down to 22 percent this year. He's seeing fewer first-pitch strikes and has swung at fewer pitches in the zone as well, as he's probably willing to get on base via the inevitable walk, or else he's waiting for a pitch that he can jack. Whether they intend to or not, the rest of the league may be making Gonzalez even more dangerous, as he can focus and wait for just the pitch he wants. When a guy with his power is allowed to sit on his pitch, bad things are sure to follow when that pitch is thrown.
Gonzalez is under contract through 2011, assuming that the Padres pick up his club option for that year, and he's stuck in Petco where he can't do the damage he is capable of, which is a sad thing for those who are not fans of the Padres. If he were to be traded, even to a neutral park, you can be sure that you would see something special, without having to adjust for anything. For now though, we can only hypothesize and dream about it, which is fun in its own way.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .