Established star hitters such as Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have picked a bad time to get old. Not since 1920, when the live ball was introduced and trick pitches were outlawed, has the game changed so much so fast. As Ortiz, the Red Sox' star designated hitter, told me last month, just in the past three years “hitting is harder than ever” in his career because of a triple whammy: a larger strike zone, defensive shifts and overall better stuff (not just velocity) from pitchers.
I framed Ortiz’s comments in the context of his apparent frustration. He was struggling at the time (batting .239), and the night before his rant he had whiffed with the bases loaded against “four filthy pitches” from Jose Alvarez of the Angels and then again on four pitches from Mike Morin to end the game. Such middle relievers used to define the soft underbelly of any staff, but now often bring closer’s stuff to the mound.
But a week later, Gonzalez surprised me with this comment: “Last year I had my best year ever in the big leagues,” he said, “and I hit [.276].”
I reminded him he once hit 40 home runs with the Padres in 2009. He finished fourth in NL MVP voting in '10. He led the AL in hits in '11 while batting .338. And his best year was last year, when his 163 hits were his second-fewest in any full season?
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I hit the ball better than any other year in my career.”
Gonzalez, 33, is having a huge year for the Dodgers this season. He lashed four more hits Monday night to raise his OPS to 1.026—third in the NL behind only Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt. Gonzalez isn’t much for analytics. When we had a long chat, for instance, about his fascinating approaches to hitting with runners on and with the bases empty, he cracked, “The computer doesn’t care. The computer thinks a walk with a guy on second is as good as a hit.” But it turns out the metrics show that Gonzalez’s instincts about having less to show for hitting better are dead on.
Last year, Gonzalez posted the best hard-hit ball percentage of his career: 38.8%. And yet his batting average on balls in play of .294 not only was below league average (.300), but also marked the third straight year it had declined.
“Look at the way the Giants play me,” Gonzalez said. “It’s tougher for me to get a hit against the Giants than anybody else. It’s not just that they play so deep with the shift. That’s part of it. The other thing is that their pitchers don’t rely as much on velocity but they do a great job pitching into the defense.”
Again, the metrics support what Gonzalez understands intuitively. He is a career .321 hitter on balls in play. But when he puts the ball in play against the Giants the past three years, he is hitting .235—and .211 overall against San Francisco in that time.
“You’ll never see another lefthanded hitter with power win a batting title,” Gonzalez said. “The deep shift takes too many hits away. You can’t play that deep [on the left side] against a righthanded hitter.”
The problem is most acute for the established veterans: They’ve been hitting the same way for too long to make significant changes in their swing and approach, and as velocity continues to rise, their declines in bat speed and reaction time that come with age are more exposed.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you just hit the ball the other way?’” Gonzalez said. “Well, if I do that, I’m just a [Punch and] Judy hitter. That’s not why they’re paying me—to [inside-out] the ball and dink it in. And besides, for the people who say that, you go grab and bat and do it: not just hit a 95-mph cutter, but hit it to a specific part of the field.”
Only six years ago, there were six qualified lefthanded hitters age 33 and older who posted an adjusted OPS of 120 or better. But we’ve seen only six such hitters in the past four years combined, including just two this year (Gonzalez and Nori Aoki of the Giants).
The major league average on balls in play is .299. But the majority of older lefthanded- and switch-hitting players fall under that mark, including the 39-year-old Ortiz (.235) and 36-year-olds Rollins (.223) and Utley (.209). Gonzalez, unlike last year, actually is way above the norm (.370).
popularized advanced defensive shifting when they flipped from worst to first in defensive efficiency in a surprising run to the American League pennant. Ortiz’s baseball life hasn’t been the same since. Since '08, he has batted .335 when he pulls the ball—a drop of 111 points.
In this environment, Gonzalez (.339/.415/.611) is off to an incredible start for Los Angeles. His 182 OPS+ does not seem sustainable. It would be the highest adjusted OPS for any lefthanded hitter since baseball instituted penalties for first-time steroid users in 2005. (The last two such instances were achieved by Barry Bonds in '03 and '04.) Gonzalez also leads the league in doubles and is in the top five in hits, runs, total bases, on-base percentage, slugging, batting average and OPS. He could become the first Dodgers first baseman elected to start the All-Star Game since Steve Garvey 35 years ago. Gonzalez was leading the voting, but Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs are strong choices, too.
Last month, Gonzalez became the 12th active player with 1,000 RBIs. The RBI may be losing favor with the analytics crowd, but it’s at the heart of how Gonzalez approaches his hitting. He told me that with nobody on base he swings for doubles and home runs with a higher launch angle to his swing. Why?
“Getting on first base, it’s probably going to take two more hits to get me home,” Gonzalez said. “About the only way I’m going to score from first on a double is if somebody bobbles the ball.”
Last month Gonzalez did score from first on a double—on a mishandled ball. That matched the number of times he scored from first on a double all of last year: one.
But put runners on, especially in scoring position, and Gonzalez goes to a flatter, quicker swing and is much more likely to drive singles to centerfield and leftfield. Again, the statistics support Gonzalez’s explanation. Check out his extraordinary career hitting profiles:
1 runner on base
Any runners on base
2 runners on base
3 runners on base
Gonzalez’s two-fold approach to hitting has been so successful that he is one of the best clutch hitters in the past four decades. Here are the hitters with the highest batting average with runners in scoring position since 1974, with a minimum of 1,000 games played:
relative to overall BA
The last column illustrates further how successful Gonzalez has been with his two-fold approach to hitting. Gwynn, Carew and Cabrera flat-out raked all the time, and were similar hitters regardless of circumstances. Gonzalez might fit your idea of an athlete “raising his game,” if you’re one to buy into sloppy sports clichés. But he doesn’t “raise” his game, as if summoning more effort; he adapts his game.
Gonzalez is the rock to a vastly different Dodgers team than the one that was eliminated by St. Louis in the NLDS last year. Thanks to injuries, trades, free agency and the vision of a revamped front office, he’s the lone remaining everyday starter from last October. Are the Dodgers better? Gonzalez wouldn’t make that determination, explaining that only the playoffs will provide an answer to that question. We do know that this Los Angeles team is a better defensive team that might score fewer runs and, at least in the opinion of manager Don Mattingly, has a more professional everyday approach.
“There’s a little less maintenance with this team, as far as getting guys ready to play,” Mattingly said. “They still have their fun, but at game time they’re a little more down to earth, a little more serious.”
Their most important player remains Gonzalez, who may be on his way to the best year of his 12-year career. And this year, in a hitting environment that conspires against older lefthanded hitters, he might even wind up with the stats to prove it.