The Shortstop Solution?
The position of Milwaukee Brewers shortstop has been a revolving door since 2009. Since franchise cornerstone J.J. Hardy lost the job that year, the role has been graced by such luminaries as Josh Wilson, Luis Cruz, and the preeminent Yuniesky Betancourt. Of course, none of these players were treated as long-term cast members in the way Hardy and Alcides Escobar were. But while Hardy has rediscovered his 20+ home run power in Baltimore, Escobar continues his light-hitting, slick-fielding ways in KC, and Yuni bats lead-off (you read that correctly) in lineups penned by Ned Yost, Alex Gonzalez has arrived as the latest Brewer shortstop.
Many fans welcomed his off-season signing-a one year, $4.25MM pact with a $4MM option that vests at 525 plate appearances-with open arms. While some may feel the dollar figure was slightly on the high side, so far Sea Bass (still trying to figure out where this nickname came from) has lived up to the price. These days it often takes exorbitant amount of dough to sign an all-around shortstop, as evidenced by the $100MM+ handed out each to Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes in the past year. While Gonzalez is certainly not and never has been a franchise shortstop, a team that cannot develop a player of that caliber can certainly do worse, and the Brewers got him at a reasonable cost.
In his 13-year career, Gonzalez has gained a well deserved reputation as a high quality defensive player dating back to years as a Florida Marlin, where he began his career and played until 2005. He may not have any Gold Gloves (a rubbish award, but that’s another story) to his name, but if you have watched his sterling infield work so far this season, it’s clear that the defensive merit is well-deserved. The butterflies Brewer fans experienced last season every time a ball was hit toward Betancourt, the range-less wonder, are mercifully a feeling of the past. Even manager Ron Roenicke has publicly stated how confident he feels when a ball comes Gonzalez’s way.
Along with Gonzalez’s defensive prowess came a reputation as a bit of a hacker: poor plate discipline, swings too early in the count and at bad pitches, draws few walks. He has displayed some pop in his bat over the years, putting up 23 bombs twice: in 2004 with Florida, and in his 2010 season split between Toronto and Atlanta. All of these are traits that were applied to Betancourt, and many Brewer analysts dubbed A-Gon as “Yuni with a glove”: generally a very accurate assessment of his game. That’s probably enough to ask out of Milwaukee’s everyday shortstop, and as expected, the Venezuelan has lived up to his billing in the fielding department so far as a Brewer.
What was completely unexpected though was his surprisingly effective work at the plate over the season’s first month, breaking free-at least temporarily-from some of his offensive shortcomings. While he’s not a middle of the order bat, along with Mat Gamel and whichever of the Lucroy-Kottaras duo suits up, Gonzalez has been a part of a quite productive bottom third of the lineup. In 21 games he’s put up a .257/.321/.473 triple slash line, impressive given that his career line is .247/.292/.400. His four home runs are good for third on the team, behind only Braun and Hart.
These are all well and good, but the two most telling stats I see that display his great start at the plate lie in more advanced metrics. A-Gon has had flashes of great discipline at the plate which are evident both watching games and in his 6.2% walk rate. In his career, he has only topped 6% once for a full season, and has walked in under 5% of PAs since 2007. It’s not a gaudy number, but it’s a definite improvement from the past several years. For what it’s worth, his BB% is just 1% below Tulo’s, tied with Jimmy Rollins’ and 3% above Starlin Castro’s. He seems to be seeing the ball well: he’s swinging at 29.7% of balls out of the strike zone, down from 42% the last two years and 35.8% for his career.
Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that A-Gon is raking. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average-a good measure of a hitter’s raw power since it counts only extra base hits) is .216, by far and away the leader among NL shortstops. In fact, he’s currently 14th in the NL in ISO, ahead of guys like Joey Votto, Carlos Beltran AND Matt Holiday (note: as you might guess, Kemp, Braun and Hart are 1-2-3 in NL ISO so far). He does have a handful less at bats than some of these players due to missing time for the birth of his son, but he still qualifies for the batting title. Some feel that his power will play well at Miller Park, where only one of his four bombs has been hit. Those will come, and he very well may be shaping himself up for another 20+ home run season, the type of shortstop power Milwaukee has not enjoyed since Hardy ca. 2008.
Perhaps these numbers are unsustainable-his hacker reputation was earned for a reason, after all-but they are nevertheless encouraging to see from both a shortstop and a player who bats no higher that sixth. Gonzalez is prone to streaky hitting, but it isn’t as if he’s setting the world on fire right now. He had an excellent spring training, and after a slow first few games, he is quietly putting together a fine start to 2012. If he does “crash down to earth”, the fall from this level of play to something more in line with his career numbers would definitely be manageable. Brewer fans should feel comfortable seeing him trot out to short every day if only for his glove.
At 35, by no means is Gonzalez a long term answer to the Brewers’ shortstop woes. There is still an absence of shortstop prospects at all levels of the minor leagues, a dilemma which the team should address in this year’s draft and perhaps even trades. The Brewers farm system has shown that it can produce everyday big league shortstops in Hardy and Escobar. Even Bill Hall played short coming through the minors and has manned the position at the big league level. But since Escobar was traded, the farm is bereft of anyone who even closely resembles an everyday major leauge shortstop.
Barring injury trouble, Gonzalez’s option should vest and Milwaukee will have a capable and effective shortstop for one more season. Hopefully that will give Doug Melvin enough time to develop a way to halt the Brewers’ shortstop carousel.
All credit for advanced statistics goes to FanGraphs.com