Fun with small sample sizes, Erik Gonzalez: Between Innings

Which member of the 2018 Cleveland Indians has a slash line of .382/.417/.618 to lead the team in all three categories of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage? Because baseball, the answer is Erik Gonzalez.1

The sample size is still quite small,2 but the slick-fielding utility infielder has quickly moved from fending off Giovanny Urshela to remain on the MLB roster to pushing a former two-time All-Star second baseman for playing time.

The sample size is larger on Jason Kipnis. Of qualified batters, only Kole Calhoun and Ian Desmond have been worse hitters than the Tribe’s Dirtbag. His current slash3 could be excused as early season struggles if not for a two-year poor sample.4 Over the past four seasons, Kipnis has seen his wRC+ (100 being MLB average) go from 124 to 117 to 82 to 39. WFNY’s Gage Will believes he will have some recovery from this low point, and he probably will, but it is appearing more likely achievable recovery means being a below average hitter and defender at 31 years of age.

In differentiating between dissolving skills and injuries, some inferences are required to fill in the blanks left by a lacking sample size. 472 plate appearances over a 13 month stretch, most of which featuring a hampered Kipnis, aren’t enough to write him off. Monitoring the exit velocity results over the next few months will offer further insight. If he can navigate his way back toward the 89 miles per hour beacon, regression towards the mean on the luck side should guide him back toward success.

Enough has been said complaining about the fall-off of Kipnis, and the slow-moving nature to drop him in the lineup (and corresponding refusal to bench him against left-handed pitchers). The more interesting angle here is there appears to be a player ready be given the opportunity to replace him. Gonzalez has been slow-groomed over the course of two MLB seasons with the expectation of being a utility infielder. He has proven capable of plus defense no matter where he has been placed on the infield. The question with his profile has been if he could hit enough at the MLB level to push for more playing time. His bat over his first 132 plate appearances did not appear to have the requisite eye nor power to be in consideration for regular playing time.5 2018 has been a different story though as the exit velocity and launch angle of pitched baseballs off his bat have been fascinating to observe.

Courtesy of BaseballSavant

Gonzalez has an average exit velocity of 93.5 miles per hour and launch angle of 7.0, which are both the best of his career. He is hitting the ball hard more than half the time he gets a bat on the ball (52.4% hard-hit rate). Even better than the averages is the launch angle has been in the optimal range when he has elevated the ball (the average lower due to a propensity to hit some ground balls). His expected output is a bit lower than his actual output, but even the expected is currently at an All-Star level of performance.

Furthermore, Gonzalez has had some interesting improvements in his plate discipline and contact authority. His strike zone contact percentage is 17 percent points higher than in 2017 (88%), he is chasing out of zone pitches 10% less often (27%), and a big result is that he is whiffing on 10% fewer swings (25.9%). Even further, he is obtaining his best contact authority against breaking pitches with an even higher average exit velocity and xwOBA against them than fastballs or offspeed pitches. It is possible, Gonzalez is seeing the ball better at the plate as he has matured as a hitter, which is allowing him to make more (and better) contact.

The backdrop of his statistics is that everything Gonzalez has shown in 2018 has been accomplished within a small sample size. As pitchers obtain more information on his tendencies and adjustments, he could have difficulty sustaining his current pace. Regression even indicates he would not do so to his current levels anyway. However, it should not need to be part of the “be bold initiative” to suggest Erik Gonzalez should be receiving more playing time.

Hmmm… has anyone asked Jason Kipnis if his hamstring feels a bit tight lately?

Or, maybe Kipnis’ back could use a 10-day stint on the DL?

  1. Editor’s note: those numbers are adjusted to include Wednesday’s day game, and luckily EGon beat out Jose Ramirez by one point in slugging to make it a salient point still. []
  2. 32 plate appearances compared with 136-195 for regular starters. []
  3. .172/.260/.248 []
  4. .213/.281/.361. []
  5. .262/.282/.405, 76 OPS+ []