Consternation over the initial usage lack of Oscar Mercado has fallen mostly on the playing time and plate appearances given to Carlos “CarGo” Gonzalez with Jake Bauers (23 years old) and Jordan Luplow (25 years old) being similar youthful outfielders, while Leonys Martin has a likelier chance than Gonzalez of finishing 2019 as a member of the Indians.1 The worries of Mercado’s playing time not being of the everyday variety could well be premature as he played both games on the weekend (and did well), but a look into how best to utilize Gonzalez is worth undertaking.
WFNY’s Kyle Kelly had written about the expectations for Gonzalez coming into 2019.
A three-time All-Star, Gonzalez has not exactly played up to his potential in the last two seasons but has still recorded promising numbers — at least by the Indians standards. In 2016 (his last All-Star season), Gonzalez registered a .298 batting average, a .855 OPS, 25 home runs, and a 2.4 WAR. Over the last two seasons on average, Gonzalez has batted .269, stated a .779 OPS, hit 15 home runs and a recorded a .02 WAR. These stats are not great but they are certainly an improvement from Naquin and the Indians best answer until at least the trade deadline.
Gonzalez has, on the whole, disappointed as his .229/.295/.302 (61 wRC+) slash line demonstrates. All would be career worsts should they maintain. He has hit the ball hard less often,2 struck out more,3 and walked less4 than any other season he has on record. The plate discipline is a product of an elevated swing-and-miss rate due to both missing more pitches in the strike zone and swinging at more out of it. For the StatCast era, he has his worst average exit velocity5 and a negative average launch angle.6 These averages are not hiding some type of optimal approach as he also has had his worst barrel rate7 and his expected batting numbers fall in line with his actual.
A common adage is that bat speed is the first thing to go on a veteran hitter. While MLB does not release the bat speed metric, there are other hints. The large drop in exit velocity is one as is the lowering of his launch angle. Gonzalez has actually hit fastballs above 95 miles per hour as well as he has hit those below it, so actual velocity does not seem to be his issue. He has also only seen a small dip in production against breaking balls from previous years. However, despite seeing fewer fastballs than ever in his career, Gonzalez appears to be sitting on them as his numbers against off-speed pitches have dropped precipitously. Against off-speed, his exit velocity and launch angle have both dropped double-digits with his slugging percentage halved and his batting average just a third of his normal output.
By perception, Gonzalez has been even worse as his win percentage added (WPA) being negative portrays. His splits reveal Gonzalez is just 3-for-31 with 11 strikeouts and one walk in the seventh to ninth innings. With runners in scoring position, just 3-for-22 with nine strikeouts and three walks. These numbers are mostly poor luck with sequencing, but poor fortune affects the outcomes of games, especially when the afflicted is often put into the clean-up role of the lineup.
There are a few positive signs.8 He has hit .278/.350/.306 in his last 11 games (43 plate appearances) after hitting .261/.333/.391 (95 wRC+) in April meaning his overall lines are weighed down by one wretched four-game stretch.9 Gonzalez also has been deployed against a left-handed pitcher in one-third of his plate appearances, which indicates a potential usage improvement moving forward. Against southpaws, Gonzalez has shown less power and overall ability to hit (31 wRC+) than he has against his better platoon side (73 wRC+). In addition, the designated-hitter role has seen his best output this season (.276/.323/.414, 95 wRC+, 31 plate appearances).
Anyone hoping for a resurgent year back to the All-Star levels of Carlos Gonzalez will be disappointed. His peripheral metrics indicate age has eroded some of his skillset leaving those outputs in the past. The Indians would be wise to never have him bat against a left-handed starter and give him more time as designated-hitter despite his far superior play in left field compared to Jake Bauers. If his late-inning issues prove to be a problem dealing with higher velocity relievers10 then having a replacement at the ready would be wise there too.
The good news is the Indians recently called up a right-handed batter who can play all three positions in the outfield. So, yes, playing Gonzalez only to his strengths also opens up more opportunities for Mercado.