Pittsburgh Pirates: Can Erik Gonzalez Be the Answer at Shortstop?

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

Earlier this offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a 5-player trade with the Cleveland Indians. This was one of their major moves so far this offseason.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians made a multiplayer trade this offseason. The Bucs sent MLB role players OF Jordan Luplow and infielder Max Moroff to the Tribe while receiving athletic infielder Erik Gonzalez and two minor league pitchers. This trade seems like a small-value adding trade for both clubs, but underneath the hood, the Pirates may have found themselves much more in Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has been an above average defender during his time in the Big Leagues, earning himself his role as a defensive first Utility for the Indians over the past couple of seasons in which they have won the division title. Gonzalez has an excellent arm and good speed to go along with a solid glove and average range, producing close to or above average at each position he’s played so far in the Majors through 657 innings. He profiles more comfortably in the middle-infield but has enough strength to play solidly at third base. His arm strength, as you can see displayed in the following clip, gives him the ability to make tough plays in the hole at shortstop:

Gonzalez seems most comfortable at shortstop. With a modest 1 DRS and .9 UZR being his best numbers in the field last season in a small sample of 67 innings, which over the course of the season equates to a 14.6 UZR/150, which is gold glove caliber. However, we won’t put much faith in a number like that given the small sample size. If it weren’t for the Indians having one of the best shortstops in the Majors in Francisco Lindor, Gonzalez would’ve seen much more playing time at the position as this was his primary position throughout the minor leagues.

The Pirates liked Gonzalez because of his glove, and as it stands Gonzalez checks out as a plus defender at each position in the infield (he played some first base last season as well), which is sure to give the Pirates a lot of options to get him in the lineup beyond shortstop.

When it comes to batting, Gonzalez hasn’t been much of an offensive threat at the Major League level. This is partly due to his lack of playing time with the Tribe, but he also has never been much of a patient hitter. In his last season at Triple A, he owned just a 4.1% walk rate, translating that to 3.3% in the majors which, among shortstops, last season with at least 120 plate appearances, would both rank towards the bottom of the league.

While he does lack patience at the plate, Gonzalez shows a strong ability to make contact, with his Z-swing% & Z-Contact% both being well above average last season at 72.3% and 88.7% respectively. Not only is Gonzalez making contact consistently, his 18.6% soft contact rate and 39.2% hard contact rate show that he’s also making solid contact, ranking just inside the top 100 for players in average exit velocity at 89.6 according to Baseball Savant.

So then what is Erik Gonzalez’s biggest flaw at the plate? Well, besides a career 28.7% strikeout rate, which dipped to 23.8% last season, Gonzalez has a problem with hitting the ball on the ground too often. Last year he owned a GB/FB ratio of 2.43 while hitting the ball on the ground 55% of the time. Couple that with a 4.3% HR/FB rate, it makes it certainly easy to see why he only produced a .375 slugging percentage and a .110 ISO.

In his best season in the minors at Triple-A, Gonzalez still grounded the ball 51% of the time but saw an 11.8% HR/FB rate that gave him a solid .450 slugging percentage and .154 ISO. He produced a career-high 11 home runs and 31 doubles in his final full season in Triple-A, then proceeded to repeat the same success the next season in 2017 where he split time at both Triple-A and the MLB, producing a .175 ISO and .164 ISO respectively, splitting 10 home runs between the two levels in just 285 plate appearances.

His 2.8 average career launch angle is certainly one part of Gonzalez’s game that he needs to improve upon. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to hit the ball hard on the ground, Gonzalez’s ground ball rate seems to follow closely with his offensive production. Last season, Gonzalez had a .330 wOBA and a 104 wRC+ in the first half of the season where he had a 49% GB rate over 96 plate appearances. In the second half, he saw his GB rate jump to 67%, and his numbers dipped to just a .222 wOBA and 33 wRC+.

If Gonzalez is able to do more of this (Fall 2018):

and drive the ball in the air more often, he could very well put up solid power numbers at Shortstop. It wouldn’t take much for Gonzalez to produce averagely, considering of the last three seasons the average MLB shortstop produced a line of .262/.319/.407 with a .312 wOBA and a 93 wRC+, and last season Gonzalez produced .265/.301/.375 with a .294 wOBA and an 80 wRC+.

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If Gonzalez is able to fix his swing to produce more balls in the air one could easily see him surging beyond those lines, and coupled with his defensive play, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates a strong option at Short. I would not be surprised to see him penciled into the Opening Day lineup this season, especially if the Pirates fail to bring in a veteran shortstop in what is a very slim market. At the very least, Gonzalez will provide solid defense to the club, making him an upgrade over both veterans Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison.