After years of being a sub-par hitter, Pittsburgh Pirates utility infielder Erik Gonzalez seems to have finally found his stride.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff to the Cleveland Indians for three players, Erik Gonzalez was the most prominent of the three at the time. While he might not be the most valuable right now out of the trio, Erik Gonzalez is having a really interesting 2020 season considering his past work.
Before heading over to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Gonzalez was a light hitting, glove first utility infielder. Through his first 275 career plate appearances, he only hit .263/.292/.389 with a .293 wOBA, and 77 wRC+. Gonzalez really saw time all over the infield, seeing most of his innings at second base (369.2 innings), but an ample amount of time at shortstop (127 innings), and third base (121 innings). However he was a well regarded defender. FanGraphs gives his fielding ability a 55 grade and his arm a 60 grade.
Last year, the light-hitting utility guy started out as the primary shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but after a hard collision with center fielder Starling Marte, Gonzalez missed a large chunk of playing time with a fractured collarbone. Plus, when he was healthy, Gonzalez did not immediately re-enter the line up with Kevin Newman having a great rookie campaign, and Adam Frazier also having a solid season. In the 156 plate appearances Gonzalez did have in 2019 with the Bucs, he only hit .254/.301/.317 with a .262 wOBA and 59 wRC+. Gonzalez did put on a show at shortstop though. He showed off his well regarded defense with +4 DRS, +1.1 range runs above average and +1.3 UZR.
But Gonzalez, despite his poor batting numbers, had a solid month of September. In his final 63 plate appearances of the season, Gonzalez hit .322/.349/.407 with a .324 wOBA and 100 wRC+, making him a league average batter.
Something must have clicked with Gonzalez in that final month of the 2019 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and carried over into 2020. In his first 105 plate appearances of 2020, the utility man owned a .265/.293/.449 line, 99 OPS+ and 97 wRC+. That comes out to around what the average shortstop in 2019 hit (.263/.323/.439, 98 wRC+).
But what makes his season so intriguing is his hard hit rates. He’s been tearing the cover off the ball with a 48% hard hit rate, which is tied with Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, and Joey Gallo. He’s in the top 88th percentile of hard hit rate. When he does make hard contact, he averages about 90.5 MPH off the bat, or in the top 74th percentile of MLB batters, and tied with Anthony Rendon.
According to Baseball Savant, Gonzalez could have a lot better numbers than he does have. Entering play on Friday, he sat with an expected batting average of .281, and expected slugging percentage of .517. He currently has a .311 wOBA, but expected wOBA of .355.
His defense is still well above average with +1 DRS, +1 UZR and +0.2 range runs at shortstop. At the hot corner, Gonzalez has +2 DRS and 0.3 UZR. He’s averaged about .02 fWAR a game, so across a 150 game season, he averages about 3 fWAR.
Gonzalez might not be a long term answer for the Pirates’ up the middle, but if he can keep up this offense and defense he’s shown this year, he’ll be a very attractive trade piece over the off-season, especially with his hard hit rates, expected stats, and defense.