Pittsburgh Pirates infield prospect Nick Gonzales isn’t where he reasonably should be among top 100 prospect rankings.
So far, there have been a few top 100 prospect lists released for the start of 2022. Baseball America released theirs just over a week ago, and Keith Law of The Athletic released his a few days ago. Many have pointed out that Quinn Priester is being seriously undervalued. Baseball America had him at no. 88, and Law placed him at no. 57. But one name that sticks out to me as being under-ranked is top second base prospect, and arguably the Pittsburgh Pirates best prospect, Nick Gonzales.
Gonzales has been seriously undervalued by Law, Baseball America, FanGraphs, and MLB Pipeline. Only Baseball America has him as a top 50 prospect between the four sources, just barely making it at #49. The only site to have him above #40 is Baseball Prospectus at #29.
Last year, Gonzales had a phenomenal season. In 369 plate appearances, Gonzales batted .302/.385/.565 with a .405 wOBA and 150 wRC+. Gonzales had shown off a ton of pop, blasting off 18 times and having a .262 isolated slugging percentage. Plus, he had a healthy 10.8% walk rate.
Now I know why some sites aren’t 100% on board with making him a consensus top 50 prospect, at least not yet. For one, he played in a hitter-friendly environment, as the average OPS in Gonzales’ league was .740. Another reason is that his batting average on balls in play was a bit high at .388. A third reason sites aren’t too keen on him is his poor 27.4% strikeout rate. But let’s give a little context to each of those reasons.
Of the 101 times Gonzales struck out in 2021, 44 of those times came in the first half of the season, translating to 43.5% of all his strikeouts coming before July 16th. Overall, he had a 34.1% K-rate through his first 117 plate appearances in the first half. He struck out just 57 more times in the second half but in 207 plate appearances. That comes out to a solid 23.8% K-rate. By the end of the season, strikeouts weren’t all that much of a worry for Gonzo. The last month of the season saw him strike out just 22.6% of the time while having a 15.7% walk rate.
Ok, so what about the hitter-friendly environment? That undoubtedly helped him. While it did, the talent is there. wRC+, or weighted runs created plus, adjusts for the league environment. If the league is hitter-friendly or playing in a park that favors hitters, this is reflected in wRC+. It’s the reason why Nolan Arenado had a near-identical wOBA to Paul Goldschmidt from 2015 through 2020 (.383 for Arenado, .387 for Goldy), but the then-Rockies infielder had a 125 wRC+ while Goldy had a 140 mark. Arenado played in Coors Field, a notoriously hitter friendly park while Goldschmdit played in Chase Field, a stadium that has favored pitchers more often than not.
Gonzales meanwhile had a 150 mark. Even in a league where hitters were dominant, he was 50% better than the average. That was the second-best mark among all High-A East batters who collected at least 300 plate appearances. Do you know who was no. 1? Matt Fraizer.
The third highest was about 5% worse than Gonzo at 145. It’s worth noting that 4 of the top 10 players in wRC+ at High-A East were Pittsburgh Pirates. The others are Jared Triolo and Lolo Sanchez. His contributions in the second half saw him post a 183 wRC+, making him 83% better than the league average.
Now, what about his batting average on balls in play? He had a .388 mark, representing some luck playing a part in his production. Well, Gonzales had some extremely strong batted ball rates. He had a line drive rate of 27.9% and a fly ball rate of 36.5%. His ground ball rate was 35.6%, 1% lower than his fly ball rate.
Now for reference, since 2019 in the major leagues, only five batters have had an LD% higher than 27% (min. 500 plate appearances). Among those 5, only 1 has a BAbip lower than .335. So already, a line-drive-oriented hitter will have a higher batting average on balls in play. It makes sense since a line drive falls for a hit over 60% of the time. Mix in the fact he is hitting more fly balls than ground balls, and he’s bound to have a high BABip. He is hitting the ball hard too, so he’s surely finding the gaps very often.
One last reason I didn’t initially mention is that second base isn’t seen as a premium position for many. It’s vastly overshadowed by its partner-in-crime, shortstop. After all, many major league second basemen started their careers at short and moved to second because of reasons like lack of range, poor arm, so-so defensive prowess, etc. There have only been 4 players in the history of the MLB draft to be selected among the first 10 picks as a second baseman. Gonzales was technically drafted as a shortstop and is already starting his pro career out at second.
Gonzales has top of the line talent. He was the most well-rounded player going into the 2020 draft and is arguably the most well-rounded player in the phenomenal Pirate farm system. The second baseman might not play the more valuable position up the middle, but the fact he can field the keystone well while providing well high-end offense, even in a hitter-friendly league, all while adjusting as the season went on, is worth being a consensus top 50 prospect, at the very least, in my eyes.