Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Emergence of Jacob Gonzalez

Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Pittsburgh Pirates minor league first baseman Jacob Gonzalez has come out of nowhere, guns blazing to start the season. But where did he come from and what happens next?

One of the best stories from the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system comes from Jacob Gonzalez. He’s been far and away the best hitter across all levels of the minor leagues to start this year. But where did Gonzalez come from? Did the Pittsburgh Pirates find a potential diamond in the rough with Gonzalez?

Gonzalez was initially a second-round draft pick by the San Francisco Giants back in 2017. According to MLB Pipeline, he was ranked as the 125th best draft prospect. They described him as having some of the best power among the high school prospects in that year’s draft and having a decent hit tool. The downside was his lack of speed and defense. However, his bat was his meal ticket to the majors.

After a solid first showing in 2017 with the Giants’ Rookie-Ball team, where he had a .876 OPS, Gonzalez would go on to struggle across the next two campaigns. He put up just a .627 OPS and .679 OPS in two years at Low-A. Then came 2021, where he split the season between High-A and rookie-ball. He still put up a respectable .856 OPS at rookie-ball but just a .502 OPS when he was promoted to High-A.

Up until now, Gonzalez has had nearly zero success above rookie-ball. Now at 23-years-old he was exposed in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. This is where the Pittsburgh Pirates added him to their organization.

In only 128 plate appearances, Gonzalez is batting .435/.508/.759 with a .558 wOBA and 250 wRC+. The only major statistical category Gonzalez doesn’t have a wide margin lead in is his slugging percentage, which still ranks at a high third place. Other than that, his wRC+ is nearly 40% better than second place, his wOBA is over 60 points higher than the next best, and his OPS is nearly 60 points better than the next guy.

There have been a few things Gonzalez has improved upon from his days in the Giants’ farm system. The first thing is he is getting more line drives. From 2017 through 2021, he had a 20.2% line drive rate but now sits at 23.9% through this small sample size. He’s also walking a tad more, seeing his walk rate go from 7.1% to 8.6%. Plus, he’s striking out less frequently, seeing that go from 17.1% to just 14.1%.

So what happens from here?

Well, Gonzalez was promoted to High-A Greensboro just last week, and he’s already racked up a baker’s dozen hits in just 21 plate appearances. Of those 12 hits, nearly half have been for extra bases; that includes a double, triple, and home run. It only took Gonzalez 24 games, and 107 trips to the plate at Bradenton before the Pirates decided it was time to move him up to Greensboro. After all, if the Pirates find anything within Gonzalez, he’s going to be a late bloomer. He turns 24-years-old in late June. So in two weeks, he might be with Altoona.

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It’s probably unlikely that Gonzalez keeps putting up Barry Bonds numbers (he quite literally has numbers that reflect 2003 Bonds). In terms of improvements, there hasn’t been anything massively improved, but a few small things that could play out in the long run, but hey. A wRC+ of 250 over 125 plate appearances isn’t anything to scoff at. He’s literally been twice as productive at the plate than Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Freddie Freeman have been so far this year. If he is a late bloomer, it would be a welcomed surprise.