A look at Nick Gonzales' improvements at Triple-A

Pittsburgh Pirates' former first round pick Nick Gonzales is making some notciable improvements at Triple-A and it's translating to more on-field success.
Jun 27, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Nick Gonzales (39) reacts
Jun 27, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Nick Gonzales (39) reacts / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates took Nick Gonzales with the seventh overall pick in 2020. While he’s performed well at each level of the minor leagues, he’s been plagued by some bad swing decisions on breaking and off-speed pitches over the course of his pro career. But while the minor league season is still young, and Gonzales has less than 100 plate appearances in 2024, he’s looked much better at the dish.

From his debut in 2021 through the end of the 2023 minor league season, Gonzales hit .284/.382/.506. He walked at a healthy 12% walk rate while hitting for some good power. Gonzales had a .223 isolated slugging percentage while going yard 39 times in 1139 plate appearances. Overall, he had an impressive .388 wOBA and 132 wRC+.

While those numbers on the surface might look good, Gonzales mostly took advantage of fastballs and mistake pitches. He struggled against off-speed and breaking offerings. Last year, he batted a meager .225/.317/.424 with a .321 wOBA against anything other than a four-seamer or two-seamer/sinker. He swung and missed 39.1% of the time, and on the occasions he did make contact, he only managed an exit velocity of 84.5 MPH.

But Gonzales has seemingly finally caught up to breaking and off-speed stuff or made the adjustments needed to hit better against these offerings. Right now, he’s batting .370/.383/.522 with a .399 wOBA when facing these kinds of pitches. Gonzo has reduced his whiff rate to 32.7% while upping his exit velocity to 88.2 MPH. The average Triple-A hitter is slashing .234/.304/.398 with just a .314 wOBA against the same pitches. They’re swinging and missing 33% of the time, but only have an exit velocity of 86.3 MPH. 

In terms of the expected batting average, a batted ball at 88 MPH with an 11-degree launch angle (about the LA Gonzales is currently hitting breaking/off-speed) goes for a hit about 68% of the time. Meanwhile, an 84 MPH batted ball at a 12-degree launch angle has an expected batting average of .528. One of Gonzales’ home runs and four of his doubles have come off of non-fastballs. It turns out that hitting the ball harder and swinging and missing less frequently is typically a good combination.

So far, this has translated into some pretty good results on the field for the Pirates 2020 first round pick.

At the time of writing this, Gonzales is slashing .402/.453/.621 with a .472 wOBA and 179 wRC+ through 95 plate appearances. While Gonzales isn’t walking nearly as often compared to previous seasons, with a 6.3% BB%, he is only striking out 16.8% of the time. He already has 11 doubles on the year, along with two long balls, leading to an isolated slugging percentage of .218.

Yes, it is a small sample size of only 95 plate appearances. But there’s definitely been a change in approach. Gonzales has never struck out this infrequently over nearly 100 plate appearances. Lowering his whiff rate on breaking/off-speed pitches from nearly 40% to under 35% is nothing to scoff at. Hopefully, this adjustment can translate over into the big leagues whenever he is recalled.