Cleveland Indians

The Carlos Gonzalez Experiment — What the Indians See

You may have fallen asleep this offseason. As solid players lingered around the free agent market, the Cleveland Indians made it clear they were cash-strapped. This did not, however, prevent them from swooping up Carlos Gonzalez just before the start of the 2019 campaign. A non-roster invitee, Gonzalez has an avenue to make a significant impact on a ball club with a murky outfield outlook.

Once a budding superstar, Gonzalez’s fall from grace has been a rocky one. Playing in Colorado can be a boon for hitters, of course. That is, until skill sets begin to fade. Intermittent injuries intervened, and suddenly the star who raked wasn’t as impressive a specimen — with significant offensive accomplishments being chalked up to elevation benefits and insufficient offensive output being more intensely scrutinized.

Gonzalez is about five years removed from elite production, but has shown hints of potential if utilized correctly. Should the Indians isolate his plate appearances to right-handed pitching, they could reap the rewards of a flyer minor league deal.

The outlook is anything but clear. There’s a reason CarGo lingered on the free agent market that goes far beyond just being overlooked. In today’s game centered around extra base hits and launch optimization, his career ground ball rates are enough to scare most progressive teams from commitment. Through the uncertainty, though, lies a set of discernible skills.

First, Gonzalez exhibits good enough plate discipline. Throughout his career, he has drawn walks at a mediocre 8.0 percent clip. When you narrow him down to right-handed foes, however, that number skyrockets to 9.5 percent. This is a baseline attribute that can almost be taken to the bank.

The next bankable attribute is the ability to simply hit the ball hard. Perhaps the most important metric within the hitter’s inputs, exit velocity has a direct relationship with success. Carlos Gonzalez sports an average exit velocity of 89.3 miles per hour over the last four years, ahead of the league average mark. That number creeps up even more when confined to facing righties.

Being that he’s left-handed, Gonzalez would be a primary candidate to rake at Progressive Field. If only it were that simple. He sprays it everywhere around the diamond, and hits a lot of balls on the ground. The benefits reaped from playing in a favorable park likely won’t be maximized in this capacity. In fact, the transition from Coors to Progressive will be a drastic one, going from hitter heaven to a relatively level playing field.

The Indians can count on walks and hard hits, but will also need him to be serviceable in right field, given that he’s likely on a delayed path to the fat side of that platoon. This time, a change in ballparks will do him a solid.

To start, Coors’ spacious outfield is very demanding of its patrollers. Huge gaps lead to a lot of uncertainty on the defensive end. Progressive Field is a bit more normal in the right field section. Familiarity with the position will help, as well. Right field is the only outfield spot he has manned since 2014.

Metrically, his outputs offer a brief look into the differences between defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR). One views recent Carlos Gonzalez as insufficient (DRS), while the other sheds a more positive light (UZR). Essentially, there are two major differences between the metrics:

  • UZR and DRS both function by grouping batted balls into buckets and assigning probabilities to the play. DRS’s buckets are much tighter, though questions exist as to whether these tighter groupings are statistically relevant.
  • DRS punishes fielders for missed ‘tweeners’ more, meaning plays that could have been made by multiple defenders are more strictly regulated.

The second bullet point is crucial here. Could Coors’ spacious outfield induce more ‘tweeners’ thanks to a higher concentration of questionable areas? It’s certainly possible, and reason to be optimistic about Carlos Gonzalez’s defensive capabilities in 2019.

There is little reason to doubt an aging Carlos Gonzalez’s ability to contribute to the Cleveland Indians in 2019. This is especially true if he is managed effectively through mitigation of plate appearances against lefties. He will hit the ball hard, draw walks, and defend adequately. Running into the occasional long ball will be the icing on the cake. At the very least, CarGo is objectively an upgrade over Tyler Naquin that adds a little name recognition to the lineup card.

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