Last week we talked about Chris Taylor of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his unusual career path. The Houston Astros have their own version of Taylor: super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez. Like Taylor, Gonzalez as a prospect was quite different than the Gonzalez who hit .303/.375/.530 this year. Let’s take a look.
Marwin Gonzalez was signed by the Chicago Cubs as a free agent from Venezuela in 2005. The first time I saw him play was with Peoria in the Midwest League in 2008, where he hit just .224/.240/.284 in 116 at-bats. At the time he was known for his defense but his bat didn’t stand out as anything impressive or special.
He hit a tad better in 2009 (.242/.287/.309 in High-A) and 2010 (.246/.284/.351 in Double-A) but again, nothing special either statistically or scouting-wise. Defensive versatility was his best attribute.
Changes began in 2011: he hit .288/.343/.400 between Double-A and Triple-A. I saw him a couple of times for Triple-A Iowa. Compared to what he looked like with Peoria three years before, he was more mature physically and hit the ball with a bit more authority, but still didn’t strike me as anything more than a future utility infielder.
He wasn’t protected by the Cubs and was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the ‘11 Rule 5 draft, who then traded him to the Astros. I wrote this report entering 2012:
Marwin Gonzalez was signed by the Cubs out of Venezuela in 2005. He had a decent season in the high minors in 2011 but wasn’t protected on the 40-man roster. The Red Sox drafted him in Rule 5 then traded him to the Astros, who will give him a shot as a utility player in spring training. Gonzalez’s best position is second base, but he’s not bad at shortstop and can also play some third base and outfield without hurting you. He is a line drive contact hitter with a mediocre performance record; his best attribute is that he doesn’t strike out much. Grade C.
Gonzalez’s first season with Houston was, well, about what you’d expect given his past track record, hitting just .234/.280/.327 but showing versatile defense. He built from there, posting similar seasons in ‘14 (.277/.327/.400) and ‘15 (.279/.317/.442), showing a gradual increase in isolated power. Although his production in ‘16 slipped a bit (.254/.293/.401), he saw a large increase in playing time.
2017 has been the best by far: .303/.375/.530, 34 doubles, 23 homers, 49 walks, 99 strikeouts in 455 at-bats. He’s set career-best marks in all positive offensive categories except triples and steals. He hit for a 144 wRC+ and totaled 4.1 fWAR.
OK, so what gives?
Back in May, Scott Strandberg at Fangraphs looked at Gonzalez and noted two key adjustments: more patience, and some changes to his batting stance, mainly a more closed stance that helped boost his production from the left side of the plate.
From the prospect tracking point of view, there was nothing in Gonzalez’s track record to indicate a breakout like this was likely. His best attribute as a minor league prospect was the ability to make contact. He did show some gradually increasing power as he matured physically, which happens for many players, but usually not to this extent. There was no reason to think he’d hit 23 homers someday.
Can he maintain this for subsequent seasons? The honest answer: I don’t know. I do think that the changes are real; he didn’t just get lucky, he made some legitimate improvements in his approach and I don’t think this is all a result of a juiced baseball.
He was a much more patient hitter this year, again something that was out of context for his career and not easily foreseen. Many impatient hitters try to adopt more selective approaches. Few pull it off.
As for the future, my guess is that 2017 will be the peak of his career and that he’ll settle in somewhere between what he did in 2016 and what he did in ‘17. He’s a career .268/.317/.421 hitter in 1977 major league at-bats and I’d expect him to hover around that slash line territory the next few years.