We haven’t seen the real Nick Gonzales yet this year.
Gonzales is currently hitting for a .243/.363/.378 line in Double-A Altoona, with a 34.1% strikeout rate.
Those aren’t the numbers you’d expect from the 2020 1st rounder, who has always been highly regarded for his ability to make contact. Gonzales has struggled to make contact on the season, with a high strikeout rate and a low average that don’t match the scouting reports.
My thought is that many people in the industry can’t be this wrong. Watching Gonzales at times this year, he has looked lost chasing breaking pitches. At times, it looks like he’s hunting a fastball, and is way too aggressive out in front when he sees a breaking pitch that flashes high. Anthony Murphy had a great breakdown of that yesterday, showing how Gonzales has done a better job recently of keeping his quick hands back longer, relying on his best tool.
When I talked with Altoona manager Kieran Mattison this past weekend, he felt it was only a matter of time before things would start clicking for Gonzales.
“I think he’s been giving us more consistent, productive at-bats over the last ten games,” said Mattison. “He still reaches base a lot. He’s still getting on base and taking his walks. I think it’s a matter of time.”
That time may have already arrived.
When I talked with Mattison, Gonzales was just beginning what has now been extended to a seven game hitting streak, after going 2-for-5 with a double and a home run on Thursday night.
During this seven game stretch, Gonzales has a .481/.500/.814 line in 32 plate appearances, with a strikeout rate at 25%.
I wouldn’t say that is the real Nick Gonzales either.
This stretch has still seen bad swings at breaking stuff. Gonzales has gotten more consistent in that regard, and as Anthony pointed out yesterday, he had a big day against breaking pitches earlier this week by staying back.
Mattison felt that Gonzales just needed to try and make good decisions at the plate.
“I think that’s a start,” said Mattison. “The main thing is trying to keep that line drive approach like he does.”
On that note, Gonzales has seen a massive drop in line drives this year. His line drive rate has dropped from 27.9% last year in Greensboro to 16.7% this year in Altoona. The drop in line drives has been met with a rise in fly balls, going from 36.5% to 48.5%.
That’s not a great outcome for Gonzales.
The higher line drive rate matches up with his hitting profile, which is a high average hitter who can add some power through doubles and double-digit home runs.
The higher fly ball rate might turn Gonzales into a 20+ homer a year guy, but would drastically reduce his average, taking away the very thing that made him a first rounder and top prospect all along.
It’s still early, and there have been some positive signs lately.
As the first draft pick under Ben Cherington, Gonzales will represent the first big test of the new player development system. That system is ultimately looking to improve upon how many players reach their upsides in Pittsburgh.
Gonzales is widely regarded as a guy who could be an above-average starter in the majors, fueled by his bat and ability to hit for a high average. His start to the season — following his previous numbers coming in hitter friendly environments — left some concern that perhaps his future above-average starter projection might be in question.
I don’t think we’ve seen the real Nick Gonzales yet.
That player exists in the vast space between the overall 2022 numbers from Gonzales, and the monster numbers over the last week, and may have an approach at the plate different than either of those extremes.
As I wrote on Tuesday, this Altoona group is where Cherington’s plan seems to begin. This team has a lot of the biggest investment prospects under Cherington, including Gonzales. We don’t yet know if this new player development approach will lead to better results than the past. That will be shown in a big way when we see the results from this group.
When we see the real Nick Gonzales.