Photo credit: USA Today

By Gavin Potter

When Cleveland started the 2022 campaign, the corner outfield spots were absolutely a concern. Last year, Harold Ramirez, Oscar Mercado, Eddie Rosario, Jordan Luplow, and Josh Naylor/Franmil Reyes occupied the position (that sound you heard was Gavin gagging). 

This year, left field belongs to 25-year-old Steven Kwan and his 115 wRC+ and Gold Glove-caliber defense. Handling Center Field is Myles Straw, who, despite heavy struggles on offense this season, is elite defensively.

But what about right field? Oscar Gonzalez has the position manned now – slashing .296/.328/.471 (125 wRC+) in 271 PAs – but is he the RF of the future?

Let’s look at the good stuff first:

Physically, he’s impressive. He’s bigger – listed at 6’4, 240 lbs – but also runs at a 28.9 ft/s that puts him in the 90th percentile of MLB players. He’s strong, too: his max exit velocity is 113.1 mph – good for #57 among MLB hitters*, and even is impressive anecdotally:

His arm strength is very good, too. His ARM rating by StatCast is 9th in baseball, and he can make throws like this:

In 504 PAs between AA/AAA last year, he absolutely crushed LHP. As a 23-year-old, he had a 1.008 OPS vs LHP.

Batting comps based on stats include Buster Posey, Michael Conforto, and Gleyber Torres, per Baseball Savant.

Clearly, there is a lot to like. However, he has a few less-favorable qualities too. 

The biggest reason for skepticism is Gonzalez’s lack of patience. His walk rate is only 4.1% – t-33rd* worst in MLB. Only four other MLB players* had a sub-5% walk rate and also ranked 100th or better* in wRC+ in so far in 2022.

Gonzalez is also ultra-aggressive, and doesn’t have the high-end contact ability that might help offset some of that:

StatOscar Gonzalez in 2022MLB Rank*

His lack of walks makes his offensive production heavily-reliant on his batted ball results, as we can see by looking at his 2022 season so far:

And, although his arm strength and speed are both excellent, his actual ability to play the outfield, per the metrics, is mediocre. Gonzalez has been worth -2 Outs About Average, Ultimate Zone Rating gives him a 4.8 UZR/150, and he has 1 Defensive Run Saved.

Gonzalez may be strong, but his tendency to hit ground balls wastes his strength (Yandy Diaz anyone?). Gonzalez’s 50% ground ball rate is 64th in baseball*, but his 36.1% hard hit (95+ mph) rate is 56th*.

It’s worth noting that Gonzalez is just 24. You probably could expect at least a little improvement in his defense and ground ball rate. 

The low walk rate/patience issue is his biggest hurdle. He had a 5.5% walk rate in 199 PAs at AA last year, and that’s around the minimum he’d need going forward to be an above-average hitter. 

ZiPS says Gonzalez would only be worth .7 WAR next year, and the projection systems say he’ll only be a 110-115 wRC+ hitter for the rest of the season.

Projection SystemO. Gonzalez ROS wRC+

Along with the projections being skeptical, Gonzalez’s expected wOBA (.323) is lower than his real wOBA (.343).

No doubt, Gonzalez *should* regress, based on the data. But, to date, he hasn’t. He’s had his opportunity – 271 PAs – and he’s run with it. The guys he’s competing with – Steven Kwan, Nolan Jones, Will Benson, Richie Palacios, Will Brennan, and George Valera – are all left-handed hitters. At the very least, he can likely platoon with someone. 

I feel comfortable rolling with Gonzalez until any possible regression does come. So far, he’s been the exception to the rule…maybe that continues.

* among hitters with 100+ PAs

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