Ask Alex: Will Carlos Gonzalez take a step back in 2011?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: Last year, Carlos Gonzalez took his place as one of the most exciting players in the game, hitting 34 homers, stealing 26 bases, playing all three outfield positions, and finishing third in the MVP race. Acquired from the Oakland Athletics in the Matt Holliday trade, he's only 25, and the Rockies couldn't bear the thought of him playing anywhere else — so they locked him up to a seven year, $80 million contract this offseason. It looks like everything's coming up Milhouse for Carlos Gonzalez.

The Question: Can Gonzalez avoid taking a step back in 2011? {YSP:MORE}

The Analysis: Gonzalez has power and speed, but a dropoff is likely. He isn't yet a fully-rounded player. Defensive stats suggest that his defense isn't stellar, particularly in center field. (He seems to be better in left, where he's likely to play the majority of 2011.) More importantly, and more worryingly, he has below-average plate discipline. He struck out more than three times as often as he walked last year, and he only walked in 6.3 percent of his plate appearances, several points below the major league average. He saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than the average hitter yet swung and missed and struck out more often than the average hitter.

Bryan Kilpatrick at Purple Row and Albert Lyu at Fangraphs argue that his plate discipline is getting better. As Kilpatrick notes, "He drew 29 of his 40 walks from July 1st on." And Lyu points out that over the last three years, he has been controlling the count better, getting ahead in the count more and behind in the count less. Continuing to improve his plate discipline will be absolutely key to his future success, if he ever wants to repeat his 2010 numbers, let alone improve them.

Gonzalez is awfully dangerous when he connects, of course, but he relies on an overly high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) to do it. Last year, his .336 batting average was thanks in large part to a .384 BABIP, third-highest in all of baseball, and it's virtually guaranteed to decline — probably to somewhere around his career mark of .355 — and pull his batting average down with it by about 30 points. (That number is high, but not unreasonably so, considering that he's a Rockie. Last year, hitters had a .326 BABIP at Coors Field, 29 points higher than the major league average .297 BABIP.) Of course, if enough hits turned into outs to bring his batting average down by 30 points, that would also drain 20-40 points each from his OBP and SLG. So it's reasonable to assume that he'll lose at least 50 points of OPS.

The other elephant in the room is his home/road splits, which are so huge they look like a typo. Last year, on the road, he hit a decent but unspectacular .281/.330/.458; at home, he hit an absurd .380/.425/.737. The split was so massive that Joe Posnanski speculated that playing in Colorado might have made it harder for him to hit on the road. That's hard to prove — last year, Troy Tulowitzki's home OPS was just 171 points higher than his road OPS, while Gonzalez's was 386 points higher — but as long as Carlos keeps playing half his games in a place where he slugs .700, he'll continue to post star numbers.

The Forecast for 2011: This year will see a step back for Gonzalez, but not necessarily a drastic one, particularly if he can increase his walks to help compensate for his batting average, which is almost certain to fall. He's still a good bet for 20-30 stolen bases and 25-30 homers.

Bill James and ZiPS are virtually indistinguishable in their projections: Bill James projects .308/.357/.545 with 28 HR, 101 RBI, and 22 stolen bases, while ZiPS projects .306/.354/.533 with 27 HR, 103 RBI, and 23 stolen bases. That sounds about right, and I won't deviate from their predictions. I think he's a good bet to hit .300/.350/.540 with 27 homers and 22 stolen bases. Tulowitzki is the best player on the team, but Gonzalez is a strong second, and the Rockies will have them together for nearly the entire decade. Gonzalez may have just had his career year, but as long as he stays healthy, and particularly if he can learn to take a few more walks, he'll have many good campaigns ahead.

Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?How many games will the Astros win?Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?Will Neil Walker be a top 10 second baseman?Can Zack Greinke win the NL Cy Young award?Can Manny still be Manny at 39?Is this a breakout season for Jay Bruce's power?Can the Mariners offense rebound?

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