Who is Oscar Gonzalez? Meet the Guardians playoff hero giving Yankees fans flashbacks to David Ortiz

You wouldn’t blame New York Yankees fans if they’re having flashbacks to 2004, when burgeoning Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz kept coming up in key October moments, and kept beating them. The new thorn in their side — responsible for the decisive moments in both Cleveland Guardians wins in the American League Division Series — probably isn’t thinking about that. He was, after all, only 6 years old at the time. His name is Oscar Gonzalez. He’s now 24, with less than 100 MLB games under his belt, but he’s quickly writing himself a similar chapter in playoff lore.

Like a version of Yordan Alvarez no one knew to be worried about, or a second coming of Big Papi, three of the Guardians' four postseason wins thus far have rung out from Gonzalez's bat — via go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later.

The whirlwind of name-making hits is accumulating quickly, not unlike the Guardians rallies they tend to punctuate.

So with Aaron Judge's Bronx Bombers on the brink heading into Sunday night's ALDS Game 4, who is the man who keeps ending up at the bottom of Cleveland dogpiles?

Oscar Gonzalez, the baby-faced Guardians basher who has already logged three go-ahead hits this postseason, completed a rally to stun the Yankees in ALDS Game 3. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
Oscar Gonzalez, the baby-faced Guardians basher who has already logged three go-ahead hits this postseason, completed a rally to stun the Yankees in ALDS Game 3. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

Who is budding Guardians hero Oscar Gonzalez?

If you must know one thing about Gonzalez, know that he will get his cuts in.

A rookie in 2022, he is an extremely strong and extremely swing-happy corner outfielder. Among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2022, only five went around more often than Gonzalez. Signed out of the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez didn’t ascend easily through the minors, didn’t register on top prospect lists. As recently as this winter, he appeared overmatched in the Dominican Winter League. Any team could have taken him in the past two Rule 5 drafts, a winking callback to Ortiz’s release by the Minnesota Twins, and no one did.

His lack of patience at the plate surely played into it. A 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual assessment noted that he had produced against low-level minor league pitching, but faced an uphill battle because he “walks less frequently than an astronaut in space.” That particular part hasn’t changed, but his action-packed approach, to put it kindly, may have actually helped him get on the radar. It jibed with a Cleveland offense swinging to its own beat.

Putting the bat on the ball often, if not optimally, has become the trademark of the surprise AL Central champions.

The top of Cleveland’s lineup — MLB’s youngest in 2022 — goes with some version of this every night: Jose Ramirez and five hitters 26 or younger. Gonzalez has mostly slotted in fifth, displacing Franmil Reyes as the right-hander sandwiched between lefties Josh Naylor and Andrés Giménez.

Less a murderers row than a pickpockets procession, the group has distinguished itself for zigging toward any and all contact as the league zags toward power. No one — except perhaps a defiant team Twitter account empowered by the Guardians’ underdog run — would call this the best way to construct an offense, but if you’re going to do it, going all in is really your only hope.

At least for now, the muscular Gonzalez has combined extreme bat-to-ball skill with enough pop to produce in the majors. He batted .296 in his 91-game rookie season, with 11 homers and a 19% strikeout rate well below the MLB average. If you're looking for a comparable player, you might think of Gonzalez as a right-handed Corey Dickerson — reliably good batting average, some homers and acceptable defense in a corner outfield slot. You don't want him to be the best player on your team, but you certainly wouldn't mind seeing him step in against a nasty relief pitcher.

Gonzalez’s latest walk-off, in Saturday night’s Game 3, was fittingly the fifth single of a ninth-inning rally that snowballed on a beleaguered Yankees bullpen.

How do Oscar Gonzalez's postseason heroics stack up historically?

Already, his three go-ahead hits in the ninth inning or later are tied for the most in postseason history, with Ortiz and potential ALCS opponent Jose Altuve, among others. His two playoff walk-offs make him one of just nine hitters in MLB history with more than one. Only Ortiz and Carlos Correa have three.

And along with his slash-and-dash teammates, Gonzalez accomplished something with Saturday’s rally that neither Ortiz nor anyone else has managed against the Yankees: a playoff comeback from multiple runs down in the ninth.

Wait, is that the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ theme song?

Oh right, so the 24-year-old shows his age — and perhaps his cool-headed nature — in one very noticeable way.

He uses the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song as his walk-up music, a disarming choice that stands in stark contrast to the intimidating choices of say, a closer, or even the typical pump-up jams of a slugger.

Gonzalez, through an interpreter, told the Washington Post earlier this month that he originally chose the song in the minors and brought it with him to Cleveland.

“I thought that was something the kids would love,” he said, “so that’s why I chose it.”

Should we have seen his star turn coming?

Well, no. Even the best hitters in baseball aren’t likely to pull off a run like this, simply because very few hitters will get the opportunities to come through like Gonzalez has.

But given those chances, he was perhaps a good candidate to do something with them. Like a baseball adaptation of the adage that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, Gonzalez was not likely to be shorted on swings. His historic hits have come on pitches a great many major leaguers wouldn't have swung at or made contact with. One was a cutter, another a curveball and in Game 3, a slider that probably wasn’t even going to be a strike.

Guardians outfielder Oscar Gonzalez's walk-off swing against the Yankees in ALDS Game 3 wasn't a picture-perfect cut, but it got the job done. (Image courtesy
Guardians outfielder Oscar Gonzalez's walk-off swing against the Yankees in ALDS Game 3 wasn't a picture-perfect cut, but it got the job done. (Image courtesy

That’s not a pitch a coach would advise you to swing at in most circumstances, but with two strikes it was too close to stare at. Gonzalez's confidence against swerving pitches is at least partially empowering this run. A relative imperviousness to breaking balls equips him well for late-inning postseason battles against a barrage of spin-heavy relievers. There were 263 hitters who saw at least 400 breaking balls this year, and Gonzalez ranked in the top 30 in both batting average and slugging percentage, according to Statcast.

Pitchers use those offerings because they're hard to square up, hard to even touch. That lunging swing is not going to produce a homer, but it can get two fast runners in if they're already in scoring position. This indisputably plucky Guardians team is serving up opportunities for a hitter like Gonzalez to make his swings count. So far, he has not missed.

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