Although he has yet to sign a long-term contract extension, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Adrian Gonzalez will be a Boston Red Sox (Sock?) for a very long time. That’s bad news for Yankees fans, because we’re going to be stuck seeing one of the game’s very best hitters 18+ times a year for the better part of the next decade. I don’t think he’ll be the next David Ortiz (a.k.a. a stone-cold Yankees killer), but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he turns into that guy.
Gonzalez has a reputation as an opposite field hitter and deservedly so. He’s hit 48 homers to the opposite field over the last three seasons, six more than anyone else in baseball. His .535 wOBA to the opposite field is second only to Ryan Howard’s (.606) during that time. Of course Gonzalez can certainly pull the ball as well, posting a .374 wOBA on balls hit in that direction since 2008. He’s just more productive when he’s driving the ball the other way.
The chart to the right shows the percentage of ground balls Gonzalez has hit to each field over the last three seasons. This is slightly different than the data found on FanGraphs’ splits page because their stuff is expressed as a percentage of the balls hit to that specific field. My rates are based on all balls put in play, regardless of field. Capisce? Capisce.
Anyway, the chart shows that nearly one out of every four balls Adrian has put in play since 2008 has been a grounder to the right side. Another 13.2% have been grounders back up-the-middle, so that’s more than 36% of his balls in play being hit on the ground between the shortstop’s approximate location and first base. For every 25 balls he’s put in play, just one is a grounder to the opposite field. Those are some drastic percentages, something the Yankees can exploit by using an infield shift.
On the flip side, here’s similar data for Gonzalez’s fly balls. Almost two out of every ten balls in play over the last three years has been a fly ball to left, plus another 13.1% to center. That means 31.1% of his balls in play have been a fly ball to left-center-ish field. Between that and the ground ball tendencies mentioned in the last paragraph, two out of every three balls Adrian puts in play are either a fly ball to left/center or a grounder to the right side/up-the-middle. Pretty good odds.
I’m not sure how teams have been playing Gonzalez over the last few seasons, but there appears to be a very real advantage to be gained by employing some … let’s call it “optimized positioning.” Based on Adrian’s batted ball tendencies outlined above, I’d align my fielders like so when he’s at the plate…
Obviously this isn’t terribly precise, so don’t kill me over the artwork. Rather, it’s just a general defensive alignment based on what Adrian is likely to do on a given ball in play. The brown splotches are non-catcher fielders by the way, and the original spray chart comes from Texas Leaguers. The quick-and-dirty explanation is that I would shade the center fielder over towards left-center while employing the full-blown infield shift. That means the second baseman on the right field grass, the shortstop playing where the second baseman usually is, and the third baseman playing short. If a ball is squibbed down the third base line, so be it. It’ll happen every so often, but you’re trading that occasional extra hit for (theoretically) several additional outs elsewhere.
The Yankees do have a nice advantage in the outfield when it comes to combating Gonzalez’s opposite field tendencies because Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson can flat out get after balls. Nick Swisher, the least rangy of the outfield trio, will see the fewest fly balls off Adrian’s bat come his way. Perhaps Grandy’s and Gardy’s speed means they won’t have the shade towards left so dramatically.
Would the Yankees do something like this? Who the hell knows. I would expect to see the infield shift employed before the outfield shift, though I suppose there’s a chance they’d do both simultaneously. The important thing is that the pitcher keeps the ball down in the zone. If he doesn’t and ends up elevating a ball to Gonzalez, it’s not going to matter where the fielders are positioned.