'Nick is the truth': Pirates' Gonzales eyeing sophomore encore

March 7th, 2022

Jonny Tucker vividly remembers the moment that he realized Nick Gonzales was "the truth."

The setting was the fall instructional league: Pirates versus Phillies. Gonzales, fresh out of school, was down in the count. No balls, two strikes. Philadelphia's pitcher was furiously firing fastballs that flirted with triple digits. Gonzales was no longer facing the Western Athletic Conference. These were pros with livelihoods on the line.

With Gonzales behind, this flamethrower didn’t play with his food. He went with a high fastball. He went for the dagger. When properly executed, it beats even baseball’s best batsmen. And, technically, Gonzales got beat. He didn’t strike out, but he didn’t reach base either, flying out to right field. To Tucker, the result came secondary to what he saw.

“Nick was so fast and so explosive to get to this pitch,” Tucker, the Pirates' Minor League hitting coordinator, said. “Right then, I was like, ‘Wow, that is different.’”

Tucker recalled this memory, a flyout to right field during fall instructionals in a meaningless game, with a vibrancy. A joy. Tucker knew Gonzales had been lauded for his elite bat speed, the tool that set him apart. He witnessed it firsthand, and his awe didn't fade with time.

“There’s something different about how he moves in the box,” Tucker said. “I’m sure I'm not the first one to make that proclamation about him.”

If not for Matt Fraizer’s breakout season, Gonzales, the No. 62 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, could’ve easily earned Honus Wagner Player of the Year honors. In 80 games, Gonzales hit .302/.385/.565. He slugged 18 home runs. His wRC+ was 150. The next step for Gonzales will be to dominate pitching at Double-A Altoona, where he’ll headline a team featuring many of the organization’s best and brightest.

As good as Gonzales’ raw numbers were, there are some areas worth addressing. His strikeout rate of 27.4% was shockingly high, more than double his rate at New Mexico State (13.3%). There’s also the factor of which Gonzales has no real control: environment.

Dating back to his time at university, Gonzales has benefitted from very hitter-friendly home environments. New Mexico State’s field is roughly 3,900 feet above sea level. Greensboro’s stadium is plain small. The result? Stark home-road splits.

In 41 home games last year, Gonzales had a 1.094 OPS. In 39 road games, he had an .804 OPS. Of his 18 home runs, 13 were in Greensboro. A similar trend unfolded at New Mexico State. Gonzales doesn’t choose where he plays, but where he plays has, to some degree, played into his perception.

To call Gonzales solely a product of his environment would be unfair. Part of the reason the Pirates selected him wasn’t just his time at New Mexico State, but his showing in the 2019 Cape Cod League. Against premier collegiate talent, Gonzales hit .351/.451/.630 with seven home runs in 42 games. He was the only player with an OPS over 1.000. He, unsurprisingly, won MVP. Should Gonzales continue to produce at Double-A Altoona, some doubt might begin to evaporate.

Along with his bat, it will be worth watching how and where Gonzales plays defensively. At New Mexico State, Gonzales frequented shortstop. With Greensboro, Gonzales captained the infield once. He hasn't left the position entirely; at Pirate City, Gonzales could be seen getting in work at his old stomping grounds.

With Liover Peguero by his side, Gonzales will likely continue to patrol second base. Working at shortstop, even in limited spurts, is not without its benefits.

“At second [base], sometimes you can rely on the arm, you can rely on your hands, you can rely on stuff like that,” Gonzales said. “But at short, that’s not really the case. Playing at short, whether it’s just in practice or maybe in a few games, that's really good for me.”

Gonzales also addressed the need to work on an aspect of his game that doesn’t show up in the stats: leadership. In contrast to Peguero, Gonzales acknowledges he’s more reserved. Leadership, though, does not take one form.

“Leadership is something everyone can work on and always get better at,” Gonzales said. “I pride myself on taking advantage of the opportunities I have here and being a good leader. I’ve constantly had growth in that aspect.”

Gonzales might be naturally quiet, but his bat is naturally loud. Since arriving at New Mexico State as a walk-on nearly four years ago, all Gonzales has done is hit, hit and hit some more. He's begun to gain believers. Should he keep hitting, Tucker and the Pirates won’t be the only ones singing his praises.

“Nick is the truth,” Tucker said.