Behind the convo that spurred Gonzales' big season

June 12th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf’s Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- The bad news was a little easier to accept because he suspected it was coming.

had spent his offseason revamping his swing after not being satisfied with what he did in his rookie campaign in 2023. He was the second of what would be a wave of young hitting prospects to crack the Majors that year, but he was lost in the shuffle and sent to the Minors after failing to produce, hitting just .209 with a .616 OPS in 35 games (128 plate appearances) with the Pirates. Gonzales and the team identified some things he wanted to work on with his swing, and he fully bought into it -- but he knew it would still take time.

Gonzales entered Spring Training in competition for the second-base job, but even though he was a first-round pick in 2020, most of the focus centered around Jared Triolo and Liover Peguero instead. He was only going to get 30 or so plate appearances at best, and how much could he actually show in just a handful of swings?

“I knew that going in I was behind the 8-ball a little bit in terms of making the team,” Gonzales said. “... I didn’t expect them to be in full belief that the adjustments had fully changed [me].”

Gonzales’ suspicions ended up coming to fruition, and he was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis by the end of camp. Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington expected him to take the news hard, and justifiably so. Instead, Gonzales wanted to know what the metrics on his new swing were and if he was on the right path to getting back to the Majors.

“Usually those conversations when [we say], 'Hey, you're going to Indy,' it stops there and no one listens,” Shelton said. “He had [a couple] questions back of, 'What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?'”

“In that case, he was just immediately ready to dive in and do exactly what he needed to do and what he needed from us,” Chernigton said, noting those conversations usually happen a few days after. “The immediacy of him being ready, knowing exactly what he needed and that's what stood out."

No player wants to return to the Minors after breaking through to The Show, but after getting good feedback on the swing changes, Gonzales knew he wasn’t going to be there for long. He was right, and after 30 games of being arguably the top hitter in the International League, he was promoted back to the Majors on May 10.

That success has carried over to the Majors, too. Gonzales has hit .308 with an .842 OPS since returning, and his 23 RBIs are tops in the National League since his promotion. The analytics support that this could be a breakout campaign, as his average exit velocity has jumped four mph (85.5 to 89.5) and he’s catching the sweet spot of the bat much more often (44.4% compared to 26.8%). Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, his sweet spot percentage is tied for the seventh best in the sport with last year’s NL batting average champion, Luis Arraez.

“I was really confident in the work I put in this offseason,” Gonzales said. “I knew I could go out to Triple-A and do what I can do and help the team.”

Those changes started late last year whenever hitting coach Andy Haines showed Gonzales video of his swing in college compared to in the Majors. It wasn’t a conscious decision and just a product of making many slight adjustments, but he noticed, “Holy cow, that stance in the video is not where I was.”

So Gonzales went back to what had worked. He stood more upright. He changed how he loaded his hands. He worked on his swing path to make sure he stayed in the zone longer. Everything he did was to make sure he stayed athletic.

“That’s helping me stay through stuff and staying aggressive,” Gonzales said. “Even if that’s swinging at a pitch that’s off [the plate], in, up or down. Whatever that may be, that’s helping me be more athletic and stay in the box.”

In turn, the game isn’t speeding up on him, and he is producing much more consistently. And when a young player gets a taste of success, confidence surely follows.

"Definitely feels good helping the team,” a smiling Gonzales said after a four-RBI performance last Wednesday. “That's the name of the game, to score runs, and if I can help the team and do that, then that's good."