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What Rockies outfielder Carlos González’s career decline looks like

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Carlos González is a known streaky hitter, but that trick can’t last forever.

Carlos González sat out a a couple of games last week with a sore calf muscle. The Rockies’ lineup didn’t exactly miss his bat, as he’s gotten off to an awful start in 2017. His absence might even have been something of a reprieve for the lineup, and maybe even for him, too.

Patrick Saunders at the Denver Post and Kevin Henry at Rox Pile both recently wrote about what the Rockies can and should do with CarGo. They agree that an extension should be off the table. Given the Rockies’ youthful outfield depth, that seems like a settled question. Another question that hasn’t received an answer supported by evidence is, just how bad has he been?

The first matter to get out of the way is the “CarGo always starts bad” myth. In his career, González has started the season well more often than not. This season marks CarGo’s eighth full season with the Rockies. In those years, he’s had three bad Aprils: 2011, 2015, and this season. He OPS’d over .900 in two consecutive Aprils, 2012 and 2013. If we count the one mediocre April he had, 2014, as bad, then CarGo has had four good and four bad starts in his Rockies’ tenure. That doesn’t mean his 2017 start is an exception, but it’s certainly not the rule.

Another similar response to CarGo’s start is that he’s streaky. This is true. We’ve seen him ice cold and red hot within the span of a few weeks before. These streaks just happen to not have taken place at the beginning of the season. Through Saturday, González has played in 27 games. Here is his 27-game rolling wOBA since 2010:

González has not only been this bad before, but he’s been worse—and in each of the past two seasons. He’s come back from it though. And yet, “CarGo’s been this bad before” doesn’t offer much solace, especially since we don’t have to travel too far back in time to find it.

The slices from 2015 and 2016 also highlight some worrying trends. In 2015, CarGo balanced his terrible start with an incredible stretch at the plate. That same sort of balance appeared in 2016, although while the valley was just as low as before, the peak was not quite as high. In both cases, CarGo ended up with two complete seasons that were about league average. As González ages, it’s natural to expect the valleys to look about the same, but without the balancing peaks.

In other words, we have to consider the hideous beast that is time. It’s useful here to draw a comparison to another player who began tailing off at the same age. Raúl Mondesí is a pretty good comparison. Mondesí broke out and won the NL Rookie of the Year award as a 23-year-old right fielder. González’s breakout year came in 2010, when he was 24.

Through age 30, Mondesí made 4,844 plate appearances and posted an OPS+ of 119. Through the same age, CarGo made 4,347 trips to the plate and produced the same 119 OPS+. Mondesí’s final years in baseball were unsettled. He played for two teams in his age 31, 32, and 33 seasons. His age 33 season was cut short due to a quad injury. He played a little bit in 2005 at 34 years old, but he wasn’t very good and soon retired. Through it all, Mondesí declined as a player but wasn’t totally ineffective. He posted a 96 OPS+ in his final years.

Another clue about how to judge González’s start is in how he’s being pitched. In 2016, CarGo saw the sixth fewest strikes of all qualified hitters. About 40 percent of the pitches he saw were inside of the zone. That can be seen a couple different ways. On the one hand, it could mean that pitchers don’t want to give CarGo anything juicy to hit. They want to be careful. On the other hand, it could mean that they don’t need to throw him pitches in the zone because he’ll bite at those down and outside pitches. So far in 2017, González is seeing the same percentage of pitches inside of the zone. The trouble is where in the zone they are:

That zone profile—that blotch of red right in the middle—shows that pitchers have not been wary of CarGo’s bat.

While it’s true that we currently have “extremely bad CarGo” glasses on, it’s easy to see González floating to several teams over the next few years once he becomes a free agent. Given the way he’s playing, he’s unlikely to land a multi-year contract after this season. That could all change if “extremely good CarGo” reappears again. In fact, we can be relatively sure that González’s numbers will improve, but that’s because they really can’t be much worse. We should not assume that the red hot version of CarGo will reappear. If he does, this article will look silly, but only for a little while.

Ultimately, this may be what Carlos González’s career decline looks like: more extended streaks of cold with increasingly milder spurts of hot. That can’t be fended off forever.