Commentary

Adrian Gonzalez suited for Fenway

Numbers show he'd benefit from playing in Boston

Updated: December 4, 2010, 9:12 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN Stats & Information

(Editor's note: This piece originally ran on Dec. 4, 2009 but we're bringing it back to the surface after the news that the Red Sox are on the verge of landing Adrian Gonzalez. All numbers are through the 2009 season.)

"Perfect for Fenway." Those words -- or some variation of them -- have been used to describe countless players supposedly destined for Red Sox greatness. Some have panned out; some haven't.

Gonzalez
Gonzalez

Now, another name has been deemed worthy of the title: San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez. But is Gonzalez deserving of the honor? And what does it even mean?

With the shallow, 37-foot Green Monster in left field, Fenway provides the Red Sox with a strategic mission: Find players who take advantage of the unique dimensions of the park. As a result, driving the ball to left field is seen as a favorable trait.

On the most basic level, "perfect for Fenway" gets assigned to three types of hitters. The most common usage deals with right-handed pull hitters (think Mike Lowell). Second, lefties who drive the ball to the opposite field (think Wade Boggs). Finally, switch-hitters who are the best of both worlds (think Bill Mueller).

So how can Gonzalez, a player without a plate appearance at Fenway, already be a perfect fit? Let's take a closer look at the numbers.

According to data supplied by Inside Edge, a scouting service that charts such information, Gonzalez hit 21 home runs to left field in the 2009 season, easily the most among left-handed hitters. (Joe Mauer was next with 16.)

Amazingly, 16 of Gonzalez's 21 opposite-field bombs came on the road. That's as many as the next two lefties combined.

Those road numbers are important because they help explain Gonzalez's allure. He put up outstanding totals while playing half his games in Petco Park, one of the least hitter-friendly venues in baseball. In fact, he hit only 12 of his 40 home runs at home. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became just the third player in MLB history to hit 40 or more home runs with 12 or fewer coming at home, joining Jason Giambi (2003) and Jeff Bagwell (1999). Just imagine what Gonzalez could do while playing in a favorable home ballpark. The sky's the limit. Or maybe the Mass Pike is.

However, as Greg Rybarczyk from hittrackeronline.com notes, it would be a mistake to focus only on home runs.

"The left fields at Fenway Park and Petco are physically very different, but they are quite similar in the number of home runs they allow," Rybarczyk said.

Hit Tracker analysis of Gonzalez's 2009 home runs suggests he would lose a handful of line-drive homers at Fenway, but he could be expected to gain back some home runs from shorter, high flies to left that would clear the Monster but fall short at Petco.

"Gonzalez's home run total would not be strongly affected by a move to Boston," Rybarczyk said. "The main difference in his production would be an increase in doubles. Virtually all of the home runs that the Green Monster takes away turn into doubles, and the shorter distance to the left-field wall in Boston will also turn some routine fly balls into wall-scraping doubles."

Indeed, the key statistic to consider at Fenway Park is doubles.

This past season, 374 doubles were hit at Fenway. That was 39 more than at the next park (Arizona's Chase Field) and a stunning 160 more than at Petco. In six of the past seven seasons, more doubles occurred in Fenway Park than in any other venue.

So while Gonzalez's home run totals might not see a spike if he wears a Red Sox uniform, his doubles most likely would. This past season, he had 29 extra-base hits going the other way, tied for sixth in the majors among left-handed hitters. However, only six of those were doubles, placing him tied for 94th among lefties, ranking among the likes of Brayan Pena and Gabe Gross. Petco severely sapped Gonzalez's chances of hitting a double to the opposite field.

With so few opposite-field doubles, what evidence is there to suggest he'd fare better elsewhere? Just take a look at his extreme rate of hitting fly balls when going the other way. Of Gonzalez's balls put in play to the opposite field, 85 percent were fly balls. When pulling the ball, just 41 percent were fly balls. In other words, when he goes to the opposite field, it's in the air. Many balls likely to be caught in Petco would be peppering the Green Monster.

This past season, no lefty had a higher opposite-field fly ball percentage than David Ortiz (90.2) and J.D. Drew (87.1). That's no coincidence. Epstein has excelled at bringing in players who can take advantage of Fenway's unique configuration. Even Adam LaRoche, who ranked third on the list, had a brief stint with the club last season. Gonzalez ranked seventh but had more total balls the other way than anyone above him. With his youth and power, Gonzalez just might be the ultimate Fenway prize.

That's not to say there aren't potential pitfalls. Past results take you only so far. Not every "perfect for Fenway" hitter has panned out.

A quick survey of Boston newspaper archives over the past 25 years reveals the hits and misses of the "perfect for Fenway" label.

Some -- Manny Ramirez, Lowell, Mueller -- were unequivocal successes. Others excelled, albeit in short stints. Gonzalez would be the most hyped since the Red Sox acquired Jose Canseco from Texas in 1994. When healthy, he didn't disappoint, hitting 27 home runs with a 1.018 OPS in 95 home games with the Sox. Like Canseco, Todd Walker and Nick Esasky were hugely successful in brief Fenway careers.

Then, there's Tony Clark. Known for driving the ball to left-center, Clark was a classic Fenway switch-hitter -- or so it seemed. He was a .382 hitter at Fenway before joining the Red Sox. In his forgettable 2002 campaign, Clark hit just .215 at home. (And speaking of Clarks, how about Jack Clark for you old-timers?)

Not everyone lives up to the lofty expectations of being "perfect for Fenway." But Tony Clark was no Adrian Gonzalez, and all the numbers point to Gonzalez thriving.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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