The fundamental idea behind sabermetrics is to come to objective assessments about players. For a great many who promote themselves as “experts” based on their command of stats, there remains a reactive – and admirably natural, albeit unadmitted – response when players are not performing. Such was the case with Adrian Gonzalez throughout spring training with the New York Mets. After his grand slam Sunday night in Washington and now that Gonzalez has performed reasonably well both offensively and defensively in the admittedly very early going of the regular season, there is no longer the demand that the Mets release him and do something different (Jay Bruce, Wilmer Flores, Dominic Smith) at the position.
On one level, it was fully understandable for there to be so visceral a response to Gonzalez’s weak spring. He batted .207 in 58 at-bats with 1 home run and 2 doubles. He looked old and slow. Were he fighting for a job, he would certainly have lost.
But he wasn’t fighting for a job. That’s the key point.
Even at age 36, given his history as a former superstar player and that he cost the league minimum of $545,000 after his release by the Atlanta Braves, multiple teams were interested in him. Like a marketable free agent, the key for the player is what is best for him personally. Gonzalez was marketable for different reasons than a top-tier free agent would be, but he still held certain cards that allowed him the freedom to choose where he wanted to go based on the key factor at this juncture in his career: playing time. The Mets offered it without him needing to earn his way onto the roster. If that was not the case, he would not have signed with the Mets, relegating completely irrelevant his spring training performance and how rickety he looked.
Gonzalez’s spring training was not about getting hits and earning his way onto the roster or into the lineup. A “hands” hitter who relies on his reactions and his discerning eye at the plate, Gonzalez was simply getting his timing down and preparing his body and bad back for the grind of the long season. He was not trying to make a team. While it might be reasonable to think that a player who is well past his prime – regardless of how great he was during that prime – could contribute nothing of note after that ghastly spring training performance and how terrible he looked, it should not be forgotten that Gonzalez was very good as recently as two seasons ago and his 2017 season was sabotaged by that bad back.
He has not been vintage Gonzalez, but his .805 OPS, patience at the plate and solid defense are still in place. Should he be unable to maintain that or get hurt, the Mets have numerous options to replace him, so they can maximize his production for as long as it lasts and figure something else out as the season moves along.
It was preposterous to think he was “done” and the Mets should release him when the options they had were also rife with questions. Gonzalez serves as a prime example of the fundamental flaw of armchair expertise: there are unknowns such as what the player was told when he signed and what he was doing with his at-bats during the spring.
Had he not been given the clear promises that he would get every opportunity to play based on his regular season performance, he would not have signed with the Mets in the first place. The team is currently benefiting in a way they would not have had they adhered to the ignorant calls to release him in the spring. It may not last, but considering his cost, any contribution he makes is worth it.