Complexity and Adrian Gonzalez

PHOENIX -- Had a fantastic conversation with Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy on Tuesday -- then again, as Jack Nicholson once said of grave danger, “is there another kind?” Brandon is obviously one of the more fascinating thinkers in the game. I’ll have much more of our talk on Friday in my NBC Big Read on the Los Angeles Dodgers, but one little side road of the conversation was about the hopelessness of trying to quantify the billions of infinitesimal variables that make up baseball.

For instance, Brandon was saying -- you have two baseball players of equal physical talent. He admits that this, in itself, is an impossibility -- if all snowflakes are different, obviously, all ballplayers are. But we’re talking about surface similarities, you have two players who scouts think are 65 hitters, have 60 power, are 55 runners and have 65 arms (remember the scouting scale tends to go from 20 to 80, with with 50 being about average, 60 above average, 65 well above average, 70 being perennial All-Star and 80 being Willie Mays).

Those two players both have the same talent, at least as far as the eye can see.

So, Brandon wonders -- as countless people have wondered -- why is it that one player turns out to be a superstar while the other drowns in Class AA? Why is it one becomes a reasonably steady journeyman in the big leagues, another becomes a four-time All-Star who opens a restaurant named after him in town, and another gets DFA’d after getting so many chances that the local bloggers have named mock awards after him?

Is it something that we SHOULD be able to measure but can’t? Eyesight? Baseball acumen? Intelligence? Or does it come down to the countless little human things that we would never be able to measure? One had a caring coach when he was 14. One played on a winning little league team at 12. One had a selfless mother who made sure he never missed a practice. One had a knack for telling jokes and so was popular in school. One got bullied. One was a bully. One liked football better. One had home-cooked meals nightly. One went to a private school. One got dumped by his girlfriend one day before the championship game where 50 scouts watched him. One sings in the shower. One grew up where it rains a lot. One likes to read. One sleeps like a rock. One is accident prone. One listens to music constantly. One grew up without a father. One is the son of a pro ballplayer. One never watches baseball. One can do dead-on impressions. One gets horrible stage fright. One lost their 8-year-old championship game with an error. One collected baseball cards. One is a Democrat. One likes spicy food.

You could go on like this until forever and you would never reach the end, never cover all the variables. Maybe each of these variables is entirely beside the point. Maybe some are not. We could never know for sure. Do we even understand the forces in our own lives? It is possible -- probable even -- that every player constantly has a secret reason why they are performing great or why they are not performing, something deeply personal, something they might not share with anyone. And it is possible they are wrong about themselves too.

From Citizen Kane, this might be my favorite ever piece of dialogue in a movie -- this from Mr. Bernstein, an old man who was reminiscing about what people remember:

“Mr. Thompson, a fellow will remember things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry. And as we pulled out there, there was another ferry pulling in … and on it … there was a girl … waiting to get off. … A white dress she had on and she was carrying a white parasol. I saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Haunting stuff. I think Brandon McCarthy still enjoys baseball numbers and what they can reveal about baseball that is surprising and counterintuitive and so on. But I sense that he is drifting more into this world and wondering more about the hidden mental and emotional forces that shape the game.

Which, somehow, brings us to Los Angeles Adrian Gonzalez.

A few years ago, Adrian Gonzalez was one of my favorite players in baseball. He still is in some ways, but it’s different now. He’s different now. What I loved about Adrian Gonzalez in 2008 and 2009 was that he seemed to have every single aspect of the game tilting against him. He played for dreadful teams. He played on the West Coast, meaning the vast majority of his games played while most of America slept. He played in what was probably the worst hitter’s ballpark in the game. If you were given an FBI mission to hide the best hitter in baseball, and you had unlimited power, you could do worse than to put him on the 2008 and 2009 San Diego Padres.

And so, when I had a chance, I would be sure to watch Adrian Gonzalez’s at-bats. He really was something. Numbers tell part of it. In 2008, he hit .279/.361/.510 with 36 homers, 119 RBIs, 103 runs. He played every game. The next year, he hit .277/.407/.551 with 40 homers, 99 RBIs, 90 runs and a league leading 119 walks. To get those numbers in San Diego when he did -- miraculous. And he paid deeply to do this. You couldn’t miss that. He seemed to give up a little piece of himself with every at-bat. The games were often hopeless, the crowds often sparse and sedate, the point of it all often blurred. And he would fight off pitches and let close ones go by and turn on the rare mistakes and soldier on while facing pitcher after pitcher after pitcher who saw no real reason to challenge him.

This is the sort of thing that gets inside me. I remember a few years ago watching as the Kansas City Chiefs -- at the end of another lost season -- put the great Will Shields at left tackle. Shields will go into the Hall of Fame someday as a guard because he was one of the greatest in the history of the game. But the Chiefs had an unusual spate of injuries, and the season was over anyway, and so they put Shields at left tackle for the first time since he was in High School.

And I still remember the day so clearly. It was a numbingly cold day. All around was disinterest … you got the feeling that nobody REALLY wanted to be there; the irrelevance of it all hung over the place like fog. Only there was Will Shields, the pro’s pro, the man who never once missed a start in 14 seasons, the 12-time Pro Bowler and NFL Man of the Year who was sometimes sullen, who was sometimes in pain he would not discuss, who would melt before children … and he played SO HARD that day that I still think of it as one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in sports. It did not matter at all. And that’s what made it matter so much.

That was the Adrian Gonzalez I would watch in awe when he played for San Diego.

I watched Adrian Gonzalez again this week as a member of the Dodgers. It was fine. Gonzalez is having a good year. Again it is partially masked by the ballpark where he plays -- .the unspectacular looking 292/.340/.459 is good for a 124 OPS+ because of the vastness of Dodger Stadium. He should drive in 100 RBIs for the sixth time in the last seven years, and the one year he missed he drove in 99. He has been a constant drumbeat for a team that has rocketed and plummeted depending on which of their stars was healthy enough to play that day.

But the Adrian Gonzalez I watched this week was not like the Adrian Gonzalez I loved in San Diego. The differences were not subtle. This Gonzalez did not seem in control. He swung at a few shockingly bad pitches. He seemed a rush to get in and out of at-bats. He offered a couple of meek at-bats with runners in scoring position. Like I say, he’s still an outstanding player and I watched him launch a long home run against lefty Patrick Corbin. But it still wasn’t the same.

You probably are aware of the decline in Adrian Gonzalez’s walks. It’s particularly precipitous when dealing with ALL walks -- from 119 in 2009 to 44 this year -- but for the moment let’s focus on unintentional walks:

2007: 56 unintentional walks.

2008: 56 walks.

2009: 97 walks.

2010: 58 walks.

2011: 54 walks.

2012: 37 walks.

2013: 36 walks.

Gonzalez is drawing about 20 fewer unintentional walks a year than he was, and about 60 fewer walks than his amazing 2009 season. He has gone from an excessively patient hitter to something of a hacker.

Why? Well, there are some contextual things that are easy to see. In 2009, Gonzalez was pretty much the only good hitter in a dreadful lineup that played half its games in a hitters’ dungeon. There was no reason at all for pitchers to give Gonzalez anything that caught too much of the plate. They could pitch to him on their terms, and Gonzalez -- because he was a fantastic player -- fought to impose his will. He came to believe that he could best help the team by not giving away outs, and by focusing his swings only on pitches he could drive. He did that. He is the only player to ever hit 40 home runs while playing half his game at Petco Park, and don’t be surprised if he keeps that distinction for a long time.* It’s an amazing achievement.

*Only one other player -- Chase Headley -- has even managed to hit 30 homers while anchored to Petco Park. Headley hit 31 in 2012.

Well, obviously it has been different the last few years. Gonzalez played for a year-and-a-half in Fenway Park. Hitter friendly. He undoubtedly found that pitches he could do nothing with in San Diego were pitches he was expected to do damage to at Fenway. He was in a lineup with other good players, so pitchers certainly had a different mindset against him. The Red Sox were terrible too, but in a different way from San Diego -- in Boston their terribleness was front page news and it sparked fierce emotions -- and that probably played a role in his day-to-day comfort and lifestyle.

Then he went to Los Angeles, and he was part of a star-studded team in what is probably America’s most star-conscious city, and that too offers different challenges.

And then there’s the pain. Gonzalez injured his shoulder in 2010. He has surgery after the season and before he went to Boston. His shoulder is not as strong as it was. He realizes it never will be as strong. He believes that the 40 home run power of 2009 is simply gone. And so, he consciously changed his style. He flattened his swing. He assessed his talents and decided he would give up five or 10 home runs a year, but hit more line drives and raise his batting average. He has been a .310 hitter since the surgery. In the four years leading into the surgery, he was a .284 hitter. Also there are more aches, more pains, he’s 31 now.

Why is Adrian Gonzalez a different hitter now? It’s all those things. And I suspect there are a bunch of other things that have gone into it too. The huge contract? The beautiful house that contract bought? Being on the more familiar West Coast? The lives he has touched through his family’s foundation? The pride he has of being from Mexico? The pressure that comes with that? The unhappy experience in Boston and what that taught him about himself? A million little things he would never mention? On and on.

It’s easy to forget the complexity of baseball. And it’s easy to ignore. I often think about when John Schuerholz was GM of the Braves, and there was a prospect he wanted to know about. He turned to current Royals GM Dayton Moore, who was working for the Braves then, and asked if the kid could play. Moore talked about the kid’s life, his aptitude for learning, the importance of giving him good coaching, his parents, his school system, on and on for way too long. When the meeting ended, Schuerholz quietly called over Moore and, in pretty direct terms, said that when he asks if a kid can play, he is looking for a “Yes,” or a “No.” The other stuff is important, sure. There just isn’t much time for it.