MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Marwin's dedication has paid off for Astros

OF studies Beltran, Altuve while refining entire approach, rides career year onto big stage

Marwin's dedication has paid off for Astros

HOUSTON -- One of the coolest things about this postseason is that a lot of baseball fans might find out how good Marwin Gonzalez is.

ALDS Game 1: Thursday, 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT on MLB Network

"He's part of the story of our year that should be at the forefront of why we were successful," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He played at an elite level."

Game Date Results Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 5 HOU 8, BOS 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 6 HOU 8, BOS 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 8 BOS 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 9 HOU 5, BOS 4 Watch

And that's just part of his remarkable story, which will continue to unfold in an Astros-Red Sox American League Division Series presented by Doosan that begins with Game 1 on Thursday.

First, let's check off the things that can be measured. Gonzalez was sixth in the American League with a .907 OPS and ninth with a .303 batting average. He led the highest-scoring team in baseball with 90 RBIs and also had 34 doubles and 23 home runs. Want to dig deeper? He was sixth in the AL in wRC+ (144) and sixth in wOBA (.382).

What made him even more valuable is that he made at least 14 starts at five different positions: left field (38), shortstop (33), first base (20), third base (15) and second base (14).

He also played four innings in right field and an inning in center and even got a few at-bats as the Astros' designated hitter. When someone was hurt or needed a day off, Hinch had not just a replacement, but one that produced at an All-Star level.

Gonzalez slipped into this role the same way Ben Zobrist once did for the Rays. That is, if it got him in the lineup, he was willing to give it a try. And like Zobrist, he was able to play all those positions at a high level.

Gonzalez's versatility key for Astros

"He's a real weapon in a lot of different ways," Hinch said. "His production really did carry us for much of the season. Now you get to the national stage, and the story can be told.

"I think a lot of people will realize that while we have bigger names on the team who get a lot of attention, there are some underlying stories that make the Astros pretty neat."

Gonzalez's tough lunging grab

Now to the truly amazing part of this story: When the 2017 season began, Gonzalez was a very solid player. But he was not a star. He was not someone who forced his way onto Hinch's lineup card in 2015 or '16 with his production.

In five seasons (1,639 career plate appearances) before this one, his career OPS was .687. He was also 28 years old. He did not qualify as being an older player, but he was not new, either.

To think he could completely remake his swing, his preparation and his overall approach, well, that doesn't happen very often.

"It's a big thing when a player is willing to listen and take that information and not be afraid to apply it to their game," teammate Carlos Beltran said. "That's how you grow in baseball. You have to be open-minded."

During last offseason, Gonzalez spent hours talking hitting with his best friend, Jose Altuve, who also happens to be the best hitter on the planet.

Gonzalez had simple goals. He wanted more plate discipline. That is, he wanted to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. He also wanted a more consistent approach to daily preparation and preparing for each at-bat.

Altuve did the same thing after his third season and has won three American League batting titles in four seasons since.

"Here's a guy who wants to learn, who wants to get better," Altuve said. "He's more selective. That's hard to learn, but after you get there, it gets easier. It's about having the right mindset.

"He was a good player before this year, and he has taken it to another level. I think the year he put together is just the beginning of the player he's going to be."

Here's how much Gonzalez has changed his approach, according to Statcast™:

Swing percentage on pitches outside strike zone, by year
2015: 36.8 percent
2016: 35.0 percent
2017: 26.5 percent

And when he does swing, he's doing more damage:

Average exit velocity on in-zone pitches, by year
2016: 87.9 mph
2017: 89.9 mph

And finally, he's killing fastballs:

Batting average against fastballs, by year
2016: .279
2017: .347

wOBA off fastballs, by year
2016: .341
2017: .434

Statcast: Gonzalez's 443-foot HR

Gonzalez said it was a combination of things.

"I tried to get help from everybody," he said. "I'd go to Carlos after watching him hit and ask what he was thinking on different pitches. Same thing with Altuve. Obviously, he's the best hitter in the game. He's also my best friend.

"I have the advantage of being able to hang out with him. He can do things that no one else can do, but you can learn a lot by listening to what he's thinking."

Gonzalez is likely to be the Astros' starting left fielder at least in Game 1 of the ALDS. Hinch could use the same infield lineup in every game.

But having someone capable of playing virtually any position on the field -- and produce -- is part of what has made the Astros special.

"When you end up addressing what you don't do well, that's when you take the next step," Hinch said. "That's what Marwin has done. It takes some honesty with yourself about what you have to do to be better. He took it and ran with it."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.