Adrian Gonzalez, professional hitter


SAN DIEGO -- Adrian Gonzalez is a hitter's hitter, a technician with a bat.

A surprising number of major-league hitters will describe their approach in the simplest terms: "See the ball, hit the ball." If Gonzalez were to take that approach, he says, he would be "the worst hitter in the world."

Gonzalez spends more time studying video of opposing pitchers than any Los Angeles Dodgers hitter with the possible exception of Andre Ethier. He's not just looking for clues to picking up the ball out of the pitcher's hand, but trying to glean a pattern that can give him an advantage in that night's at-bats. It's more detailed than you might think.

He's looking for what a pitcher does when he's ahead in the count, what he does to try to put hitters away, what pitches he tends to leave over the plate -- the hittable kind -- and whether he tends to pitch in or away, up or down, soft or hard. The permutations are practically endless.

When he's not studying hitting, he's often talking hitting.

"He'll use terms that leave you scratching your head," Carl Crawford said.

It's a cerebral approach that wouldn't work for many hitters. It would cloud their heads with too many thoughts. It clearly works for Gonzalez, who leads the Dodgers in home runs, RBIs and runs and is third with an .804 OPS. While Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez have been the straws that stir the drink, Gonzalez has been the ice that never melts.

Crawford marvels at Gonzalez's gap-to-gap approach, how he rarely gets out ahead of the ball, letting it travel deep in the strike zone before swinging.

"Signs of a professional hitter," Crawford said.

If you watch closely, you can see Gonzalez adjust to situations as they arise, altering his approach. His swing is different when there are runners in scoring position versus empty bases, with two strikes or with fewer than two strikes, with the score tied or in a blowout. That adaptability leads to consistency. He is two RBIs away from reaching 100 for the sixth time in the past seven years. The time he didn't get to 100, he finished with 99.

The RBI might be an antiquated stat to many statistically minded fans and analysts, but it's the most meaningful number to Gonzalez. He's all about fulfilling his role as a middle-of-the-order hitter, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to bring in those runs.

Here is how Gonzalez describes his approach in a few situations:

Two outs, bases empty

"I might look more for a fastball middle-in. I'm willing to swing through off-speed pitches. I'm willing to strike out. I'm kind of looking for that one spot in that middle-in area where I can just let it go, don't hold back. I don't care if I strike out. I'm going to take my hacks."

A runner on second with two outs with the score tied

"I'm probably going to look middle-away and, probably, down. I try to hit it up the middle or between third and short, on the ground. It's always easier to just make contact."

With two strikes, in general

"If it's a situation where I don't want to strike out, I usually look for a fastball away to get on top, to avoid the strikeout. If it's a situation where I can strike out, I might change it up."

The day Gonzalez, 31, walks away from his playing career, he could probably get a job as a hitting coach. Not only can he communicate in the language of hitting, but he's perfectly bilingual in English and Spanish, a useful skill in a multicultural game.

He said the only scenario that could convince him to become a hitting coach is if he had a son who was 10 years old.

"It's not the right time now with the travel and hectic schedules," he said. "It's not great for a lifestyle. I'd rather be at home taking care of my family, but if I retire and miss it, you never know."

That might be a theme worth revisiting in about 10 years. Right now, of course, Gonzalez is more focused on staying healthy and productive going into the playoffs. He has missed time lately because of a mildly strained quadriceps muscle, but Gonzalez said it's nothing to worry about.

When he does get to the playoffs, he could face the only team he has ever played against in the postseason, the St. Louis Cardinals. Gonzalez batted .357 in the 2006 National League Division Series, the one the San Diego Padres lost to the Cardinals in four games. St. Louis won the World Series that year.

Gonzalez remembers being overly jumpy in his first four at-bats, against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Even now, seven years later, he can still recall the sequence of pitches Carpenter threw him.

"He was an experienced pitcher and he just kept making pitches you wouldn't normally expect, but he was confident in doing it and he did it," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez went 5-for-10 in the final three games of that series.

He's a fast learner.