Unless you’re a Houston Astros fan (or a Texas Rangers fan who recalls the single up the middle that ended Yu Darvish’s best chance for a perfect game), the name Marwin Gonzalez likely does not elicit any response. If it does, it’s likely the thought that he’s a decent player — no more, no less.
Maybe you knew that he was in the Chicago Cubs’ system, but hadn’t kept up with him after the odd Rule-5-and-trade process carried him to Houston. In 2011, Gonzalez split time between double- and triple-A with the Cubs, hitting decently, if for little power as a 22-year-old middle infielder. The 2011 Winter Meetings marked the first chance for Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein to remake the Cubs in the image they desired. They cleared out the upper farm system to make room for the players they hoped would help them contend.
Though this seemingly disparages Gonzalez’s talents — he was left off the 40-man roster after the 2011 season — it ended up working for him. The Astros clearly had their eyes on him, trading with the Red Sox after they drafted him in the Rule 5.
During 2012 and 2013, Gonzalez was a prototypical up-and-down player. His defense was highly lauded (earning him his first inclusion in the Baseball Prospectus Annual of 2013), but it was generally agreed that he would need to add something to his game in order to stick in the big leagues.
The beginning of this transformation came during 2014, when he added the ability to play the outfield, third, and first base, plus a higher level of comfort with major league pitching, aided by continued exposure to it. During this time, the Astros were in the middle section of their tank, so they could afford to give at-bats to a light-hitting super utility man, especially while awaiting the arrival of Carlos Correa to complement the emerging talent of Jose Altuve.
This year, Houston’s patience and foresight seem to be paying off. Though Correa, Altuve, George Springer, and the pitching staff are at the forefront of the best team in baseball, Gonzalez is quietly having his best season ever. The utility man is hitting at a 3/4/5 slash line nearly halfway through the season (.313/.406/.594 entering play Saturday, to be exact), something usually more associated with someone like Mike Trout. Gonzalez has hit nearly as many homers in 54 games this season (12) as he did in 141 games last season (13).
It’s not just about the power, either. Like the Astros on average, Gonzalez is walking more and striking out less, upping the former rate by roughly eight percent and cutting the latter rate by nearly three. At 28, it seems a little late for a breakout, but considering that his first full major league season wasn’t until 2014 at age 25, maybe this is who Marwin Gonzalez is: a late bloomer, three years later.
There’s a good chance that Houston wouldn’t be where it is now without the underrated contributions of Gonzalez — not just offensively, but in terms of his ability to step into nearly every hole and provide solid defense. This could ultimately be a one-year blip on an otherwise decent but unremarkable career, but even so, it’s happening at exactly the right time. If Houston does manage to capture a World Series ring, Gonzalez will have played a very important part in earning every diamond on it — and no one will be able to say he’s just the guy who broke up a perfect game anymore.