While the Rockets may have gone down in the second round of the playoffs, Houstonians still have plenty to look forward to on the baseball front. With a quarter of the season behind us, the Astros currently sit on the best record in baseball (29-12). As they’re currently on pace to win 114 games, it’s no surprise the probability of their making the playoffs has increased a bit. They started the season pretty heavily favored (Fangraphs had them at 78.4% to make the postseason and Baseball Prospectus pegged them at 78.9%) and now the same stats folks are almost ready to guarantee a postseason berth (with Fangraphs at 98.0% and Baseball Prospectus at 97.8%).

Perhaps even more telling might be how far the Astros have come in terms of their odds to win the World Series, which have moved from 10.3% to 14.9% at Fangraphs and 12.1% to 16.8% at Baseball Prospectus. While predicting a team to win the World Series at basically any point during the regular season (or even during the postseason, TBH) is always a good way to look dumb, the Astros are starting to look like they might be able to make good on a famous prediction from the past.

While we could get after another article about how the Astros have the best middle-infield combo in the game (and is potentially historic), or maybe get into Dallas Keuchel’s adjustments this season, we’re here to appreciate the unexpected and talk about someone who is playing a much bigger role than anyone could have seen: Marwin Gonzalez.

With his 168 wRC+ Gonzalez has been the best hitter on the Astros this season, besting Jose Altuve (146) and Carlos Correa (132) . This may come as a surprise to a lot of folks (including me), because he is a 28-year old utility player who is coming off a season where he hit for a 87 wRC+ and is in possession of a career 94 wRC+. 

In 109 PAs in 2017, Gonzalez is hitting .278/.303/.600. He’s been timing his contributions well, as his WPA (1.67) is 7th in MLB, which is what happens when you mash go-ahead grand slams late in games. (Note: all ranking stats referenced in the article are calculated by setting the minimum number of PAs to 100 so that Gonzalez makes the cut.) His nine home runs are tied for 10th in the AL, and that’s with less PAs than the folks ahead of him on the list. Gonzalez’s ISO is .322, good for 5th in the AL, which is a pretty sizable increase over his .143 career ISO.  The increase in power has been the biggest change in his game, and it appears to have come along with some changes in Gonzalez’s approach.

Gonzalez is swinging at way, way less pitches outside the zone. Per PITCHf/x, Gonzalez is only swinging at 26.7% of such pitches, compared to 36.9% in 2016 and 34.4% for his career. While that number isn’t enough to place him in the uppermost echelons and he ranks 68th this season, he was the 65th worst player in MLB last season when it came to chasing outside of the zone. He’s more than tripled his walk rate (from 4.2% in 2016 to 12.8% this year) and is forcing opposing pitchers to give him better pitches to hit. That doesn’t totally explain the exaggerated increase in power. For that we have to make educated guesses at this point. It might very well have to do with the fact that he has changed his batting stance and dropped his hands. Whatever he has done, though, it’s working for now. 

As previously discussed this season when talking about Eric Thames and Aaron Judge, it’s unlikely that Gonzalez is going to maintain his current 36.0% home-run-to-flyball ratio, which ranks third in MLB. Just as that stat is an outlier and suggests some regression, it should be noted that Gonzalez is also sitting on a .267 BABIP, which puts him well below his career .301 BABIP (which is pretty much exactly the definition of “average”) and near the bottom of the barrel in MLB. Just as we can expect Gonzalez to be unable to keep up his current rate of hitting homers, we can expect some more balls to find gaps and a drop in power would likely be accompanied in an increase in AVG and OBP.

Before we finish up, it’s imperative that we mention that, a quarter of the way through the season, Gonzalez has played every position except for catcher and centerfield. Even though his fielding numbers are slightly below average, the fact that he can move around anywhere is certainly valuable, as it allows manager A.J. Hinch pretty much absolute freedom when it comes to deploying pinch hitters. If he keeps hitting like this, Gonzalez will transform from a “useful utility/bench player” to a “Swiss Army knife/Ben Zobrist-like player.” Seeing that he’s only on a $3.725 million contract this season and has an option for $5.125 million next year, that’s a pretty good deal for Houston for a player hitting like the current iteration of Gonzalez with so much positional versatility.

Overall, there have been contributions up and down the lineup for the Astros this year and the importance of not having any black holes in your roster can’t be understated. There’s plenty of other positive things to say about Houston’s team. For example, the bullpen has been fantastic. I actually started out planning to write about Chris Devinski’s contributions but realized that Travis Sawchik at Fangraphs had stolen my thunder (and I must mention that Devinski needs to be nicknamed “Devinski the Dude” in honor of this legendary Houston rapper). No one on the Astros has been as surprising as Gonzalez, though, and any team that wants to make a run deep into October is going to need a few surprises up their sleeve.