CINCINNATI — Carlos Gonzalez sat at his locker, flashing his bright CarGo smile.
It seemed a bit out of place considering the topic at hand: a hitting slump that began with a 2-for-17 start and remained in place deep into May.
Gonzalez, however, refuses to dwell on his ugly numbers.
“When you are going bad, it’s easy to get negative, but I just don’t let myself go there,” the three-time all-star right fielder said. “You have to remind yourself that you can do damage at any time. And every time you come to the plate, you have to think, ‘I’m one step closer to getting hot.’ ”
But when the Rockies arrived at Great American Ball Park Friday for a weekend series against the Reds, Gonzalez wasn’t even lukewarm. He was hitting .210 with a .279 on-base percentage and just two home runs in 138 at-bats. Though he’s hit mostly from the third or fourth spot until getting dropped to fifth in recent games, he had just 11 RBIs to show for it. That’s what happens when you hit .182 with runners in scoring position.
But the Rockies, ever mindful of Gonzalez’s ability to break out at any moment, are keeping the faith.
“When you have been good for as long as CarGo, you have to believe that after game No. 162, he’s going to be hitting .290-something, with 30 homers and 90 RBIs,” assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar said. “So CarGo can truthfully tell himself, ‘I’m hitting .180 right now, so there is a good chance I’m about to hit .340 for the next stretch.’
“That takes a lot of confidence, trust in yourself and trust in the organization. And trust from the organization, too.”
When Gonzalez’s swing is on, it’s one of the prettiest in baseball, drawing comparisons to Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. But when it’s not, Gonzalez flails at breaking pitches and frequently hits weak grounders to to second base.
Gonzalez’s strikeouts, contrary to conventional wisdom, don’t rise substantially when he’s in a slump. His strikeout rate is 25.4 percent this season, compared to 24.2 percent for his career. He is, after all, a slugger. Perhaps his whiffs are just more noticeable when they aren’t offset by second-deck moon shots.
It’s also a misnomer that Gonzalez always starts in a funk. This is Gonzalez’s eighth season with Colorado and he’s had really three poor Aprils: 2011 when he hit .228 with one homer; 2015, with a .200 average and two homers; and this season, .216 with two homers.
But in 2012 (.303 average, four homers) and 2013 (.306, five homers), he came out of the gate slugging. Gonzalez’s ebbs and flows are more about being in sync at the plate than about the calendar.
Gonzalez’s swing is all about timing, and when his timing gets a few ticks off, he gets out of whack.
“With CarGo, the leg kick is his timing mechanism,” manager Bud Black said. “When he’s off, he’s going to be out way out front on breaking balls and behind on the fastball.
“But I see that gap narrowing, where he’s becoming on time for both pitches. You’ll know he’s back when he’s on top of fastballs and his hands are sitting back enough to handle the off-speed pitch.”
That’s why Black was encouraged to see Gonzalez rip a double down the right-field line Tuesday night in Colorado’s 7-3 victory at Minnesota.
“CarGo hit a low breaking ball,” Black said. “He was out in front of it, but he stayed back enough to be able to drive it.”
A 95 mph fastball takes about four-tenths of a second to travel the 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. At the big-league level, pitch recognition is paramount, and right now, Gonzalez’s is still off.
“With CarGos swing — with the leg kick, the timing — there is a lot that can go wrong,” Salazar said. “When your body moves the wrong way at the wrong time, it can make any pitch look desirable. So it’s easy to find yourself chasing pitches or becoming vulnerable to other pitches.”
That leads to bad habits and the slump deepens.
“That’s when you start to tinker with it and start questioning, and then it becomes a mental thing,” Salazar continued. “That’s when guys will switch batting gloves or do something to break the routine.”
Gonzalez is, unquestionably, a streaky hitter.
“When you’re going good, it’s easy because you don’t think about anything, not even executing,” Gonzalez said. “You’re just having fun. You’re going 3-for-4 and hitting homers and doubles and making diving plays and it’s so easy, because you are clean up here.”
He pointed to his head when he said “up here,” knowing that his battle to produce is as much mental and emotional as it is physical.
“There is a lot of psychology in baseball,” said veteran first baseman Mark Reynolds, who’s off to a terrific start, batting .319 with 12 homers and a 1.007 OPS (on-base percentage, plus slugging). “I’ve been through a lot of slumps before, so I know you have to be able to take a deep breath and know you will come out of it. If you are zero for your last 10 but you get a hit, then you’re 1-for-1. That’s the way you have to look at it.”
Gonzalez, 31, is in the final year of a seven-year, $80 million contract. He’s the team’s highest-paid player, collecting a $20 million salary, plus $428,571 as the final installment of a $3 million bonus. He’s playing for a new contract and chances are he won’t be back with the Rockies in 2018.
But those who know Gonzalez don’t think the pressure of a contract year has gotten to him.
“I have seen guys in a similar situation and I would expect bad body language or attitude in this situation,” Salazar said. “I’m not getting that from CarGo. It’s been a pleasure to see the leader he’s been, his work ethic and the way he’s communicated through this.
“He knows himself better than anybody else, so if he thinks he’s about to starting hitting, then I might as well get on the train right now because I believe him.”