LOS ANGELES -- When Adrian Gonzalez lined a 1-1 cutter from Adam Wainwright down the rightfield line in Monday night's game, it did more than give the Dodgers a desperately needed run.
That Gonzalez was swinging at a 1-1 pitch well off the plate marked a departure from the patient hitter Gonzalez had been throughout his tenure with the San Diego Padres. No more. Gonzalez's walk rate is half what it was prior to his shoulder operation, and from discussion with Gonzalez and others, it is clear that hitter is probably gone forever.
Gonzalez led the National League in walks in 2009 with 119, and finished third in 2010 with 93. But he walked only 74 times in 2011, and since then the drop is stark: 42 in 2012, 47 in 2013. Essentially, his walk rate halved.
It may seem odd to ascribe a change in plate discipline to a shoulder injury, but that's apparently exactly what's happened. Gonzalez decided to change his approach from a patient power hitter to all fields, to a hitter of opportunity, primarily pulling the ball for power, because of his own physical limitations.
"There's some things that I was able to do when I had a healthy shoulder that I can't do now," Gonzalez told me on the field prior to Tuesday's NLCS Game 4 against the Cardinals. "I mean, my shoulder is healthy, but I'm talking about before surgery." For a player due $106 million over the next five years, that could be the difference between getting value out of his contract or not.
That's the part missed by many who look at a player's surgery in binary terms. It isn't just a question of whether the player gets back on the field or not. Even a five percent drop in certain range of motion can fundamentally alter what that player can be.
"As far as driving the ball to leftfield, letting it get deep, whenever I do that now, it gets caught at the warning track," Gonzalez said. "So something's gotta switch. Now, I've got to go to a more up-the-middle approach."
Still, it is striking to see Gonzalez largely abandon his patient approach while playing under hitting coach Mark McGwire, who logged five 100-walk seasons in his career. And for his part McGwire sounded like he wasn't thrilled about it.
"He's a different hitter," McGwire said prior to batting practice Tuesday afternoon. "He's just a different hitter. He used to hit home runs to left-center field, centerfield and because of the surgery, he's lost that. It's something he's working at. He's two years out since the surgery, and he's changed his approach."
But McGwire ultimately says, whatever his input, an accomplished veteran hitter like Gonzalez is going to make his own choices.
"And it's really it's up to him," McGwire said. "He's a professional. We've talked about it. Some guys, they'd just rather swing the bat a little bit more. They feel like walks might suffer, in order to maybe drive the ball the way they used to drive it."
What's interesting about this tradeoff, though, is Gonzalez isn't getting much power in exchange for the added swings. His isolated power is down significantly from his pre-surgery peak.
He is swinging more, though. He's swinging right at around 72 percent of pitches in the strike zone, on par with his career rate. But he swung at just over 26 percent of pitches out of the strike zone in 2009, his best walk year. Last year, that jumped to 35.5 percent, and he's up over 36 percent in 2013.
For his part, Gonzalez insists the change has more to do with how opposing teams are treating him, not how he's approaching at-bats.
"I've never been a guy who chases pitches out of the zone," Gonzalez said. "In San Diego, I wasn't pitched to, I was walked. When I got to Boston, I've been in good lineups the last few years, they attack me more, and I swing."
Still, there's the swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, which isn't opposing pitchers attacking him. Gonzalez countered quickly, "If it looks good, I'm swinging."
It's hard to imagine this is some kind of unconscious change, though. McGwire talked about the way he approached at-bats, patiently, as a kind of personality trait, rather than some malleable strategy.
"That was ingrained in my head way back in college," McGwire said of a patient approach. He chuckled, remembering. "It's funny, when your college coach says a walk's as good as a hit, I've always thought about that, and I've had a good eye since then."
As to whether Gonzalez will regain strength in his shoulder, chances are that nearly three years out from the procedure, this is who Adrian Gonzalez is. And short of regaining that strength, it seems Gonzalez is utterly convinced his only way to produce is by doing it without waiting pitchers out much anymore.
It can't be argued that Gonzalez's new approach didn't work this year. He posted an OPS+ of 126, good for seventh among 15 first basemen who qualified for the batting title. Moreover, he's stayed on the field, playing in 159, 159 and 157 games since the surgery. On a team with Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier all battling injuries, that's been critical to this Dodgers team advancing to the NLCS.
It's been an inarguable success for Adrian Gonzalez. But he's simply not the same player he was, not in the sense of traditional decline, but to a large extent, by choice. McGwire, ever the optimist, still believes the walks can return, which makes some sense, since it is Gonzalez himself who chose to forsake them.
"I think so, I think so," McGwire said. "You know, as far as the hitting coach has an approach, he's such a veteran, the way he goes about doing things, we talk. And then he picks and chooses what he'd like to do. And that's something you have to respect."