Image credit: Nick Gonzales (Photo by Jan Volk/SportsPix)
New Mexico State head coach Mike Kirby has barely been in Las Cruces for six months and he already has a Nick Gonzales story.
The reigning Cape Cod League MVP and 2019 NCAA batting champion, Gonzales was already a household name to Kirby when he took the job in June. But the former Cal State Fullerton and Nebraska assistant has coached plenty of future big leaguers and isn’t easily impressed, no matter how many accolades the player has piled up.
But in September, Kirby was walking by the batting cages and caught a glimpse of a lefthanded swing he didn’t recognize. Intrigued by the loud contact, Kirby decided to walk over and investigate. That is when he got his first taste of just how good his second baseman really is.
“I thought I knew all of my players’ swings by sight and so I wanted to get a closer look,” Kirby said. “Once I get closer, I see it is Gonzales working on switch-hitting. And he isn’t just making contact, he is hitting missiles. I was completely blown away.”
The story is hardly a unique one in college baseball. Gonzales, typically a righthanded hitter, isn’t exactly the first player to try his hand at switch-hitting and there are plenty of players across the country that already do an impressive job from both sides of the plate. But what the story does do a great job of illustrating are the two things that have helped Gonzales transform from a lightly recruited walk-on to a potential first-round draft pick – his bat and his work ethic.
Everyone who knows Gonzales has a story about his work ethic. But work ethic is often an overused and trite theme when talking about overcoming the odds. It isn’t until you actually hear those stories that you realize, in the case of Gonzales, work ethic is anything but a boring platitude.
Talk to his father, Mike Gonzales. He remembers waking up for work at 5:30 am to find Nick, who was not even 12 years old at the time, already in the garage working on his swing. He can tell you about how he threw so much batting practice to Nick after work that he started making up excuses to stay later just to save what little arm strength he had left.
Talk to former New Mexico State coach Brian Green, who was hired away by Washington State last June. He can recall Friday nights during the fall of 2018 when the rest of his team would be out socializing and Gonzales would be in the batting cages, using the lights from the nearby football field to get in some extra tee work.
Talk to former New Mexico State recruiting coordinator Terry Davis, who won’t miss a beat when he says that in his two years of coaching Gonzales, he has never seen him take a meaningless or casual rep at anything, on or off the field.
The motivation may seem like the obvious byproduct of his size (he’s listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds) and desire to prove his doubters wrong. But for Gonzales, the answer is much simpler than that.
“I just want to play so bad,” Gonzales said. “Sitting on the bench, even for one game, kills me, and so when I wasn’t starting at the beginning of my freshman year, I was always at the field doing something to get better. I knew I was good enough, so I just tried to work harder than any guy I have ever seen.”
The work ethic may be what has gotten him to where he is today, and it will likely continue to help him at the next level. But the reason why MLB teams are talking about drafting him in the top 10 picks is because there might not be a more advanced hitter in all of college baseball. Scouting directors have fully bought in and unanimously voted him a first-team Preseason All-American.
His numbers back up the hype and are so outrageous they can be difficult to believe. He hit .347/.425/.596 in 193 at-bats as a freshman and followed that up by hitting a ludicrous .432/.532/.773 with 16 home runs as a sophomore. If anyone wasn’t yet convinced or thought the numbers were inflated by the high altitude New Mexico State plays at, Gonzales then spent the summer in Cape Cod, dominating some of the best pitchers in the country when he hit .351/.451/.630 with seven home runs in 153 at-bats.
According to Green, he helped Gonzales flatten his swing as a freshman and as a result, his bat speed became elite right away. With the improved bat speed, Green said that Gonzales realized he could start his swing very late and still get the barrel on the ball. It is what makes him difficult to strike out. It is what allows him to drive the ball with authority to all fields. And it is what allows a small-framed second baseman to occasionally hit the ball 440 feet without looking like he is exerting much effort.
“There were days when he would start off batting practice by smoking the first 10 pitches right over first base on purpose. He is a machine,” Green said. “I really didn’t do much tweaking. We helped him with a little bit of a hand change and a posture change. His swing started to get real loose and whippy and next thing you know, the bat speed got crazy.”
Green coached Brandon Crawford at UCLA and he said that Gonzales is just as advanced and might even have more power. Kirby coached J.D. Davis at Cal State Fullerton and called him “one of the best college hitters he’s ever seen”, and he says that Gonzales is already more advanced.
He isn’t quite the perfect prospect just yet. There are some concerns about his defense at second base and Green said that finding more zone discipline, especially as the quality of pitching improves, will be important for his growth. But it is unlikely, given his offensive ability, that he will slide out of the first round this June.
The reality has already started to set in for his father, who said that he nearly fell out of his chair when a scout told him that by June, his son was likely to be a millionaire. But for Gonzales, that stuff couldn’t be further from his mind. He has unfinished business in Las Cruces to take care of first.
“My dad likes to ask me who I have met with and honestly, I don’t even remember the teams,” Gonzales said. “I am more worried about making another regional. I have the same goal in every game – hit the ball hard twice. If I do that, the draft stuff will take care of itself.”