Examining Gio Gonzalez

Lost in the improbable and rather infatuating season from R.A. Dickey and yet another commanding performance by Clayton Kershaw sits Gio Gonzalez and his measly 5.4 WAR season.

Gonzalez went 21-8 for the Washington Nationals with a 2.89 ERA, 2.82 FIP, and 25.2% strikeout rate and yet garnered only one first place vote in the Cy Young balloting. It’s not that Gonzalez so much deserved more attention from the Baseball Writers Association, but his season might have been as surprising as Dickey’s yet few seem to be talking about it outside of the Capital.

When Gonzalez came over from Oakland for Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, and Derek Norris, reactions were mixed. If you could boil all the sentiments down into a prognosticator sludge, the general consensus was probably that Oakland did well to get highly regarded A.J. Cole and ready to nearly-ready prospects for what was likely a middle of the rotation kind of arm. To be sure, some were much higher on Gonzalez, but there were just as many that expected him to underwhelm the senior circuit.

It’s not that Gonzalez didn’t have good stuff. The major source of Gio-scorn was that he’d amassed about 500 professional innings with a walk rate of about 11%, which made it difficult for him to go deeper into games and seemed to prevent him from improving upon the three-to-four win player he had been with the Athletics. What he could do was strike people out, but the jury was out if he was closer to Yovani Gallardo or Jonathan Sanchez . Turns out, it was neither.

Upon arrival in Washington, Gonzalez not only started to strike more batters out (to be expected in the move to the NL), but he also improved upon his free passes. His walk rate dropped from 12.3%, 10.8%, and 10.3% from 2009 to 2011 down to 9.3%. A nine percent walk rate still isn’t likely to make your pitching coach thrilled, but with a 25.2% strikeout rate, he was starting to resemble the 2010 version of Clayton Kershaw when he had a 25% K rate and a 9.6% BB%. The trend north for strikeouts and the trend south for bases on balls started to bring his FIP much more in line with his ERA, where the disparity between the two in previous seasons provided fodder for the nonbelievers, and perhaps rightly so.

Part of his success wasn’t mastery of some new pitch, but rather tweaking the repertoire he already had. His curve had historically been quite excellent, but he always had trouble throwing it for a strike with well over 40% of his curves being thrown for a ball. In 2011, it seemed that hitters got wise to that and the value of the pitch plummeted from 1.57 runs above average per 100 pitches in 2010 to just a hair below average at -.06.

If you look at his heat maps, there’s little change in location of his fastball, curve and change. There’s no appreciable difference in his release points. What he did in Washington was simply threw more fastballs and fewer curves. He threw roughly 72% fastballs, evenly split between four and two-seam fastballs and his first pitch strike percentage was at a career high of 59%. His use of the curve went from 28% to 21%.

Gonzalez used to start left handed batters off with a curve about 30% of the time in 2011, but reduced that to just 18% in 2012. For right handed batters, it was 20% in 2011 but just 13% in 2012. When he is ahead in the count or having two strikes, Gonzalez still went to the curve about 40% of the time. But but not showing the curve early, it became more effective as an out pitch with opposing batters losing about 100 point off their batting average in 2012, hitting just .124 and slugging just .160 off his curve in 2012.

But one of the major improvements that Gonzalez made was his approach to right handed batters. In 2011, his strikeout rate was 21.7% and his walk rate was 10.8% vs. RHB and in 2012 that improved to 23.9% and 9.2%. Interestingly, it was relying less on the curve against right handers that fueled this. He threw almost 30% curve balls against righties in 2011 and that dropped to 19% in 2012. With two strikes, he used to throw the curve almost 50% of the time, and that dropped to 35%. But as the saying goes, less is more.

He threw the curve fewer times in two strike counts against righties, but increased his whiff rate by actually throwing it outside the strike zone more often. A couple cherry-picked examples that will be nothing new to you if you watched the Nationals all season:

Yes, he struck out right handed batters on curve balls in the past, so this isn’t breaking news, but admit that you like gif’s, and we can all move forward.

What’s striking to me about Gonzalez’s success in 2012 is that it wasn’t anything particularly new to what we already knew about him. He modified his repertoire to help him get ahead in counts more frequently, and simply utilized his curve ball more effectively than he had in the past. It’s possible, even likely, that his home run per fly ball rate will regress some in 2013, but if Gonzalez can continue to refine himself the way that he did in 2012, including reducing free passes, this success ought to be sustainable going forward. If he can come close to replicating the kind of results he had in 2012, you can bet that he’ll garner more respect when it comes time to vote for the hardware.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

23 Responses to “Examining Gio Gonzalez”

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  1. Bip says:

    but if Gonzalez can continue to refine himself the way that he did in 2012, including reducing free passes, this success ought to be sustainable going forward

    I agree that his success ought to be sustainable going forward. However, I don’t really know if moving to the NL counts as “refining himself.”

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  2. Bip says:

    But in all seriousness, I wonder if a curveball is the type of pitch that works better as a sort of finisher and not really as a secondary go-to pitch. Here’s what I mean. Both a changeup and a slider seem to have success partially by their resemblance to a fastball. We know a change has to be slower than the fastball so the batter will have his timing disrupted and hopefully swing in front and over the pitch. A curveball, on the other hand, has a movement diametrically opposed to that of a fastball. Whereas most changeups have a bit of rise, and sliders tend to be neutral in terms of vertical movement (src: PitchFX data) a curveball can have as much as 10 inches of drop. Gio’s, in particular, averaged 7.9 inches of drop this season, which is significantly more than average. As such, perhaps a curveball isn’t supposed to trick the batter into seeing a fastball but rather confuse the batter with a pitch that moves so differently from the fastball that the batter doesn’t know where it is going to end up. This could cause the pitch to become less effective with greater frequency, since the batter will get a sense of the movement of the pitch and possibly be able to square it up. It will also probably jar his timing more if it comes less often and he gets more used to seeing fastballs.

    Final note: it’s kind of funny that the fangraphs community is the one wondering why the league leader in wins isn’t getting more Cy Young attention. Of course, being the FIP leader as well has something to do with that.

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    • Leatherman says:

      I agree with your thinking, but the count and hitter will dictate the pitch selection much more than the percentage. He is in advantage counts in all of the the GIFs above allowing him to pitch outside of the zone inducing more chase. With less vertical movement SL, CHG and FB are easier for a hitter predict making them less defensive and less likely to chase.

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  3. binqasim says:

    The reason I think he did not get much CY love is because of his number of innings.

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    • NatsLady says:

      Thing is, his number of innings was partly due to Davey’s managing style, which is not to let his starters go deep into games, rather, pulling them for pinch-hitters A LOT. Part of that is because in close games, Davey goes for the offens, and partly to prevent fatigue, knowing that the team is in contention (did not clinch the Division until Oct. 1). Gio did have a complete game when the bullpen was tired, IOW, he was called up on it for that occasion. Also, Gio did not make his last scheduled start, which would have put his innings over 200. He didn’t make that start because it was not clear what the postseason schedule would be, and Davey wanted to rest him.

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      • Bip says:

        He also averaged 16.04 pitches per inning vs. Kershaw’s 15.23 and Dickey’s 14.38.

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      • Bip says:

        Mattingly, like Johnson, has a quick hook and pinch hits for his pitchers early in the game. However, it wouldn’t be fair to claim this as a disadvantage for Kershaw, since I’ve noticed – and Mattingly has admitted – that Kershaw has earned special treatment. Basically his status as ace of the team means he gets more leeway than the other starters.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Bip is correct. It’s not a matter of Gio being pulled early – it’s a matter of him hitting 100 pitches earlier than other CY Young pitchers. He only threw about 2 fewer pitches per game than Dickey, yet Dickey averaged almost a full inning more than Gio. That’s what happens when you have trouble throwing strikes.

        Gio pitched 199.1 innings in 32 starts in 2012. As a reference, he also had 32 starts in 2011 and he threw 202 innings. He had 33 starts in 2010 and threw 200.2 innings. Not much of a difference over the last three years.

        This isn’t to take anything away from him as a pitcher – he had a great year – but there’s a reason people didn’t vote for him ahead of Dickey.

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  4. NatsLady says:

    Particularly in September Davey was cautious about his starters. The bullpen was completely healthy and two very good arms came up in September callups (Zach Duke and Christian Garcia). So while Dickey could pile up innings basically at will, Gio’s innings were limited. (I don’t know how Kershaw compares in September innings.)

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    • Bip says:

      Kershaw actually missed a start in Sep due to a hip issue and his following start was shorted because he was rusty coming off the long rest. He was on pace to lead the NL in innings as well.

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  5. NatsLady says:

    So, in a sense, though it is counterintuitive, Gio got penalized for being on a contending team, if in fact the innings was a consideration.

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  6. NatsLady says:

    Correct, Gio did not pitch efficiently on many occasions, a source of frustration for Davey and McCatty. Davey mentioned it in several press conferences. He also got himself in trouble (and got out of it) several times, which contributed to his not seeming to have “ace-like” dominance. Hopefully those traits will improve with maturity.

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  7. stuck in a slump says:

    That second curve ball was just straight filthy. I love being able to watch him pitch all season long!

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    • SSS says:

      Have you seen Randy Wolf’s curve? It has 26 inches of drop and 18.8 inches of glove-side run. And, he only throws it around 45 mph. And his fastball is around 75, for a 30 mph difference.

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  8. will h says:

    I heard the news of the trade on the way home from work and knew I would be in disagreement on the excellent federal baseball website. I loved it, as it showed the Nats as contenders since that is what contenders do … Go for potentially big pieces in exchange for a number of low celinged players and hope and prayer upside guys. Cole is the latter, and may be great and may suck, but Peacock was exposed, Norris was exposed as an MLB quality catcher, and Milone is only good in spacious Oakland. In return they got a guy trending towards top of the rotation while still young. What a trade when they were looking at four years of prime contention!

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  9. Brian says:

    I do like gifs.

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  10. Bane says:

    Those last two curves together should serve as the definition for “back foot breaking ball” in the baseball dictionary.

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  11. bob says:

    examining gio: steroids improve baseball

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