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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.