Gio Gonzalez, Pitcher Abuse, and a Modern-Day Record

Last season, after joining the Nationals, Gio Gonzalez threw 3,198 pitches in the regular season, plus 209 more in the playoffs. That is an awful lot of pitches, but this article isn’t about that sort of pitcher abuse. It’s about a different sort of pitcher abuse to which the headline can also misleadingly refer. Of those thousands and thousands of pitches thrown by Gonzalez in 2012, many were thrown to opposing pitchers. It is on those pitches that we’re going to focus.

Pitchers have a lot of success when they’re pitching against opposing pitchers as batters. This is because pitchers are pitchers and not batters, and pitchers who are better at batting than pitching tend to become batters instead. Last season, pitchers struck out in 37% of their plate appearances. They struck out in nearly 42% of their plate appearances that didn’t result in sacrifice bunts. Collectively, they posted a .162 OBP. Collectively, they posted a .165 slugging percentage. Pitchers suck at hitting! You come to FanGraphs for the cutting-edge analysis.

In the comments below a post about Derek Lowe yesterday, a reader mentioned Lowe generating strikeouts against opposing pitchers in 2011. I’m not going to sit here and write any more about Derek Lowe, because I think we’ve all had enough, but that inspired me to look up individual numbers against pitchers. I made liberal use of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index and ran a few 2012 queries to isolate pitcher strikeouts against pitchers. It was all much easier than I expected it to be, because I am a man of modest expectations.

Overall, 312 pitchers recorded at least one strikeout against an opposing pitcher. Tied for fifth were Ryan Vogelsong and Lance Lynn, with 28 strikeouts of pitchers apiece. Tied for third were Tommy Hanson and Jeff Samardzija, with 29. Alone in second was Wandy Rodriguez, who struck out 34 pitchers. That’s a big gap between second and third. There’s a bigger gap, though, between first and second — ahead of Rodriguez, we find Gio Gonzalez, with 41 strikeouts of opposing pitchers. Gonzalez didn’t just finish atop the leaderboard; he blew his competition away (in a few different ways!).

On a hunch, I started going through the history. In 2008, Derek Lowe struck out 37 pitchers. In 2003, Kevin Brown struck out 38, and in 2002, Randy Johnson struck out 39. You have to go all the way back to 1983 to find a 40 (Steve Carlton), and you have to go all the way back to 1972 to find a number bigger than Gonzalez’s 41. In 1972, Steve Carlton struck out 44 pitchers, and Nolan Ryan struck out 42 pitchers. In 1972, Carlton threw 346.1 innings, and Ryan threw 284 innings. Gio Gonzalez last season struck out more opposing pitchers than any other pitcher in the last 40 years. Though it’s a counting stat, that is an achievement worthy of some recognition.

In all, Gonzalez had 57 matchups against pitchers. Of those, 41 ended with strikeouts, and three ended with sacrifice bunts. One ended with a hit. One ended with a walk. Against Gonzalez, pitchers batted .019/.037/.019, allowing themselves to be completely and utterly abused. No other pitcher finished with a better line against pitchers, not that a better line would even really be possible.

The walk? Tim Hudson, on four pitches, on the first day of July. Here’s that walk:

gonzalezvshudson

The hit? Josh Johnson, on the seventh pitch, on the third day of August. Here’s that hit:

JohnsonGonzalez.gif.opt

The hit was a legitimate hit, and with a better runner, it might’ve been a double. The walk was of lesser legitimacy, given the two pitches on the edges. Let’s pull back now because this stuff was included just for curiosity’s sake.

Gio Gonzalez completely dominated pitchers a year ago. It would be easy to refer to this as being “cheap”, since pitchers aren’t real hitters, and indeed, being able to pitch against pitchers gives pitchers an edge in the National League. But Gonzalez deserves credit for being better against pitchers than most, and I’ll remind you: 40 years. Most strikeouts against pitchers in 40 years. Those strikeouts weren’t just handed to Gonzalez, even if he had to do less to earn them than usual.

Now, however, we have to make a note. Gio Gonzalez’s raw strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 25.2%

Gio Gonzalez’s raw walk rates:

2011: 10.5%
2012: 9.3%

Let’s look at those again if we strip away the plate appearances against opposing pitchers. Adjusted strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 21.7%

Adjusted walk rates:

2011: 10.6%
2012: 9.8%

Before getting traded, against non-pitchers, Gonzalez posted a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After getting traded, against non-pitchers, Gonzalez posted a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Include the pitchers and that jumps all the way up to 2.7. We can’t just throw out Gonzalez’s performance against pitchers, because those plate appearances happened and were in accordance with the rules, but what we can see is that maybe Gonzalez didn’t actually take a step forward. Maybe he just took advantage of what the National League had to offer. I guess it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both, and it probably is both. Gio Gonzalez probably did get a bit better with the Nationals, but against non-pitchers, he didn’t demonstrate an increased strikeout ability.

A mostly unrelated note, before I conclude: R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball. He actually throws a few knuckleballs! He pitched in the National League, and you’d figure pitchers would have a tough time getting the bat on a Dickey knuckler. Dickey, after all, finished among the league leaders in strikeout rate. Last year, Dickey struck out 25% of pitchers. He also struck out 24.8% of non-pitchers. Dickey’s been traded to the American League and maybe that won’t be so rough an adjustment. Amazingly, in 2011, Dickey struck out just five of 60 pitchers. In 2010, five of 48. This is the opposite of what I was expecting to encounter in the splits.

Anyway: Gio Gonzalez struck out a bunch of pitchers. More than anybody else in four decades. That’s both really cool and really meaningful when it comes to analyzing Gonzalez’s statistically-improved performance. Let it never be suggested that there’s anything in baseball that can’t be analyzed.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


49 Responses to “Gio Gonzalez, Pitcher Abuse, and a Modern-Day Record”

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  1. Mark says:

    Facing pitchers helped him, no doubt. I wonder how much facing the weaker competition of the NL helped, too.

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    • Summertime Man says:

      Astros switching to the AL may make the leagues pretty much equal in 2013.

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    • Scott says:

      Judging just by the strikeout-to-walk ratio without the pitchers, it doesn’t seem like there was a large difference there. But then there are all of the other factors, like Oakland’s ballpark vs. Washington’s, the respective teams’ defenses, etc. So it’s tough to say. I’d be inclined to say he was pretty much the same pitcher, with a little extra velocity (from possibly questionable means), who took advantage of opposing pitchers’ batting.

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    • Ben says:

      I hate the concept of “weaker NL” like it’s a huge difference. If you look at Non-Pitchers here on Fangraphs, here’s team wRC+ statistics:

      Cardinals 114 NL
      Yankees 114 AL
      Angels 113 AL
      Brewers 111 NL
      Nationals 107 NL (3 of top 5 NL)
      Tigers 106 AL
      Giants 106 NL
      Rangers 105 AL
      Padres 104 NL
      Diamondbacks 103 NL (6 of the top 10 NL)

      Those are also the only teams above 100 wRC+.

      If you go by wOBA – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.
      If you go by BB/K – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.
      If you go by OPS – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.

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      • Ben says:

        Granted, on B-R, they have OPS+ listed by team and last year only 4 of 8 teams over 100 OPS+ were NL teams – so half.

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      • Shawn says:

        What does this demonstrate? No seriously? Teams predominantly play their own league. Sorting a list of teams by wRC+ does not show relative run scoring abilities. Cardinals hitters have an advantage over Yankees hitters because they get to face weaker NL pitchers more often. Your analysis does not take this into consideration. However once you do the interleague game adjustment, things change.

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  2. Josh M says:

    Assuming Gio is on some kind of a pitch count isnt it a waste to strike out pitchers? Why not just throw it right down the middle and let them ground out to short or pop up?

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    • Danmay says:

      While you definitely have a point, .037/.019 is better than .162/.165. So it’s not just for show.

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    • TecJug says:

      “Why not just throw it right down the middle and let them ground out to short or pop up?”

      Because even if they suck at hitting, they’re still Major Leaguers with bats in their hands, and there’s no assurance that they’ll simply ground out or pop up. It’s better to be careful and throw a couple extra pitches than to serve up meatballs on the middle of the plate.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Many (though by no means all) pitchers are big, strong, athletic guys. You see them blast home runs in batting practice all the time. I’m fairly certain that if you threw the average NL pitcher a fastball right down the middle every time, he’d hit the ball out a few times.

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    • Bip says:

      Over the course of a season, do the few extra pitches necessary for the strikeout get canceled out by the large number necessary if the inning is extended because the pitcher reached base?

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  3. Mike says:

    Did he not face any pitchers in 2011? I assume with interleague, he did – I see he had 5 PA in 2011 (assuming over 2 games). So would that change his adjusted numbers for 2011?

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  4. OscarGamblesAfro says:

    interesting stuff. Thanks Jeff.

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  5. Neil says:

    In case anyone is wondering (because I was), Justin Verlander – league’s best pitcher – is likely the worst hitter in baseball. http://sabrtoothedtigers.com/2013/02/21/science-proves-justin-verlander-worst-in-league-at-something/

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  6. fly in the ointment says:

    sample size?

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  7. AV says:

    Long time Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner once said the best lineup against a knuckleballer is nine pitchers, the logic being their timing is messed up anyway. Dickey’s stats against pitchers doesn’t surprise me. Even in his first one-hitter a few years ago against the Phillies, the only hit was by opposing pitcher Cole Hamels.

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      That’s kind of what I thought too. A real hitter has a specific timing and is used to seeing 90MPH. A pitcher has none of this, and so if there’s something slower, to him it’s still a more hittable pitch than a blistering FB.

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  8. Alex says:

    This is actually not the article I was expecting. I mean, it sort of was, because I went with the appropriate connotation of pitcher abuse, but I was actually hoping for a pitch analysis. I’ve never seen data to back this up, but supposedly pitchers tend to throw mostly fastballs to opposing pitchers, under the assumptions that it’s most likely going to be an out no matter what they throw, and fastballs are theoretically easier to locate, and easier on the arm.

    My follow-up question to this article, then: Did Gio throw more breaking balls to opposing pitchers than did his peers? If so, is that a common thing for pitchers to do in their first year in the NL having previously pitched exclusively in the AL?

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  9. Subversive says:

    Why do you hate Derek Lowe so much? What did he ever do to you?

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  10. Ryan says:

    Instead of facing a pitcher in the NL, he’d have pitched against a poor batter in the AL. This probably would have increased the K/BB rate, hence showing an improvement even if he stayed in the NL..

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  11. Ryan says:

    whoops…”even if he stayed in the AL”

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    • GWR says:

      Beyond the strike outs and walks Gio had an RE24 of 12 facing pitchers last year (he face 57). he saved around .21 runs each time he faced a pitcher. In 2011 he had an RE24 of 9 vs hitters in batting 9th ( he faced 84), that works out to around .107 runs per batter faced. The difference between facing a pithcer vs. a non-pitcher batting 9th comes out to .103 runs per PA, so facing 57 pitchers in 2012 should have saved him 5.89 runs a little more than half a win.

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    • Dane says:

      This still makes no sense.

      In the AL, the 9th spot in the order is filled by the 8th best hitting fielder on the team. Logically, this is true for the 7-9 (sometimes 6-9) spots in the order.

      The pitcher (9th spot in the order) isn’t merely a substitute for the 9-hitter in the AL. He’s swapped out for a middle of the order hitter.

      Think of it this way:

      AL line-up:

      1 2 3 4 * 5 6 7 8

      NL line-up:

      1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 P

      The AL DH is not going to be the worst hitter in the line-up. The entire point behind the DH is that you can throw in offensive production. Why would a team choose to have it’s DH be a player who would normally bat 9th in the order if they didn’t have an All-Star/HOF caliber line-up from 1-8 to start with?

      By comparison, your scenario argues:

      AL line-up:

      1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 D

      NL line-up:

      1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 P

      Any argument that says Gonzalez merely pitched to another crappy hitter in the ninth spot fails to consider that the DH isn’t the 9-hole hitter. You’re improving your line-up from the point the DH hits and down.

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      • Carl Everett, Mariners DH says:

        Damn straight!

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      • Bip says:

        Hey, read my comment below. It applies to this, but I wanted to make it its own comment.

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      • GWR says:

        you have a very valid point, but I was not trying to quantify the difference of having a DH in the lineup vs not having a DH, that is a fairly complicated thing to do because there are numerous variables and multi-order effects, like how a team chooses to use there DH, lineup construction, defense (not having and Adam Dunn or Brad Hawpe in the feild), differences in allocations of financial resources (where do NL teams spend would be DH money) ect. I was only comparing to 9-hole hitters because they should have a similar boLI to pitcher hitting (if not higher because in high leverage situation a pinch hitter is used, and high leverage PA usually have a high boLI). if a pitchers hit is the same spot in the batting order that a DH would Gio would have saved even more runs because he would have racked up those out during more important situations.
        Just in-case you were wondering ’11 vs Gio DH’s hit:
        .256/.363/.463 in 91 PA, an RE24 of -4 (meaning Gio gave up 4 more runs than expected) and a 1.02 LI
        9-hole hitter hit:
        .173/.241/.173 in 84 PA, an RE24 of 9 and a .94 LI.

        Obviously the DH is much better than 9-hole hitter, but the 9-hole hitter hit in much less important situations how poorly or well they did mattered less than it did for the DH.

        This is obviously more of a back of the envelope thing than detailed analysis.

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  12. dbssaber says:

    Just FYI, if Hanson and Samardzija are tied for 3rd, then Vogelsong and Lynn are tied for 5th

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  13. Tim says:

    Kind of astonishing that he did this on an above-average offensive team.

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  14. Le Vagabond says:

    So last season proved that Gio can put up superb numbera against well below average major league hitter. Using that knowledge one can only dream how good his line would be if he was still at Oakland and got to play the Astros and Mariners his share if the 36 games next year.

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    • Schuxu says:

      Haven’t you watched spring training? Mariners and Astros are offenisve power houses now.

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    • Bab says:

      Or, what would be more likely — Gio would pitch against the Angels and Rangers, which would make his line look worse. Nice (not) jab at the AL West.

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  15. Vince says:

    Does Dickey maybe throw fewer knuckleballs to opposing pitchers, not wanting to walk a feeble hitter?

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    • Bip says:

      Dickey had the 6th highest Zone% among all qualified starters last year. He also threw more strikes than anyone not named Shields or Verlander. I think he has no trouble controlling the knuckleball.

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  16. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Very interesting, but I still hate the DH.

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  17. CircleChange11 says:

    Wait a minute, in 2002, Randy Johnson struck out 39 opposing pitchers?!?!?!?

    That means that there were opposing pitchers that faced him AND made contact?

    Holy crap, talk about something you can brag about for the rest of your life.

    Yeah, I faced unit. Hit a ground ball to short off em. Hell, yeah. High fives all around.

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    • Zac says:

      In 2002, Randy Johnson faced pitchers in 64 PA. He allowed 4 hits (2 of them doubles) and 2 walks in those 64 PA. Amazingly (or maybe not, I don’t know the odds) all 4 hits eventually lead to the pitcher scoring a run.
      Those 4 hits were by:

      Felix Rodriguez, a reliever who came into the game on July 6 to get the final out in the bottom of the 6th. With two outs and no one on base in the 7th, he hit a single to center and later scored. That run ended up being the difference maker as San Francisco beat Arizona 3-2 in that game. 4 San Francisco relievers combined for a hold, a blown save, a win, and a save in the game.

      Carlos Hernandez, who was the starting pitcher on June 5 vs. Johnson and went 1 for 2. He also ended up scoring a run, but his team lost 5-4.

      Jake Peavy, who as a 21-year old rookie with the Padres faced Randy Johnson twice a 6 day period in the middle of July. In the first game, Peavy had was B-R calls the biggest play of the game when with two outs in the bottom of the second, he hit a 2-run double that scored both runs. Johnson walked the next two batters, moving Peavy to 3B, and Phil Nevin hit a 3-run double. Johnson ended up allowing 8 runs over 5 innings, and Peavy got the win, having left the game with an 8-5 lead after 5 innings. Peavy struck out the other 3 times he faced Johnson in 2002.

      Hideo Nomo likewise faced Randy Johnson twice in the month of July, and once again one of Nomo’s at-bats was the biggest of the game. With the game still scoreless in the top of the 5th inning, 2 outs and a runner on 1st, Nomo hit a double that scored Adrian Beltre, followed by Cesar Iztures hitting another double that scored Nomo. The Dodgers won 4-0.

      So the Diamondbacks went 29-6 when Randy Johnson started for them in 2002, and 3 of those loses involved a game where he allowed a hit to a pitcher.

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  18. DD says:

    As an offshoot of this, I made a point to draft Gio in fantasy last year almost entirely based on this fact. He was a strikeout pitcher in the AL, but would see a spkie in K rate in the NL solely due to facing pitchers. It’s amazing how well that panned out, tho it seems this doesn’t always work out so well, as Jeff shows. Who might be the fantasay player to watch in this way for 2013? Dan Haren? To a lesser extent, McCarthy?

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  19. Nice article, thanks, very thought provoking about the differences between pitching in AL and NL. I wonder how the numbers would turn out if you took out the DH and just looked at the 8 position players for Gio for both seasons.

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  20. Bip says:

    These comments have raised a question in my mind. Are AL teams more likely to be willing to put a no-bat all-glove player on the field because they have a DH? In the NL, since you already have the pitcher coming up, you don’t want to put another hole in the lineup and have back to back automatic outs at the bottom of the lineup. However, in the AL, maybe teams don’t feel as strongly that they have to avoid lineup holes, and so maybe a guy like Brendan Ryan will be more likely to start with an AL team than an NL team.

    Here’s another theory. Though of course a higher rate of no-glove all-bat players will gravitate to the AL as free agents, do enough of them go there to fill all the DH spots? I don’t think AL teams draft players to DH, so I would suspect that AL and NL teams develop future-DH players at an equal rate. In the NL, a player may show value with the bat only, and so he will probably get stuck at first base. This may cause a chain reaction, pushing a possible first baseman to third or the OF, a corner OF to CF, a third baseman to 2B or SS, etc. This probably happens with catchers too, with many big league “catchers” like Montero and Santana being more comfortable in the AL where they can also DH.

    The result of this is then that some glove-first players might be pushed out of NL teams due to no spots being open on the field. At the same time, in the AL, bad-glove players are more likely to play at the position they are comfortable, meaning there is less likely to be a guy playing up the middle who really belongs in a corner somewhere. This opens up spots for those -bat/+glove guys.

    So, if we’re going by Dane’s system, instead of this lineup comparison:
    AL: 1 2 3 4 D 5 6 7 8
    NL: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 P

    We’d have:
    AL: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 G
    NL: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 P

    Where G=glove and the numbers correspond to the 1-8 best hitters in the lineup, DH or not. This is a more apples-to-apples comparison because many DH’s could make it into an NL lineup, just as a position player who probably shouldn’t be one. In this case, G probably still hits a little better than P, but it’s not so dramatic a difference as between the DH and the pitcher.

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    • That Guy says:

      Well, that’s a theory – of course it would be interesting to test, but given that WAR isn’t league adjusted (nor should it be, probably) a 3WAR all-glove SS is still a 3WAR SS, in the AL or the NL. I doubt there’s any reason he’d need to go to the AL and almost certainly not because managers and front offices in the AL over value his defensive production more because they can allow for the DH on the offensive side of things.

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  21. CircleChange11 says:

    Gio Gonzalez completely dominated pitchers a year ago. It would be easy to refer to this as being “cheap”, since pitchers aren’t real hitters, and indeed, being able to pitch against pitchers gives pitchers an edge in the National League. But Gonzalez deserves credit for being better against pitchers than most, and I’ll remind you: 40 years. Most strikeouts against pitchers in 40 years. Those strikeouts weren’t just handed to Gonzalez, even if he had to do less to earn them than usual.

    This is where it would be interesting to know how most pitchers view facing other pitchers as batters.

    Are they trying to strike them out?

    or

    Are they trying to get them to make contact on as few pitches as possible?

    There are quite a few pitchers that get in the box and look as though they just want to get it over quickly, without getting injured.

    Some guys even look like there’s a “silent agreement” where the batter won’t try too hard to get a hit and the opposing pitcher won’t throw anything too far inside.

    I can;t remember who the two players were, but in a game I watched this summer, a pitcher threw a changeup for the first pitch to a pitcher as batter, and the look on the batter’s face was priceless … a real WTF moment.

    If one were to look a “pitches per PA against opposing pitchers as batters”, would Gio retire them on fewer, more, or roughly the same amount of pitches?

    I ask because with modern pitch limits, throwing 5-10 more pitches per game to opposing pitchers might not be such a great strategy, given that we are talking about .160 type hitters.

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  22. Mike says:

    Did the guys named in this article keep up their dominance vs pitchers for any kind of time? Cool achievement for sure, but is it something that’s a repeatable “skill” or just stat noise?

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