How Good Is Gio Gonzalez?

Yesterday, the Nationals gave up four prospects, including three of their top 10 guys, for the right to acquire Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A’s. This follows on the heels of the Mat Latos trade, essentially establishing current market value for a young starting pitcher with four year of team control. However, with Latos, the only nitpicking you can do about his performance to date is that he’s pitched in Petco, because other than that, he’s been pretty fantastic. Gonzalez’s track record is a little more spotty, starting out poorly before turning in two good seasons the last couple of years, but maintaining a walk rate that’s among the very worst in baseball.

Even while succeeding, Gonzalez simply hasn’t shown much of an ability to throw strikes on a regular basis, and those command problems have drawn unfavorable comparisons to the likes of Oliver Perez and even my own analogy to Edinson Volquez. However, rather than just continuing to point out the flaw in Gonzalez’s skillset, I thought it’d be useful to look at this pitcher type in general.

So, using the sweet, sweet custom leaderboards here on FanGraphs, I compiled a list of all starting pitcher seasons over the last 10 years with a minimum of 100 innings pitched and then filtered by walk rate (>=10%), strikeout rate (>=20%), and ground ball rate (>=40%). The resulting list gave me 38 pitcher seasons from 25 different pitchers. We can safely say that these guys have produced results at one time or another in a pretty similar fashion to how Gonzalez has pitched over the last couple of years. Here’s the list of those pitcher seasons, sorted in alphabetic order.

Season Name Age IP BB% K% GB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
2002 A.J. Burnett 25 204.1 10.7% 24.1% 42.8% 0.266 84 79 90
2009 A.J. Burnett 32 207 10.8% 21.8% 42.8% 0.295 88 95 96
2010 Brandon Morrow 25 146.1 10.5% 28.3% 40.4% 0.342 108 75 83
2010 Bud Norris 25 153.2 11.3% 23.1% 43.0% 0.314 124 106 99
2010 C.J. Wilson 29 204 10.9% 20.0% 49.2% 0.266 77 81 97
2006 Carlos Zambrano 25 214 12.5% 22.9% 46.9% 0.252 73 88 94
2009 Carlos Zambrano 28 169.1 10.6% 20.7% 44.7% 0.300 86 82 99
2010 Carlos Zambrano 29 129.2 12.1% 20.5% 43.6% 0.301 80 89 107
2007 Chad Billingsley 22 147 10.3% 22.6% 41.0% 0.290 76 91 89
2009 Chad Billingsley 24 196.1 10.5% 21.8% 45.3% 0.292 99 93 94
2009 Chad Gaudin 26 147.1 11.5% 20.9% 43.9% 0.309 117 102 100
2008 Clayton Kershaw 20 107.2 11.1% 21.3% 48.0% 0.320 102 96 91
2005 Daniel Cabrera 24 161.1 12.2% 21.9% 52.7% 0.291 104 94 94
2006 Daniel Cabrera 25 148 15.7% 23.7% 40.7% 0.309 103 92 102
2008 Edinson Volquez 24 196 11.1% 24.6% 46.3% 0.299 73 81 89
2011 Edinson Volquez 27 108.2 13.3% 21.3% 52.4% 0.293 145 135 106
2009 Francisco Liriano 25 136.2 10.7% 20.0% 40.2% 0.319 132 112 101
2010 Gio Gonzalez 24 200.2 10.8% 20.1% 49.3% 0.274 81 93 97
2011 Gio Gonzalez 25 202 10.5% 22.8% 47.5% 0.287 79 93 92
2010 Jhoulys Chacin 22 137.1 10.5% 23.7% 46.6% 0.285 74 81 91
2008 John Maine 27 140 11.0% 20.1% 40.6% 0.266 100 104 102
2008 Jonathan Sanchez 25 158 10.8% 22.6% 41.1% 0.317 116 89 95
2009 Jonathan Sanchez 26 163.1 12.4% 24.9% 40.7% 0.276 103 100 98
2010 Jonathan Sanchez 27 193.1 11.8% 25.3% 41.5% 0.252 78 102 99
2011 Jonathan Sanchez 28 101.1 14.9% 23.0% 42.4% 0.272 114 114 113
2008 Jorge de la Rosa 27 130 10.9% 22.4% 45.7% 0.319 105 86 93
2009 Jorge de la Rosa 28 185 10.4% 24.2% 44.7% 0.308 95 84 87
2010 Jorge de la Rosa 29 121.2 10.7% 22.1% 52.3% 0.278 95 98 91
2006 Josh Johnson 22 157 10.3% 20.2% 45.8% 0.277 71 90 93
2009 Justin Masterson 24 129.1 10.6% 21.0% 53.6% 0.314 99 90 91
2003 Kerry Wood 26 211 11.3% 30.0% 41.5% 0.269 75 85 80
2010 Manny Parra 27 122 11.3% 23.0% 47.2% 0.337 126 114 95
2004 Rich Harden 22 189.2 10.1% 20.8% 44.9% 0.289 86 83 92
2005 Scott Kazmir 21 186 12.2% 21.3% 42.3% 0.307 88 88 102
2007 Scott Kazmir 23 206.2 10.0% 26.9% 43.1% 0.333 78 79 83
2007 Tim Lincecum 23 146.1 10.5% 24.3% 47.0% 0.283 90 80 85
2010 Ubaldo Jimenez 26 221.2 10.3% 23.9% 48.8% 0.271 65 71 90
2009 Yovani Gallardo 23 185.2 11.9% 25.7% 45.0% 0.275 90 95 87

(By the way, that table is sortable, so you can click on any of the headers and see where Gonzalez’s seasons rank in the various categories.)

The first thing you may notice about these guys is their age – this is a very young skillset, with the average age of a pitcher posting this kind of season being 25.3 years old. In fact, A.J. Burnett’s 2009 season is the only example of a pitcher older than 30 meeting this criteria. The type of result is often the product of an inexperienced pitcher still trying to find command of his stuff, and as he gets older, that command generally improves.

In fact, if you’re a Nationals fan, you have to be excited about some of the names that show up here – Kershaw, Lincecum, Johnson, Jimenez, and Gallardo all posted similar seasons at one point in their career before turning one some of the best starting pitchers around. This is clearly the upside that the Nationals believe they’re getting – if Gonzalez does improve his command slightly while retaining his ability to miss bats and get ground balls, he has the chance of becoming one of the best pitchers in the league.

However, with the exception of Jimenez, none of those guys had the same long track record of walking guys as Gonzalez does. He’s consistently run walk rates north of 10%, even dating back to the minor leagues. This isn’t a new problem for him, and one that he hasn’t shown any real signs of improving on, even as the rest of his game has gotten better.

So, while one could focus on the “what if” upside, it’s more practical to look at Gonzalez’s command problems as something that are going to stick with him, and ask how good Washington can expect him to be if what they’ve seen is what they’re going to get. That brings up a very different set of comparables – Burnett, Billingsley, Zambrano, Cabrera, Volquez, Sanchez, and de la Rosa. These are all good stuff guys who never really conquered their command problems, and had to rely on strikeouts and ground balls to overcome all the walks.

If we just look at the career numbers for those guys (minus Volquez and Cabrera, who haven’t thrown enough innings to really be all that helpful as comparisons yet), we see a group that is a bit above average overall, mixing some really good seasons with some less great seasons into an overall package that is good but not great. Overall, these guys have posted +97.5 WAR in just under 6,000 career innings, or a total of about +2.9 WAR per 180 innings pitched.

Interestingly, all of these guys are also generally perceived as “headcases” or “bad makeup guys”. Gonzalez has also been described that way, and his attitude is often cited as one of the reasons he’s now been traded four times in his career. I don’t know which way causation flows here – whether guys with command problems are judged to have mental issues because of their command problems, or whether guys with makeup issues are more prone to missing the strike zone regularly – but it is worth noting that this pitcher type is often seen as one of the more frustrating in the sport.

Still, having the expectation of being a +3 win pitcher even without improvement, and the chance to be something more if the command comes along, makes for a pretty nice piece overall. While I’d prefer Latos’ overall skillset thanks to his ability to get swings and misses while pounding the strike zone, it’s clear that Gonzalez can succeed even while missing the strike zone with regularity. He might not be as good as the Nationals are hoping for, especially if they are buying into his ERAs from the past two seasons, but the ground balls and strikeouts do generally make up for the command issues. That flaw holds him back from being a great pitcher, but it shouldn’t stop him from being a pretty good one.

Did the Nationals get an ace? Probably not. Did they pay too much for Gonzalez? It depends on what you think of the kids they gave up. Overall, though, they did acquire a good starting pitcher, although they might want to realize that he’s going to provide some frustration over the next few years as well.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

32 Responses to “How Good Is Gio Gonzalez?”

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  1. I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with Gio’s attitude akin to a Zambrano or Burnett. From all accounts I’ve read he is a great clubhouse guy and I know him to be very well-liked and gracious to fans.

    I think his “headcase” label derives more from what at times seems like visible frustration following an HR or something and then having trouble with command and having a bad pitch cascade into a bad inning.

    Loved the analysis but think it is off the mark to say he ever has had an attitude problem.

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    • Big Oil says:

      Concur. Like many big leaguers, he has remarked that the trade rumors associated with his being traded multiple times has never been something that appealed to him. Not that Dave said this was it, but it could explain the relationship between his attitude and the number of times he has been traded. I don’t think expressing apprehension over constantly being on the move is at all unusual.

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    • Ryan says:

      “I don’t think there’s ever been a problem with Gio’s attitude akin to a Zambrano”

      This kind of goes without saying. Zambrano’s attitude has bordered on keeping him from playing major league baseball. That’s an insanely high bar to set when determining if a player has an attitude problem.

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    • RobM says:

      Burnett doesn’t have an attitude problem similar to Zambrano. He’s actually viewed quite positively in the club house with his teammates semingly rooting for him. His “head case” issue has more to do with how he pitches, never quite learn from his mistakes, or perhaps giving up too easily when things start to go south.

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    • chuckb says:

      I wonder how much of the “head case” label gets attached to pitchers who, for whatever reason, walk too many hitters in their career. In other words, the mainstream media and fans complain about a pitcher’s inability to conquer the strike zone and label him a “head case” because it must be some sort of mental block (so the thinking goes) that prevents him from being able to throw strikes consistently.

      I’m not talking about Zambrano, of course. He’s a headcase of a whole different dimension. But the others…I wonder if they’re not called “head cases” when there’s really nothing wrong with their personality or makeup, it’s just that they have a hard time throwing strikes. Matt Clement is another one who comes to mind in this mold.

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  2. Jake says:

    It should be noted that Gonzalez has managed a respectable 60% strike rate for his career. The real problem is that his first pitch strike rate is a miserable 53% for his career, and that’s been extremely consistant. A little quick math shows that this means he throws 62% strikes after the first pitch. If he could get his first pitch strike rate more in-line with his overall strike rate (maybe a more-palatable 57%?) he could drastically improve his overall numbers, simply by putting himself in a better position in more at bats.

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    • Big Oil says:

      Interesting – I hadn’t noticed that when reviewing his player page. I did notice, however, a WIDE variation in his FB/FT release point when looking at his game charts. Compare his release point to a guy like Cliff Lee, and you’ll see the ball is much more likely to leave Lee’s hand in the same place than it is Nat Gio’s.

      Combine that with more horizontal movement on those pitches than Lee, and you’ll see a remarkable spatter of “takes” outside the zone by both LHB and RHB. So, an inconsistent release point in concert with well above-average (impressive?) horizontal movement generates more pitches outside the zone? It’s consistent with pitching literature out there.

      I suppose one counter to that is, “may the varying release point and his movement is what is generating all the swings and misses.” And that could well be correct.

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  3. Nik says:

    How bad was that trade by the Phils: Gonzalez and Floyd for 10 starts from an injured Fredi Garcia.

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    • DD says:

      As a Phils fan, its disappointing that they flipped him for so little, or even let him go at all. Damn Pat Gillick…

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    • Paulie L. says:

      “How bad was that trade by the Phils: Gonzalez and Floyd for 10 starts from an injured Fredi Garcia.”

      This is Fangraphs, so clearly the Phils won that trade since Kenny Williams was involved.

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  4. DD says:

    He will also get expensive quick. He is set to make about $4.2 mil this year, his first arb year. His stats are perfect fits for arb raises (Ks, ERA, IP), so even without improvement, going 3.35 ERA/200 IP/190 K for the next 4 years, he should easily get to $12 mil by arb year 4, if not earlier. The Nats obviously want to win now, so don’t be surprised to see Harper by mid-summer in DC.

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  5. Mike says:

    I like watching Gio, so I want to say that he’s going to harness a little more control, put it all together, and become that overpowering ace, but my own analysis (which used somewhat different but similar data points) pretty much concluded the same thing and went even further back. There was one success story (Kershaw, who doesn’t make your chart because your data points are different), one decent one (Gallardo) but a lot of guys like Ollie and Kerry Wood who ultimately flamed out. It seems there’s an inherent injury/performance risk with these types of pitchers, and while we all like to hope that OUR guy is the one who’s going to harness the control and become that sexy, overpowering ace, more often than not this isn’t how it works out.

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  6. MauerPower says:

    Excellent article. One question though, how do you filter BB%, K% like how you did?

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  7. UZR is a Joke says:

    Which cost the most, the surplus value traded away in the Latos trade, the surplus value traded away in the Gonzalez trade, or the Yu Darvish posting fee?

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  8. Cody says:

    Thank you. This has been my point all along with Gio.

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  9. wat says:

    Holy crap the Nats got hosed on this deal.

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  10. xeifrank says:


    Here are his top ten comparables (2010-2011 stats) using K/9, BB/9, GB/FB.

    (K9, BB9, GB/FB)
    Gio Gonzalez (8.23, 4.09, 1.40)

    1 Jorge de la Rosa (8.22, 3.84, 1.55)
    2 Felipe Paulino (8.37, 3.97, 1.13)
    3 Ubaldo Jimenez (8.65, 3.73, 1.41)
    4 Ryan Dempster (8.6, 3.62, 1.27)
    5 Francisco Liriano (8.62, 3.64, 1.66)
    6 C.J. Wilson (7.92, 3.52, 1.51)
    7 A.J. Burnett (7.60, 3.85, 1.35)
    8 Tom Gorzelanny (7.91, 3.77, 0.89)
    9 Jhoulys Chacin (7.66, 4.04, 1.83)
    10 James McDonald (7.80, 3.90, 0.86)

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    • Curtiss says:

      So basically the Nats just got another Gorzelanny, but this one can throw grounders? This trade really upsets me because we traded 3 pitchers who all had good potential for a guy that is not going to put our team over the top.

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      • YUNO says:

        haha….wait what?

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      • BX says:

        The Nats with Strasburg and Harper are within striking distance of a playoff spot., in which case, a 3 WAR pitcher will almost definitely play a role in making the playoffs.

        Also— Gorzelanny hasn’t spent a full season in the rotation (>180 IP) since 2007. He’s super underrated (I wanted the team I root for to trade for him last year), but that’s a huge red flag, especially for a team with major injury questions in Strasburg and Zimmermann.

        If anything, Gio’s a well above average innings eater, which is huge.

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      • Luke says:

        The biggest problem for Gonzalez is that you have a poor defense who won’t take advantage of the grounders he generates. Your 3B was in the bottom 5 for fielding percentage (although this stat isn’t usually too relevant), but your 2B and SS both ranked in the bottom 5 for UZR at their positions last year and your 1b had a UZR of -5.5(?). If you have any hopes of a playoff spot then this is the issue that needs sorting.

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        3rd and first are fixed by fixing the health of Laroch and Zimmermann. Espinosa is an outstanding 2B getting better with experience. He just played his first real season at 2b and was a mlb rookie. This will fix itself with time. SS is Desmond. He has outstanding range but is prone to errors. He is very young so I have hope he will improve.

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  11. TexPantego says:

    Seem to be missing the obvious. Check his home/away splits. Oakland is a pitcher’s paradise.

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  12. Dave says:

    But he fill be facing 8 hitters now, not 9.

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  13. Socrates says:

    The Nats infield D is definitely a concern. It improves if we project guys getting better, but Desmond and Espinoza have to go out and actually do that. I worry that we jumped the shark with this trade, that said Gio is very good and at least controlled.

    I project them at 81.5 WAR. So I am not expecting them to compete this year with the team currently constructed. Now if you add Fielder, and you can add 4 or 5 wins (I projected LaRoche at 1 WAR). That would be a big difference and put us in the thick of the wildcard at least till the end. It’s a big ask though.

    Overall on the trade, I personally didnt see Ramos as the future catcher. I was still hoping that Norris would develop. On the three starters they all project as major leaguers of varying degrees. Milone is probably a 4, Cole has 2 upside (but is far away), and Peacock probably is a low end 2 or 3. Whether they are going to fulfill that potential I dont know, but the one thing you need to develop a good rotation is redundancy of talent. They had that but dont anymore.

    They still have a solid minor league system, but now we are relying on Ramos and the healthy of Stras and Zim for the future.

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    • JG says:

      Umm, 81.5 WAR is insanely high (the Yankees this year had around 60 WAR). Do you mean 81.5 wins?

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    • peric says:

      Uhmmm who is Jonathan Solano, Jesus Flores (who hit the cover off the ball in the Venezuelan winter league this season), David Freitas, Sandy Leon, Adrian Nieto, Cole Leonida?

      I don’t see trading Norris as a problem. He belongs with an American League team as his defense might never have reached the point where he could start at catcher : see Willingham, Josh. I do wonder if they received fair value for him and AJ Cole.

      The only potential missteps or mistakes I see at this point are:
      1. Signing Werth: (more and more I think this may be the result of the owner
      Ted Lerner negotiating directly with Scott Boras. Perhaps not Rizzo’s
      idea? He certainly looks like the odd piece in the puzzle both from an
      age and criteria perspective?

      2. Making Harper an outfielder. If Rizzo had kept him as a catcher he
      wouldn’t be ready to make an early major league debut as a poor
      fielding outfielder. He would certainly be in the minors for more
      seasoning. Yet, his career would not have lasted as long as it should
      as an outfielder. So, there’s that. And with Rendon right there with him
      it should provide offense for the Nats lineup for years to come.

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  14. peric says:

    Check out Randy Johnson “the Big Unit” stats at this age. He walked quite a few more batters … many, many more … over more years; yes providing a certain amount of frustration for Mariners fans. However, he definitely was an ace … now wasn’t he?

    Perhaps ex-A’s ace Steve McCatty can work with Gio on throwing strikes and not giving up walks. Its not like the Nats didn’t develop a pitcher like Tommy Milone. He throws nothing but strikes.

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    • Steve says:

      Right, except Johnson is the extreme outlier. For every one Randy Johnson, there are probably 100 names like the ones listed above.

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