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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.