The Nationals’ Second Ace

Zack Greinke has been the most valuable National League pitcher this season, tallying 3 WAR over 13 starts. Not too far behind him is a pair of Washington Nationals starters who have each made one fewer start: Gio Gonzalez ranks second with 2.7 WAR and Stephen Strasburg comes in third with 2.6 WAR. At this point in the season the 0.3 wins separating Greinke and Gonzalez isn’t significant, nor is the more minute differential between Strasburg and his southpaw teammate.

But the fact that Gonzalez is even in the same discussion as a former Cy Young Award winner and a phenom living up to the hype bears notice. Entering the season, the 26-year old Gonzalez was considered a good pitcher, one who could easily miss bats but who struggled with control and was prone to racking up walks. He wasn’t projected to pitch at an all-star or award-worthy level, but the Nationals saw something they loved and offered, at signing, the largest-ever contract for a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher.

His five-year, $42 million deal, which includes a $12 million club option in 2017 and a $12 million player option in 2018, stood to buy out the most effective years of what we typically consider a #2 or #3 starter. The deal offered some savings at the end if Gonzalez turned into an ace, but would still prove worthwhile if he sustained the 3-3.5 WAR performance he established over 2010-11.

If Gonzalez can sustain his current level of performance, or some semblance of it, the Nationals are going to have a legitimate second ace in the rotation and a potential #1 starter signed to a fairly modest deal throughout his prime.

Can Gonzalez keep rolling through the National League at this pace? While there are a couple of reasons to think some of his numbers will regress to the mean, there is also ample evidence to suggest he has made long-lasting improvements and isn’t simply a posterchild for switching to the easier league.

Switching leagues is one of the trickier subjects these days, especially with fantasy baseball becoming so prevalent, where the effects of the league-switch can make a pitcher look better or worse even though the scoring environment dictates the same value. The American League is more offensive-minded with the designated hitter in play, so pitchers switching to the National League tend to see their numbers improve. It doesn’t mean their actual value as a pitcher improved, but their numbers look better when compared to their statistical pasts.

Gonzalez, however, has improved beyond the typical league-switch effects.

From 2000-10, among pitchers who switched leagues from one year to the next, while throwing 100+ innings in both seasons, those switching to the senior circuit improved their strikeout rate by 0.6 per nine innings. The collective walk rate didn’t move much, improving by approximately 0.1 walk per nine innings. Gonzalez has improved his walk rate by over 0.3 per nine, while his strikeout rate has ballooned upwards by almost 2.25 per nine. He isn’t going to continue suppressing home runs at this rate for the entire season — current HR/FB of 1.9% — but his increased strikeout prowess goes beyond getting to face Joe Blanton instead of David Ortiz.

How is he doing it? For starters, he is throwing over a half-mile per hour faster on his four-seam fastball and is throwing it more frequently. He has an excellent curveball but has become more selective with it in order to utilize his changeup more often. While the season is still relatively young, the change in approach has made each of his offerings more effective per 100 pitches than in any of his four previous seasons. His two- and four-seamer, as well as his changeup, are all being thrown with more horizontal and vertical movement than ever before. Put everything together and Gonzalez is attacking hitters differently with better stuff than he has shown in his young and impressive career.

Naturally, his plate discipline marks are all trending in the right direction. Batters are swinging more but making far less contact, and the reduced contact primarily stems from pitches thrown in the zone, where better contact is yielded. His groundball rate has even improved to 49 percent, making him practically the ideal starter. Consider that there are 23 NL pitchers with a 49%+ groundball rate, and Gonzalez has the highest strikeout rate. Only Greinke matches his diverse stat-line in this regard.

These improvements aren’t enough to guarantee his BABIP remains a relatively microscopic .244, or that he continues to serve up homers at a rate of one per 293 batters faced, but Gonzalez is doing things differently this season and seems to be becoming a much better pitcher than many initially thought possible. Switching to the easier league can bring with it a performance boost, but throwing faster, with more movement, and a different approach that keeps batters off-balance is far more significant to his ability to continue pitching at this high of a level. Stephen Strasburg is still the pitching face of the Nationals franchise, but Gonzalez is a major reason the team currently sits four games up on the NL East, playing 14 games above .500.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

15 Responses to “The Nationals’ Second Ace”

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  1. CabreraDeath says:

    Solid article, Eric. My one question would remain with his walk rate *only* improving by .3/9 IP. That doesn’t *seem* like a great deal of improvement; consequently, if one were to believe that his huge spike in K/9 is ripe for regression, it would seem that we are not dealing with *that* much of a different dude. Add in the completely unsustainable HR/9 rate and you have the makings of a guy that still fits better as a #2 rather than a #1.

    Should be interesting to see the 2nd half of this season and whether NL teams start adjusting back to him, which they inevitably will.

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    • John says:

      I agree its not too significant itself, but coupled with a giant increase in K/9, that is very impressive and more notable. Also, it continues a 4 year trend of decreasing BB/9 and increasing K/9.

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    • NatsFan73 says:

      It’s no improvement at all actually. His BB% is basically identical to what he posted in 2011 and 2010. The reason why his BB/9 is lower is because he’ facing fewer batters in the first place, and THAT is due entirely to the K% spike and unsustainably low BABIP.

      Now then. LD% is up some, but so is GB%, and FB% is down. HR/FB is clearly unsustainable, but if he can keep the ball down and keep striking guys out at the new, higher rate there’s no reason to think that he can’t be excellent going forward even as BABIP and HR/FB regress.

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  2. Oasis says:

    His LD% is the highest in his career as well so that makes his BABIP even more unsustainable. Add that to the microscopic homer rate and this tells me the improvement is mostly luck and is due for a regression.

    And it’s good to see the myth of the AL’s superiority promulgated yet again.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Could you elaborate a bit on why you think it’s a myth?

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    • DD says:

      How do you know his LD % won’t regress to his career average, 17.5%? That would theoretically keep his BABIP down.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Who said anything about the AL’s superiority? All the article says is that it’s easier to pitch in the NL because of the absence of the designated hitter, and that assertion is backed up with statistics. I don’t think that’s a terribly controversial statement.

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      • Juan Chapa says:

        I do not believe the NL is the weaker league. Just ask the hitters,
        going from the AL to the NL. Usually, their batting stats show
        a significant drop. In the past, NL pitchers were more agressive,
        as they pitched in bigger ballparks. For this reason, the NL had
        the power pitchers, the AL the finesse. Usually, power pitchers,
        that keep their pitches and walks low, are more successful.
        That is why Koufax, Gibson, and Carlton took their teams to
        the WS more often. Teams that concentrate their attack on the
        3-run HR, as opposed to good hitting teams with speed, are
        proned to shutouts, when facing a good pitching team. Its
        much harder to shut out a team with good hitters and speed.
        However, its a team’s ballpark that dictates the tayloring of
        a team. For example, since the Cubs play in a homerun
        hitter’s ballpark, it makes no sense for the team to
        concentrate their offense on speedy players that mainly
        steal bases. Or for that matter, to load their rotation mainly
        with fastball pitchers!

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  3. degolas says:

    Question for those who know…

    To say that Gio has changed his approach by throwing more fastballs and change-ups and less curveballs, is that something that maybe his catcher and/or pitching coaches should be credited with?

    Maybe his overuse (if you can call it that) of the curve with the A’s is due to Suzuki calling for it too much, thereby leading to higher walk rates and keeping him from making the leap to elite pitcher.

    It would be interesting to hear from him why his pitch selection has changed, as it could lend a lot of credence to the notion that a catcher’s game calling can have a huge effect.

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    • DD says:

      Funny you mention that – check out David Laurilia interview posted today. He says, in summary, he is more trusting in his changeup, and hasn’t had to rely on his curve as much. He’s also trying hard to keep the walks down and be more efficient, while continuing to work on fastball location.

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    • Ty says:

      There are still many pitching coaches and catchers (including Duncan/Molina, one of the best duos in the game) that believe the fastball/change-up combo is the best in the game, for any pitcher. It definitely seemed to work for Nolan Ryan. Whoever came up with the idea for him to use it more should deserve all the credit in the world.

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    • Juan Chapa says:

      It depends on the opposing team’s hitters. Usually, the catcher
      researches the opposing hitter’s weaknesses. He then discusses
      these, and formulates a plan, with his pitcher. One of the best
      at doing this was Jason Varitek, of the Red Sox. It is said that
      that Varitek is chiefly responsible for the success of the Sox’s
      rotation. And, the Red Sox pitchers are now just starting to
      getting over Varitek’s retirement. So, there is a reason why
      the Sox kept Varitek for several years after his batting stats
      started dropping. These type of catchers are the bread and
      butter of the quality pitchers.

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  4. Ivan Grushenko says:

    I have nothing substantive to contribute, but I want to say that I loved Gio with the A’s and am thrilled he’s doing so well. Very nice write-up, Eric!

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  5. John C says:

    I’ll add that the difference in Gio’s increased K% from this year’s 30.4% to his previous career high of 24% in 2009 is largely explained by facing pitchers. Of 21 PA vs. opposing pitchers Gio has struck out 16 for a K% of 76.2%. Taking out those strikeouts and plate appearances, Gio’s K rate for 2012 against non-pitchers falls to 26.8%, which seems like a much more sustainable increase.

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