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Gio Gonzalez: Walks and K’s Galore

Since he was taken in the supplemental first round of the 2004 draft, Gio Gonzalez has alternately enticed and unnerved major league talent evaluators.

If you squint a little bit, the left-hander has the makings of a top-tier starter. Gonzalez cooks in the low-90’s with his fastball, boasts a big-breaking high-70’s curveball and misses more bats than just about any hurler in the game.

Yet, the 24 year-old has already been traded three times-twice by the White Sox! As good as Gio can look when hitting the corners and garnering jelly-legged swings on that wicked curve, there are other days when he resembles an Oliver Perez/Nuke LaLoosh love child.

During his minor league career, Gonzalez managed to punch out a breathtaking 10.3 batters per nine frames, including 9.7 K/9 at AAA. Unfortunately, his walk rates were equally prodigious: 4.1 BB/9 career in the minors, and 4.6 BB/9 at the AAA level.

Over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Gio made 30 appearances (24 starts) with the Athletics. The results probably made Oakland pitching coach Curt Young weep: a 6.24 ERA in 132.2 frames. Gonzalez’s underlying numbers help explain why he’s so intriguing and aggravating to GM’s and fantasy players alike.

Gio has whiffed 9.7 batters per nine frames in the show. Opponents have made contact against him 76 percent of the time (80-81% MLB average), a rate commensurate with some of baseball’s top-end starters.

Gonzalez’s trademark curveball has exceptional movement . His yellow hammer breaks away from lefties (in toward righties) about six inches (4 inch MLB average for left-handers). It also drops in the zone 9-10 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin, obliterating the 5 inch average for MLB lefties. Talk about two-plane break.

Of course, all of those swings and misses come at a price. Gonzalez has issued a whopping 5.49 BB/9 in the majors. Gio has located just 45.9% of his pitches within the strike zone, well below the 49-50% MLB average. His first-pitch strike percentage is just 54.2% (58% MLB average).

Gonzalez has been the victim of some poor luck on balls put in play during his short major league stay, with a .345 BABIP between 2008 and 2009. His home run/fly ball rate has also been extremely high, at 16.4% (the MLB average for pitchers is around 11-12 percent). Gonzalez’s Expected Fielding Independent ERA, based on K’s, BB’s and a normalized HR/FB rate, is 4.43 over the 2008-2009 period.

It’s difficult to say what kind of pitcher Gonzalez will become as he gains more experience in the big leagues. We can dream of a day when he’ll still be whiffing bunches of batters, without the walks flowing as freely as Gatorade in the dugouts.

Granted, pitchers almost never make gains in one area without sacrificing in another. For that walk rate to go down, Gonzalez is going to have to toss more pitches around the plate. That means more contact and fewer K’s. But the trade-off would certainly be beneficial. Easier said than done, though.

With abysmal control, Gio has posted peripherals consistent with a mid-rotation starter. He’s far from a finished product, however, as his high-octane style has a way of jamming up the bases. Gonzalez is a nice target in A.L.-only leagues, if you can stomach the occasional 3-inning, 5 walk, “pass me the Tums” outing.