For a long time, Gio Gonzalez was regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in the game. He landed on Baseball America's Top 100 list four consecutive years, placing 73rd in 2006, 72nd in 2007, 26th in 2008 and 97th in 2009. He was included in major trades on three occasions, being dealt to Philadelphia in the Jim Thome deal, back to Chicago in the Freddy Garcia deal, and then over to Oakland in the first Nick Swisher deal.
And it's not surprising that so many people were enamored with Gonzalez. He routinely was among the strikeout leaders in the minors, matching impressive raw stuff with quality performance. But he had consistent issues with his command and control, and they led to some serious struggles in his first couple MLB stints. In his first 131 innings spanning two seasons, Gonzalez struggled with both walks and giving up hard contact, but he continued to miss bats, striking out more than a batter per inning.
Despite these strikeout numbers, Gonzalez fell off the radar for a lot of people over the winter. He's almost 25, and coming into the season he had done little to make people believe that his issues with throwing strikes would subside. But in case you've missed it, Gonzalez beat out Trevor Cahill (who's now in the rotation as well) for the No. 5 spot in Oakland's rotation and has actually pitched shockingly well in his first five starts of this season.
The strikeouts are down a tad at 8.5 per nine innings, but he's also flashed an improved walk rate (4.4 BB/9) and the best groundball numbers (49% GB, 31% FB) of his major league career. He's giving up more contact than before, but that rate and his swinging strike rate are both still above average, and that's also partially a function of pitching in the zone more often. Gonzalez is having more success with his fastball than ever before, and while some of that has to do with a roughly 1 MPH increase in his velocity, he really does appear to be commanding it better than he has in any of his previous MLB stints.
Right now, Gonzalez has a 3.45 ERA, 3.12 FIP and 3.81 xFIP. Last season, his respective marks with those metrics were 5.75, 4.47 and 4.02, indicating that he was the victim of some pretty nasty luck last season, which isn't surprising if you look at his BABIP. Now, Gio will probably never be the star that some saw when he was mowing down hitters in Double-A, but this is a guy that a lot of people were down on coming into this season.
If he's able to keep missing bats while keeping his walk and groundball rates roughly around where they are now, then there's a chance that he emerges as a pretty impressive mid-rotation starter behind Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden.
Between Anderson, Braden and now Gonzalez, the Athletics may have one of the most impressive trios of young lefties in the game right now if Gio can establish that these first five starts were the start of something good.