With injuries to their 1a and 1b starters, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals have gotten an unexpected boost from veteran Gio Gonzalez. He’s been with the Nationals for several seasons now, and as a result they knew what to expect from him. He can give you around 200 solid innings with average statistics; in other words he’s a good middle-of-the-rotation type of pitcher.
However, he’s defying most of those expectations this season with continued success. He’s made 25 starts so far and has allowed more than three runs — earned or unearned — only three times. He’s allowed more than two runs on only seven occasions.
Basically he’s given them over 160 really quality innings so far this season, and with an ERA at 2.39, which is third-best in the league, he really sticks out as someone who’s having a career season, at least on the surface.
I say on the surface because I see way too may areas to be concerned about, things that tell us the run Gonzalez is having isn’t of his own doing but rather mostly due to luck and good fielding. First, there’s the FIP of 3.80, which is almost 1.5 runs higher than his ERA. The xFIP is even higher at 4.25, which is easily a career high when talking about at least 100 innings minimum in a season. Even the ballpark-adjusted numbers are bad — the xFIP- is a career high.
His peripherals are really the main concern. His walk rate of 9.4 percent is pretty high, fourth-highest among qualifiers. Gonzalez’s modest 22.8 percent strikeout rate is definitely respectable, but doesn’t back up the outs he’s been getting. The strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.42 is the lowest mark for Gonzalez since 2011.
Another number that really sticks out is a whiff rate of 9 percent, which is the lowest it’s been for Gonzalez since 2010. His swing rate is another number that makes it difficult to believe Gonzalez is currently responsible for his own success; it’s currently 42 percent, which is tying a career low set back in 2009. Even his first-pitch strike rate of 54.9 percent is a seven-year low.
His career-best season in 2012 is a good benchmark for how Gonzalez is doing this year. Using advanced metrics, we’re able to compare the two and see that with these types of numbers Gonzalez shouldn’t be having the success he’s had.
Gio Gonzalez 2012 vs 2017
Now, there certainly are some positives. The most noteworthy is a change in his fastball usage. Gonzalez has a four-seamer and a two-seamer. In 2015 and 2016, he relied on the four-seamer less than 30 percent and the two-seamer more than 30 percent. Earlier in his career it was the opposite.
Now he’s returned to using the four-seamer more than 30 percent of the time and the two-seamer less than 30 percent. That change certainly helped as his four-seamer is third in overall pitch value, and fourth in pitch value per 100 pitches.
Another area the change seems to be helping is quality of contact. Gonzalez raised his soft contact rate over three percentage points up to 21.3 percent; this is only the second time in his career in which it was above 20 percent. In doing this, he dropped his hard contact rate almost four percentage points. Despite that it’s still above his career average.
The slight changes in fastball usage have certainly boosted his numbers but they’re not all that impressive to begin with. While it’s great Gonzalez is going on there and helping the Nationals put a curly ‘w’ on the board, at some point we’ve got to realize that a majority of this success is not from something Gonzalez has done in particular. He’s riding a wave of good luck and defense.
I don’t think the Nationals particularly care how they win a ballgame when Gonzalez is on the mound, but when it comes time for the postseason, they need someone who can win when the odds are stacked or the luck is going the other way. Right now I don’t see Gio Gonzalez as that type of pitcher. He’s definitely above average but certainly not elite, in any way.