To sum it up quickly, Wolschleger discussed Gonzalez’s hot season — a 2.40 ERA over 168 2⁄3 innings now — and explained why, despite him pitching like a No. 1, he isn’t a No. 1. It’s not hard to figure out why. Gonzalez’s K-BB% is the lowest mark of his career. His fly ball rate is one of the highest. Hitters have posted a .242 BABIP against him.
As Wolscheger wrote:
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. ... He’s definitely above average but certainly not elite, in any way.
I agree with a lot of what Wolscheger wrote. Gio Gonzalez is not an elite pitcher by any stretch of the imagination. However, I would argue that Gonzalez has changed the type of pitcher that he is, leading to this “resurgence” at age-31. Rather compare him to the pitchers in the rest of the league, I wanted to compare Gonzalez to himself.
Where has Gio Gonzalez changed?
Increase in soft contact allowed
According to MLB’s Statcast data from Baseball Savant, Gonzalez is among the best pitchers in baseball at allowing soft contact.
His average exit velocity against is just 84.7 mph this season, ranking 13th among Major League pitchers with 190 or more recorded batted ball events this season. Just 27.2 percent of batted balls against Gonzalez have been above 95 mph, ranking 8th and above excellent pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale. As a result, hitters haven’t been able to square up that many pitches against him, either, ranking 31st in the league in barrels per batted ball event.
According to batted ball data from FanGraphs, Gonzalez has allowed contact that is considered “soft” 21.4 percent of the time. That’s not only the second-best mark of his career, but it also ranks 12th in the Majors among qualified starters.
Sure, luck is certainly involved, but a pitcher may be able to harness the BABIP luck in their favor by allowing softer contact and fewer barrels. It’s easier for a defense to make plays on softly-hit balls than frozen ropes (though the Nationals do rank highly compared to other Major League teams in infield defense).
Check out how Gonzalez’s opposing contact tendencies have changed, just from 2015 to 2017:
Gonzalez’s batted ball tendencies
|% BBE over 95 mph
|% BBE over 95 mph
As you can see, Gonzalez is certainly a different pitcher than he once was when Statcast was first introduced. But how?
Ron mentioned in his article that Gonzalez has increased his four-seam fastball usage, leading to increased success, considering that is potentially his best pitch. While his four-seam usage certainly is interesting, I’m more fascinated by Gonzalez’s increased curveball usage.
Across the league, some pitchers have placed a greater emphasis on their curveballs, as described in an article from earlier this year by Sports Illustrated. Gonzalez’s curveball usage has jumped to never-seen-before heights in 2017, potentially leading to some of these changes in performance that I mentioned above.
With just over a month left in the season, Gonzalez has already thrown more curveballs this year than he did in 2016. Yes, the innings totals are quite similar — 177 1⁄3 last year vs. 168 2⁄3 this year — but Gonzalez has thrown the pitch about 25 percent of the time this year as compared to just 20 percent of the time last year.
It’s probably smart that he did that, too. Batters have posted a .154 batting average and a .171 slugging percentage against the pitch this season; Gonzalez has allowed just two extra-base hits, both doubles. Gonzalez has allowed 47 batted balls under 90 mph that came as a result of the curveball, the 10th-highest total in the Majors. He isn’t Rich Hill or Aaron Nola, but his curve has been effective this season, and its increased usage may be leading to improved results across the board.
While there is an argument to be made that Gonzalez has changed, there are still a lot of holes that remain unaddressed.
First are Gonzalez’s strikeout and walk rates. His strikeout rate hasn’t gone up, but his walk rate has. That’s why his FIP- of 90 is so high compared to his ERA- of 55; Gonzalez’s peripherals do not back up his improved performance on the surface. His xFIP-, in fact, is so bad that it’s nearly league-average, at 99. Gonzalez has allowed a ton of fly balls this year, but his HR/FB rate remains safely below league-average. That isn’t sustainable.
Second is Gonzalez’s strand rate, another indicator of luck. Gonzalez has stranded 85.8 percent of runners on base this year — a great mark, indeed, but one that will regress over time. Batters are hitting just .147 against him with runners on, a career best. However, they still continue to hit a fly ball 36.3 percent of the time. If (or, really, when) those baseballs start going out of the yard, then Gonzalez is in a lot of trouble.
I will say, though, that nearly 1⁄3 of Gonzalez’s curveballs this season have come with runners on base, but this makes up only about 20 percent of his total pitches with runners on. He still relies heavily on his two fastballs there.
I’m not alone in saying that Gonzalez’s hot season might be more than a huge streak of luck. DRA, perhaps the most advanced true-ERA-indicator metric, pegs Gonzalez at a 3.54 mark, significantly better than both his FIP and xFIP, though not nearly as good as his ERA. Still, though, this mark is 25 percent better than the league-average Major League starter. It’s his best mark since 2014.
Honestly, I agree with it. I think his DRA most accurately represents the type of pitcher Gonzalez has been this year. The peripherals definitely hurt his case from being put in the “elite” bucket, but Gonzalez has really been pitching better this season than he has in past years.
In order to advance past the first round of the postseason this year, the Nationals will need elite starting pitching. But they also don’t Gio Gonzalez to be the guy. That’s why they drafted Stephen Strasburg, and that’s why they gave Max Scherzer a big, fat check. Gonzalez, though, will be a great weapon for them as a No. 3 because most would agree that he’s pitching significantly better than most other No. 3s. And that’s exactly what the Nationals want.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow Devan on Twitter @DevanFink.