For a two-time All-Star, former second runner-up for the National League Cy Young Award, and eerily consistent – though unspectacular – starter, the Washington Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez is viewed as a surprise for doing what he does: producing set-in-stone numbers on an annual basis.
In every year since his first season in Washington, when he achieved that third-place finish for the Cy Young Award and one of his All-Star appearances, Gonzalez has been something of an afterthought, overshadowed by superstars Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and others like Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark who had better statistical seasons than he did. Then there were the prospects like Joe Ross and Lucas Giolito who were supposed to render Gonzalez expendable.
For 2017, the Nationals’ depth in starting pitching placed Gonzalez on the “we’re willing to move him” trade block. His name was thrown around in trade talks after the 2015 and 2016 seasons in large part because the Nationals were supposed to have had a surplus of starting pitching and sought to fill their other needs by moving an excess, expensive piece like Gonzalez.
Behind Strasburg and Scherzer, more expensive than the solid Roark, and less of a high-end talent than Ross, it was iffy as to whether Gonzalez would be a National much longer. However, Giolito was included in the trade for Adam Eaton, and the Nationals chose to retain Gonzalez. Given how the situation played itself out, they’re lucky they did.
Strasburg is on the disabled list with a nerve impingement in his elbow. Roark is having his career-worst season. Ross is lost for this season and probably 2018 after Tommy John surgery. Through attrition and performance, suddenly Gonzalez is back in the top-3 of Nationals starters.
He’s not doing anything all that much differently than before. On pace for his customary 30 or so starts with around 180 innings, a solid hits-per-innings-pitched ratio, his usual penchant for some untimely control problems, and close to a strikeout per inning, he has morphed into the “write it down” guy.
What has hindered him garnering more deserved recognition is that he’s not on the high end in that category as Scherzer is, nor is he in the middle like Bartolo Colon was early and especially late in his career with his attendance record and canniness allowing clubs to shrug knowing what they were getting. This is different from an innings-eater or a star.
Gonzalez hasn’t reached 190 innings since 2013 and won’t do it this year either. He will not contend for the Cy Young. Gonzalez is better than the middling guy and not as good as the top guy. He just sort of shows up with a little intermittent aggravation due to his lack of command. He’s not going to pitch into the seventh or eighth inning of every game like Scherzer does through performance or as Colon did because he was asked to. But the results pop up like an annoying but useful neighbor whom you dread seeing in the yard for fear of mind-numbing chitchat and redeems himself by picking up your mail and feeding the cat without letting it out when you’re away.
There’s value in it despite its obvious flaws.
Gonzalez’s walks are slightly up and he has benefited from good fortune on balls in play with a .245 BAbip. His percentage of home runs allowed is the highest it has been since 2009, but that’s something that’s happening league-wide. The Nationals’ defense is not great, not terrible. Gonzalez will never be precise with his control, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His velocity is somewhat lower than it has been in the past, and the drop is not small. The fastball is averaging less than 91 mph when it was around 93 in the past; the sinker is at around 90 when it used to be close to 91.5; his changeup is down less than 1 mph; his curve is down around 3 mph. He has also changed his patterns.
Like the issue with the rise in home runs, there could be ancillary factors in the decline in velocity and the changes to the way he approaches hitters. Provided he’s not experiencing physical issues that manifest themselves into a breakdown in his stuff, then it’s not something to worry about. In fact, for a pitcher who is in his early-30s, it’s quite normal.
The disparity between his good luck and worse luck years is not so significant that there’s anything to be gleaned from it other than he’s easier to assess for what he is. He’s set to turn 32 in September and not much is going to change. Strangely, this benefits a Nationals team that has tried to shunt him to the back of the rotation on an annual basis but has ended up needing him far more than anticipated.
So what happened?
It might be one of those situations in which nothing happened except he was called upon and he delivered.
For a pitcher they considered trading who is signed through the end of this season with a supremely reasonable option of $12 million for 2018, the Nationals got lucky. Or maybe they didn’t. They just never stopped to look at what they had all along and appreciated it for what it is.
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