Gio Gonzalez led the league in walks last season with 91 in 202.0 IP (4.05 K/9), so it was bound to come up as a concern when the Washington Nationals first talked about acquiring the 26-year-old fourth-year starter in a 4-for-2 trade with the Oakland A's this past December. "We really like his peripheral numbers," Nats' GM Mike Rizzo explained at the time, "He's won a lot of games on a mediocre club. 16 wins on the Oakland A's last year was quite a feat. He has the propensity to strike players out. He's got swing and miss stuff and we see his walks turning in the right direction."
Over the previous four seasons his BB/9 had come down from 6.62 BB/9 in his first 34.0 IP in '08 to 5.11 BB/9 in 98.2 IP in '09, 4.13 BB/9 in 200.2 IP in 2010 and finally 4.05 BB/9 in 202.0 IP last season. "We see him having general command and we think as he progresses into his career," the Nationals' general manager said, "each and every year he's going to improve on his command." The Nats were confident enough in what they acquired that they bought out his arbitration years, signing Gonzalez to a 5-year/$42M dollar extension shortly after the trade.
The left-hander has rewarded the Nationals' faith thus far, rebounding from a less-than-stellar debut in Wrigley Field in which he gave up seven hits, four walks and three runs in 3.2 IP to throw 14.0 scoreless, seven innings each in his last two starts, over which he's allowed just four hits total and two walks in one-run wins over the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros. Nats' skipper Davey Johnson talked excitedly about what he'd seen from Gio Gonzalez, who didn't walk a single batter in his 7.0 scoreless against the Reds. "The curve ball is unhittable," Johnson said, "Fastball is live. I heard that he was a little wild, well I haven't seen indications of that. He's been around the plate, even his misses are close."
Gonzalez walked two last time out against Houston, for five walks total in his first three starts or 2.25 BB/9 in his first 17.2 IP with the Nationals. There was only one three-game stretch last season in which he walked fewer than five batters last year in Oakland, from April 20-May 1st, when he walked just four over 17.2 IP in three starts against the Red Sox, Angels and Rangers, and just one stretch where he walked five over three games from September 12th-23rd against the Angels, Tigers and Angels again. The Nats' GM reminded ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan today that they saw this coming with Gonzalez, who'll start the first game of the series with San Diego Tuesday night.
"We said when we acquired him we saw his walk totals trending in the right direction for us," Rizzo said, "He was a 4.5 per nine inning walk guy. He trended it down [to just] about 4.0 BB/9 and we always said his stuff is such, he's got such swing and miss stuff and he strikes out a lot of batters that if he could ever get his walk totals to that 3.5 BB/9-type of guy he goes from a really, really good starter to one of the elite left-handed starters in the game. And just turning 26-years-old and not being in the league very long, we thought that this guy had some upside and some ability to cut down on the walks, and in this league we thought that he would pound the strike zone much more often and really trust his stuff a lot more and so far the early return is that he has done that."
Gonzalez has a 2.04 ERA, 1.41 FIP, five walks (2.25 BB/9) and 21 K's (10.70 K/9) three starts and 17.2 IP into his 2012 campaign. That 2.04 ERA is the fourth highest amongst Nationals' starters, behind Jordan Zimmermann (1.29), Stephen Strasburg (1.08) and Ross Detwiler (0.56) after three turns in the rotation for everyone but Strasburg, who made his fourth start on Saturday. Gonzalez does have the lowest FIP. The 2.25 BB/9 are the team's highest, as are the K/9. An unhittable curve that rivals Strasburg's from the right side and improved control from a power left-hander who slots in between hard throwing right-handers Strasburg and Zimmermann. Through three starts, this is the Gio Gonzalez the Nats thought they acquired this past December.