Washington Nationals PDB: Gio Gonzalez's 2012 and 2013

Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

This Pitching Daily Brief looks at Washington Nationals' pitcher Gio Gonzalez, his performance in 2012, and what we might look for in 2013. In short, Gio saw significant improvement in his performance last season. Why? And what does the answer mean for 2013?

Maurice Sendak's children's picture book Where the Wild Things Are offers more, I think, than an opportunity to play on the title of the 1964 Caldecott Medal award winner. The book, which many here may be familiar with, stars a young boy named Max. After poor behavior, Max is disciplined and sent to his room, where his imagination takes him to the eponymous location above. He encounters many terrifying creatures, but is eventually made king of the wild things, and ostensibly learns to deal with various difficulties along the way.

Sendak described the theme of the book as addressing "how children master various feelings - danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy - and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.'' Reviewing Gio Gonzalez's scouting reports, interviews, and statistics reveals much the same maturation and development process: Although obviously more adult-oriented, Nat Gio has overcome many, if not all, of the hurdles scouts and commentators projected he would face.

Minor League Tenure

And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

Gonzalez earned much attention throughout his decorated prep career in Florida leading up to his selection as the 38th pick in the 2004 Rule 4 (first-year player) draft. His entry onto the scene wasn't without unwelcome attention and critical observation, however. Baseball America reported on an incident where Gio was dismissed from his high school team after a reported dispute between his mother and high school coach over the playing time given to his brother, also (coincidentally) named Max.

Gonzalez never appeared to sweat the matter -- or other pitching difficulties -- during the early part of his professional career. His frontline potential was salient since at least 2005, when a scout remarked that "[w]hen I saw him earlier in the year he couldn't find the plate. But he's just on a different plane than everyone around him now. We're getting a clinic on what it's like to live in 0-2 city."

"To be successful, he's going to have to get his emotions under control...that's his whole thing. Gio is too emotional on the mound. His ability is there. He's got all the pitches." -Pat Gillick, Phillies GM, 2005

After being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in December 2005, Pat Gillick, the team's General Manager at the time, said of Gio that "'[t]o be successful, he's going to have to get his emotions under control...that's his whole thing. Gio is too emotional on the mound. His ability is there. He's got all the pitches. He's a great competitor, but sometimes he gets excited on the mound.'"

Noting his laid back demeanor, Baseball America in 2007 highlighted his accomplishments with the Double-A Birmingham, but also mentioned to Gio that "[t]he one thing people always say about you is that you get too emotional on the mound when things go wrong," and inquired about how he reacted to adversity. The lefty emphasized that his focus was on limiting walks, and not getting upset with the umpire. His performance that year -- 11.1 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, a 3.18 ERA over 150 innings -- backed up Gio's self-admitted development of confidence and aggressiveness. And Baseball America placed him 26th on their top 100 prospects list in early 2008.

Reasonable doubt remained. In June 2008, Baseball America noted that

It’s been a mixed bag for Gonzalez, the centerpiece of the Nick Swisher trade, in his first Triple-A season, as evidenced by his strikeout [second in his league] and walk totals [fifth highest] above. Prior to yesterday’s game, Gonzalez, 22, had alternated good turns with bad over his previous eight appearances, dating back to May 18. The Good Gio was 3-1, 1.08 with 31 strikeouts, nine walks and no home runs allowed in 25 innings. Standing in stark contrast, the Bad Gio was 0-3, 13.25 with 22 strikeouts, 11 walks and seven homers in 17 2/3 innings.

Oakland Athletics watchers were hoping Gio would debut shortly after the organization dealt Joe Blanton in July 2008, but Gio remained consistently inconsistent, and it was not unusual to wonder whether he would be able to overcome concerns identified by those in the industry.

Major League Debut and First Two Full Seasons

and they rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

Gonzalez ultimately debuted for the A's in 2008, issuing 6 free passes per 9 innings over 34 innings. The industry's skepticism -- maybe even frustration over his inability to harness his ability -- remained palpable: "Gio Gonzalez's wildness truly manifested itself in the big leagues (25 walks in 34 innings), but his walk rate in Triple-A (4.4) and for his career (4.0) are on the high side." And Gonzalez himself understood what was going on, telling MLB.com A's writer Mychael Urban that he was focusing in 2009 on his mental game. "'It's easier said than done,' Gonzalez said earlier this spring. '[Last season] I was over-reacting, over-analyzing, over-everything. ... But you have to be in control of your emotions.'"

In 2009, Nat Gio went 6-7 with a 5.75 ERA over nearly 99 big league innings; walking over five hitters per nine innings did not help. There was some good news: Gio did have a fairly high BABIP. However, commentators seemed to roll their eyes at Gio's reformed composure, at least going by the numbers. With no one on base, opposing hitters rocked a .835 OPS off Gonzalez, and that number inflated to .858 OPS with men on. Each were around 25% greater than league average. FanGraphs' David Golebiewski probably summarized the late 2009 consensus when he stated that "[w]e can dream of a day when he’ll still be whiffing bunches of batters, without the walks flowing as freely as Gatorade in the dugouts." The prognosis wasn't quite as dire as Max's environs appeared, but it wasn't rainbows and unicorns, either.

2010 and 2011 saw Gio take a meaningful step forward in producing back to back fWAR 3+ win seasons, and back to back bWAR 3.5+ win seasons. Working with a fastball, curve, sinker, and change, he posted the following figures each year:

Year Wins Losses K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP/xFIP
2010 15 9 7.67 4.13 3.23 3.78/4.04
2011 16 12 8.78 4.05 3.12 3.64/3.73

Gonzalez got much better at limiting damage once he got into tight spots. With men on base in 2011, for example, he yielded an OPS+ of just 67 -- 33% better than the league average pitcher with runners on. And he also appreciated his role in the larger context of the rotation, remarking after he beat the Boston Red Sox one night after the A's gave up a major league record three grand slams against the New York Yankees that "[i]t's stopping the bleeding right away and not letting it spiral out of control.

"Go ahead and focus on his walks, if you must, but at least be fair and look at the strides he's made in other statistical departments." -Pete Kerzel, MASNSports.com, December 2011

Validation, maybe? Sort of. In an article reviewing Gio and the question marks presented after his trade to the Nationals, Pete Kerzel of MASNSports.com posed the following hypothetical question and subsequent answer:

Aren't Gonzalez's high walk totals a concern?

Anytime a pitcher leads the league in walks - as he did with 91 free passes in 2011 - it's a concern. And Gonzalez has had some control issues - his 183 bases on balls over the past two seasons are the highest total in the majors. Lots of walks coupled with a suspect defense might frustrate some pitchers....Go ahead and focus on his walks, if you must, but at least be fair and look at the strides he's made in other statistical departments.

While Gio's walks were still relatively high, Kerzel pointed out that the lefty had shown he could pitch successfully in the majors. Others believed that mental concerns appeared overblown and looked at statistics that measured a pitcher's ability in high leverage situations (think of when Doghouse's WPA graph spikes or strays from the centerline to envision "clutch" moments) to prove it.

Some measured developmental worry remained: Reputable sources (including Keith Law) were concerned with Gio's talent relative to the package the Nationals surrendered to Oakland in late 2011. Other sources concluded after the Nats' trade that "[t]he fact that the Red Sox 'fell short' in acquiring Gonzalez should be looked upon as a blessing from the baseball Gods. The Nationals can have him, a fifth starter at best on our [the Red Sox] roster."

2012

till Max said "BE STILL!"

and tamed them with the magic trick

of looking into all their yellow eyes without blinking once

Gio's performance in 2012 delivered on the significant promise and marginalized the concerns previously identified by talent evaluators. Fangraphs has already done a good job identifying the things that made Gio Cy Young worthy last season, and these quality pieces deserve mention here.

First, Michael Barr pointed out that Gio switched his approach in 2012. Instead of throwing his curve ball more (a pitch he has historically had difficulty controlling), #47 went to it less often:

CB% to LHH CB% to RHH
2011 32% 27%
2012 26% 19%

His two strike approach also reflected a decreased reliance on the hammer. According to Barr, it all translated into success, specifically that "[h]e modified his repertoire to help him get ahead in counts more frequently, and simply utilized his curve ball more effectively than he had in the past."

Jeff Sullivan offered a slightly different explanation for Gio's 2012 success. Sullivan discovered that Gonzalez had a historic year when facing opposing pitchers, who had a triple slash of -- seriously -- .019/.037/.019 against the Nats' lefty. "In all, Gonzalez had 57 matchups against pitchers. Of those, 41 ended with strikeouts, and three ended with sacrifice bunts. One ended with a hit. One ended with a walk."

Now the interesting part. When Sullivan took out the results Gio earned against opposing pitchers, he found that his raw totals in 2012 were largely similar to those he posted in 2011:

Adjusted strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 21.7%

Adjusted walk rates:

2011: 10.6%
2012: 9.8%

Sullivan couldn't be sure whether this meant that Gio hadn't really taken a "step forward." But Gio's location, velo, and batted ball profile didn't show tremendous variation (although his .267 BABIP was assisted in part by just a .657 BABIP on line drives (where closer to 70% go for base hits), which accounted for 21.9% of his batted balls, easily a career high).

There appear to be a few signs that there was a step forward beyond Gio's performance against an opposing pitcher. In 2012, Gonzalez sported the lowest OPS and OPS+ of his career with runners on base, at .588 and 59, respectively. That last number means Gio was over 40% better than the average league pitcher with runners on base when measuring by OPS. Perhaps he was walking the #8 hitter to get to a favorable matchup against a pitcher in some of those cases, though? It doesn't appear that way -- Gonzalez walked the #8 hitter four times, never intentionally, and by my count only once where a runner was already on base with two outs.

Gio also was more "clutch" than at any other point in his career, as the following stats show:

Split OPS+ (league average 100; lower is better)
2 outs, RISP 62
Late & Close 91
Tie Game 40
Within 1 R 54
Within 2 R 50
Ahead 83

In fairness, although Gonzalez pitched better than the league average pitcher when the Nats were ahead or late and close (by 17% and 9%, to be precise), it was not as good as he was compared to his own average (19% and 24% worse). But Gio still limited the big inning better than he ever had; through 2010, he had allowed 3 runs or more in an inning over 9% of innings he had thrown in his career, against the MLB average of roughly 5.7%. In 2012, over 199.1 innings pitched, Gonzalez gave up 3 or more runs in an inning only 6 times (also counting a game against the Mets where he gave up 2, 1, 2, and 1 run(s) each inning over 4 innings), which works out to a 3% average. Notably, pitchers sacrificed against him only three times, not often enough to seriously account for the improvement.

Gonzalez continued to acknowledge his maturation, saying in late 2012 that "'I'm 27 now . . . and if I could go back to when I was 20, I'd probably slap myself in the face a couple of times.'"

2013

and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all

Does Gonzalez still show frustration when things go poorly? Sometimes. And there is probably a reasonable argument that this affects his performance; stats can't prove or disprove this one way or another, I don't think. Even more recently, the Biogensis clinic incident raised more doubts about Gio's ability for some, even though he did no wrong.

But underneath that, Gio's concurrent strides in statistical and non-physical performance are real, and impressive. Sure, pitchers will probably experience more success against him this year. Batters may also look for more first-pitch heaters. His pretty low HR/FB rate could go up. On the flip side, perhaps his career high line drive percentage will decrease some, he'll reduce free passes for the fifth consecutive year, Denard Span will play better defense than Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman will turn in a full campaign of Gold Glove defense, and no one will run on Bryce Harper.

Developmental concerns are, to be sure, not unique to pitchers of Gonzalez's ilk; the extended metaphor here can be used with many other players. However, I believe that, beyond the irresistible teaser title that plays on an outdated evaluation, it offers a perspective to view his parallel physical and mental improvement in the face of doubts (which were often merited, even by Gio's own admission) eight years' long. Now, hitters fear Gio for reasons other than the trajectory of a wayward fastball. Appreciating where Gonzalez has come from, and where he can still go, makes him an exciting player for all fans to follow in 2013.

What do you expect from Gio this year?

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