Washington Post beat reporter Adam Kilgore wrote after last night's game about new Washington Nationals' catcher Jose Lobaton's influence on Gio Gonzalez's pitch selection, and Lobaton's advice about making the Nats' 28-year-old lefty's changeup more of a featured pitch. With Kurt Suzuki behind the plate early last season, it was a different story.
During an interview in April 2013, after Gonzalez' fifth start in his second campaign in the nation's capital, he was asked why, to that point, he was throwing his fastball more, (up from 70.8% to 75.1%), while throwing far less changeups (8.2% to 3.9%). As Gonzalez explained it, any decisions about pitch selection he left to Suzuki, a teammate in Oakland and now in D.C. with whom he'd grown comfortable.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Gonzalez said of the reliance on his fastball early last season, "that's something you have to talk to Suzuki about. He's been doing more of his homework. I try to go with a Mark Buerhle approach. It's more like, 'Trust your catcher, whatever he puts down try to go with it.' He does all his research, he's always doing his homework in the video room. Going over it with [Pitching Coach Steve McCatty]. So there [are] a lot of things that I trust with 'Zuki. I've been [working] five years with 'Zuki, so we've always been on the same page."
Gonzalez's use of his changeup increased as the 2013 season went along, and in the end he used it more often (10.3%) than he did in any season but his rookie campaign in 2008 (10.5%). Through two starts and 12 IP after last night's six-inning outing, however, his use of the change has increased dramatically (up to 19.8%) while his fastball usage has dropped from 68.5% in 2013 and 65.7% over his career to 54.9% through his first 192 pitches, all of which he's thrown to Lobaton.
As the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore explained it, the former Tampa Bay Rays' catcher, acquired this spring as insurance in case Wilson Ramos missed any time, made the decision after working with Gonzalez in a few Grapefruit League games, to use the change as more of weapon than the left-hander has in the past:
"Pitching coach Steve McCatty told him Gonzalez’s change-up was his third-best pitch. Once he caught Gonzalez in three or four spring starts, the designation didn’t make sense to him. Lobaton gave Gonzalez a different perspective. His change-up shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be a feature."
In one particularly impressive instance in the second inning which is mentioned in the article, Gonzalez fell behind Marlins' catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia before throwing three straight changeups to get him swinging for the first out of what ended up being a 19-pitch inning that left Gonzalez at 34 pitches overall after two.
Gonzalez may not be working with a catcher he has history with any more like he had with Suzuki, but he's still apparently willing to trust that his catcher and coaches have done their homework.
"'He’s not afraid to throw anything,'" Lobaton told the WaPost reporter. "'Today, I saw the change-up working with the curveball. I said, ‘Any count, I’m going to call it.’"
Nats' skipper Matt Williams was impressed with Gonzalez's outing in spite of the fact that the lefty's pitch count was high. Gonzalez needed 59 pitches to get through three innings, was up to 73 after four, 89 after five and 101 after his sixth and final inning of work against Miami.
"Last couple of innings he settled in," Williams said, "started throwing strikes a lot more which enabled him to get through it."
The rookie manager thought about sending Gonzalez out for the seventh with left-handed hitter Garrett Jones due up first, but a long bottom of the sixth inning made him change his mind.
"We thought about sending him back out to face Jones, but that was a long inning and we ended up adding on," Williams explained.
"So we decided to call it a night there. But if the score remained the same he was going to go back out to face Jones at least, right at  pitches."
Having watched Gonzalez through Spring Training and two regular season starts now, Williams has been impressed with the left-hander's focus on the mound.
"He competes, that's all," Williams said. "He competes every time he goes out there. In the last couple starts he's ended up throwing a lot of pitches, but when he has to lock it in he locks it in too. He's been good."
Through two starts and 12 IP, Gonzalez is now (2-0) with a 0.75 ERA, 2.14 FIP, three walks (2.25 BB/9) and 11 Ks (8.25 K/9).
• If you haven't read the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore's article on Lobaton and Gonzalez's work together so far in 2014, check it out below:
Prompted by Jose Lobaton, Gio Gonzalez is throwing more changeups than ever, and it's helped him dominate twice. http://t.co/RzFhFa1Hd6— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) April 9, 2014