As soon as the Washington Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A's last winter they set about signing the then-26-year-old lefty to an extension, giving the starter a 5-year/$42 million dollar deal which bought out all four years of his arbitration eligibility and locked him up as part of the Nats' rotation through 2016 with a club option for 2017 and a player option for 2018. As far as Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was concerned, Gonzalez was just a few adjustments away from becoming an elite arm. The free passes were one obvious issue. The A's lefty led the league in walks with 91 (4.05 K/9) in 202.2 innings of work in 2011, which was actually an improvement for the fourth straight season over his 6.62 BB/9 in 2008, 5.11 BB/9 in '09 and 4.13 BB/9 in his third year in Oakland in 2010.
"He's got swing and miss stuff and we see his walks turning in the right direction," Rizzo told reporters after sending four prospects (two major-league ready arms, a young, highly-regarded arm and a highly-regarded catcher) to the A's for Gonzalez and minor league right-hander Robert Gilliam. "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." Nationals ' manager Davey Johnson was impressed with the early returns in Spring Training and the start of the season in D.C.
A rough and brief outing in his Nationals' debut in Chicago was followed by back-to-back starts in which he threw 7.0 scoreless, walking two and allowing just four hits while striking out 15 in 14.0 IP against the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros. "The curve ball is unhittable," Johnson told reporters, "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." At the All-Star Break, Gonzalez was (12-3) with a 2.92 ERA, 42 walks (3.71 BB/9) and 118 Ks (10.45 K/9) in 17 starts and 101.2 IP in which he held opposing hitters to a .192/.275/.290 line.
In the second-half, Gonzalez was (9-5) in 15 starts with a 2.86 ERA, 34 walks (3.13 BB/9) and 89 Ks (8.20 K/9) in 97.2 IP, holding opponents to a .219/.291/.309 line. Left-handed hitters had a .231/.307/.353 line against the Nationals' lefty in 2012, an improvement over his .253/.333/.379 line against lefties in 2011, and Gonzalez once again dominated right-handed hitters, holding those he faced to a .199/.276/.285 line in his first season in the National League, leaving him with a .228/.317/.341 line against right-handed hitters in his five-year career. Gonzalez finished his first NL campaign with a (21-8) record, a 2.89 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 76 walks (3.43 BB/9) and 207 Ks (9.35 K/9) in 32 stars and 199.1 IP for the division champion Nationals.
Fangraphs.com's Michael Barr examined the changes Gonzalez made to his approach against right-handers in an article this past November:
"In 2011, his strikeout rate was 21.7% and his walk rate was 10.8% vs. RHB and in 2012 that improved to 23.9% and 9.2%. Interestingly, it was relying less on the curve against right handers that fueled this. He threw almost 30% curve balls against righties in 2011 and that dropped to 19% in 2012. With two strikes, he used to throw the curve almost 50% of the time, and that dropped to 35%. But as the saying goes, less is more."
He threw the curve fewer times in two strike counts against righties, but increased his whiff rate by actually throwing it outside the strike zone more often."
Effectively, as Mr. Barr explained, against both left and right-handers, Gonzalez used the curve ball later in counts as more of an out-pitch than he had in previous seasons and it was a much more effective weapon, "... with opposing batters losing about 100 point(s) off their batting average in 2012, hitting just .124 and slugging just .160 off his curve in 2012."
His dominance against right-handed hitters had Davey Johnson confident as he sent his 21-game winner up against the right-hand-heavy St. Louis Cardinals' lineup in the NLDS. Asked if he had any concerens about Gio going out against the Cards in Game 1, Johnson told reporters, "Well, if you look at the records, right handers have just as much trouble hitting Gio as left handers. When he's locating his fastball, and he's hitting the low side of the plate, he's got a devastating curveball, I don't care if they have all right handers out there. He's tough."
"Gio had one heck of a year," Johnson continued, "I think he was lowest hits per inning and most clubs stack their clubs with right handers. I admit, St. Louis has some awfully good right handers in the middle of the lineup, but you have to make good pitches." Gonzalez faced 644 right-handers in 2012, just 178 left-handers. He finished second in H/9 (Hits/9IP) in the majors, at 6.27 H/9, behind only the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (6.720 H/9). The Nats' lefty had the lowest HR/9 at 0.41 HR/9, ahead of the Mariners' Felix Hernandez (0.54 HR/9 over 232.0 IP) and the A's Jarrod Parker (0.55 HR/9 in 181.1 IP), the highest K/9 in the NL (9.35 K/9) which was good for 3rd overall in the majors, behind the Rangers' Yu Darvish (10.40 K/9) and the Tigers' Max Scherzer (11.08 K/9) and Gonzalez had the league's lowest OPS-against (.582) ahead of Kershaw's .593.
Gonzalez struggled to throw strikes in his Game 1 start in the NLDS, however, walking seven in 5.0 IP in which he allowed just one run on two hits but threw 110 pitches. In Game 5 it was five hits, four walks and three runs allowed in 5.0 IP in which he threw 99. Though Drew Storen's struggles with the strike zone were obvious in Game 5, Johnson told reporters after the loss that he wasn't the only one. "He wasn't alone. It seemed like Gio had the problem," Johnson said, "You just can't win big ballgames by giving free passes. You've got to trust your defense behind you, go after 'em."
"We've been really good all year," the disappointed Nats' skipper said, "Just having a little hiccup here at the end." Gonzalez walked 34 batters (9.00 BB/9) in his last six starts and 34.0 IP over his last four outings of the regular season and first two postseason appearances.
The left-hander used his fastball more than he ever had before in 2012, throwing it 70.8% of the time, up from 62.1% in 2010 and 64.7% in 2011, threw it harded than he had before (93.3 mph over 92.2 mph in his career) and threw his devastating curve less (21.0%) down from 30.3% in 2010 and 27.8% in 2011. Before the last few weeks of the season, Gonzalez had developed into the sort of pitcher the Nationals thought he would be when they acquired him from the A's last winter. Like many of his teammates, Gonzalez experienced his first postseason run this past September/October and was able to at least keep his team in the games in spite of his struggles in both of his postseason starts.
Bill James' projections have the left-hander posting a 3.21 ERA, a 3.43 FIP, 3.70 BB/9 and 9.09 K/9 in 2013 when the Nationals will have a full season of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren in the rotation barring any injuries, setbacks, etc. ESPN.com's Buster Olney ranked the Nationals as the second-best rotation in baseball in a recent column, behind only the Detroit Tigers' starters and ahead of the LA Dodgers' collection of arms. Gonzalez will likely be slotted in second, behind Strasburg and in front of Zimmermann again in 2013, breaking up the Nats' power right-handers with a power lefty who'll be making his second run through the National League.