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Washington Nationals' lefty Gio Gonzalez's odd start

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Gio Gonzalez has started 2015 in some weird ways. Nothing to worry about? A quick look at the first two starts of the 2015 campaign for the Washington Nationals' left-hander.

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

When Mike Rizzo traded for Gio Gonzalez in late 2011, he acquired a player he'd followed since high school.  Rizzo told reporters that Gonzalez brought Washington a mix of tangible and intangible qualities to the then (and still) young squad:

"He brings a presence in our rotation. He's had success. He's been a workhorse. He's very, very young," Rizzo said. "Gives us a young core of starting pitchers at the major league level that really is in the realm of something we've never had here before."

So it might be of some interest to Rizzo that Gonzalez has had a bit of an unusual first two starts this year.  All appropriate small sample size caveats apply to everything here, of course; the Nationals' GM probably puts very little, if any, weight in the early-season performance relative to overall outlook.

But that need not stop us from getting wild with some analysis!

Here's a quick chart to show funny things can happen with a 12.1 inning snapshot relative to Gio's career numbers:

Gonzalez Stat

K%

BB%

GB%

HR/FB%

0-2 Count%

2015

18.9%

11.3%

58.3%

14.3%

37.7%

Career

23.1%

10.2%

46.8%

9.0%

22.7%

Count and result conundrums

There are some weird things here.  First, Gio's strikeouts are down, his walks are slightly up and...he's getting to 0-2 in nearly two out of every five at bats? Most pitchers will tell you that 0-2 is a good thing.  Put an MLB hitter in an 0-2 count in 2014, and you get a .162/.195/.242 triple slash.  That's basically Rey Ordonez's MLB swan song line.  Could you or I do better?  Probably not.  But you get the point.

For reference, here are the list of qualified starting NL pitchers who earned 0-2 counts more than the Nats' lefty this season:

Name

0-2 Count%

Tyler Thornburg

51.3%

Brandon McCarthy

41.7%

Kyle Hendricks

40.5%

Gio Gonzalez

37.7%

Of the above, only Thornburg sports a K% less than Gonzalez so far this season.

How is he getting ahead?  Location, naturally, is one answer.  Also, batters appear to be willing to leave the lumber on their shoulder early on, which at first glance is a curious move.  Against the Gonzalez from past campaigns, that was not a good strategy: Gio's swing and miss stuff was pretty great, and getting down in the count allowed him to deploy his hammer of a curve.  This season, though, hitters are making contact 10% more often against him then before.  That is hurting the bottom line.

Unfortunately--as Gio's walks and strikeout percentage bear out--he hasn't been able to take advantage of his good 0-2 fortune.  In fact, the first-round draft pick has walked three of the sixteen hitters against whom he's gone to a two strike, no ball count in 2015.  Guess how many walks he had after 0-2 counts all of last year (133 PA)?  Three. Yep.

Gonzalez hasn't earned much good fortune on these counts, either: the opposition's BABIP is .800 (last year: .306).  Much of this goes back to the above-average contact rate he's allowed.  I know, small samples make this a discounted exercise; but hey, this stuff happened, and maybe it helps understand a little better why he's gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, what with a 4.14 FIP.

Ground balls and home runs

Then there are the upticks in ground ball and HR/FB rates.  Ostensibly, more ground balls should mean less damage on the scoreboard.  Worm burners against Gio are performing about 50% less than the league average batting line for those types of batted balls, so he's good there.

There are a couple reasons why we may be seeing these early (and still very inconclusive) results.  First, the below zone profile shows just how frequently Gonzalez is pitching down:

Gonzalez 2015 Zone

Of the 18 balls put in play in the lower third of the strike zone and below, 13 have gone for ground balls.  There may be a good reason for that, as Gio is throwing at this early juncture many more sinkers than he has in previous seasons--about 10% more, if you trust Brooks Baseball (who manually classifies their pitches):

Gonzalez HR

Throw more sinkers, throw them down, get grounders.  Hopefully those grounders don't find their way to Ian Desmond at this point of the year, but that's another story.  On balance, it's unclear if Gonzalez is making a conscious effort to throw more sinkers, but the result is not unusual.  This will likely correct itself--in usage and results--as the season continues.  But it may be interesting to follow in the coming weeks.

And finally, the home run/fly ball rate.  There's actually not a whole lot to say here when you look at the figures.  Gonzalez has given up one home run, and it was on a hanging curve ball down Broadway.  That's going to happen, and if it did in the middle of May, I wouldn't have noticed.  Combined with getting less fly balls than usual (a tradeoff of the grounder results), you've got a lower denominator that makes this mark look scary.  Like the sinker balance, it's likely nothing.

The Cardinals

As Jim will point out later, the Cardinals series is a nice early measuring stick for the Nats.  The same goes for Gonzalez individually.  I'll be looking to see how often he gets ahead of the St. Louis hitters, as well as his pitch selection and location to what is a pretty good opposing lineup (although they haven't necessarily shown it so far).  While he might be a bit overlooked with the additions of Max Scherzer and continued development of Tanner Roark and other Washington hurlers, Gonzalez remains the same upper-tier southpaw he was when Mike Rizzo acquired him.

Thanks to Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs for data.