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Despite decline in velocity, Gio Gonzalez is finding success with more fastballs

By mixing up how he uses his arsenal, the Washington Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez has been able to get off to a strong start this season.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Gio Gonzalez isn’t the strikeout artist that he used to be. Since leading the National League with a 9.3 K/9 in 2012, Gonzalez’s strikeout totals (as well as the rest of his numbers) have gradually declined.

Last year, the left-hander posted his worst season in a Washington Nationals uniform when he managed a 4.57 ERA (3.76 FIP) with 171 strikeouts and a career-high 19 home runs allowed over 177 1/3 innings. Gonzalez’s fastball velocity was down and he actually switched to relying on his sinker as his primary pitch.

The results have been much better so far this season, as Gonzalez has a 2.96 ERA — albeit a 4.27 FIP. Amazingly, Gonzalez is finding these results with a HR/9 on par with last year and even lower strikeout and ground ball rates.

Dusty Baker spoke with The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes about how Gonzalez has found a way to succeed despite being on the wrong side of 30.

“A lot of times that’s when you learn it,” Baker said. “If you come into the big leagues knowing how to get out of jams, shoot, you’re going to be a big winner. Especially left-handers seem to learn it later than right-handers. That’s why they tend to stick around longer.”

Gonzalez is making adjustments to his physical decline, and it’s been paying off nicely. With a hat tip to Brooks Baseball, his fastball velocity is the lowest of his career (90.9 mph average), but he’s throwing the pitch seven percent more than he did last year.

By relying on his sinker less often and mixing in more curveballs, Gonzalez has been able to keep hitters guessing. The result is career-high 33.3 percent ground ball rate off his fastball. Last year, hitters owned a .508 slugging percentage of the pitch. This season they have a mark of .291.

Now, an alarmingly high FIP coupled with the fact that he strands 84.5 percent of baserunners suggests that Gonzalez won’t be able to sustain his current trajectory. He’s also walking hitters at his highest rate since being traded to D.C. and sports an opponent’s BABIP of .268.

Perhaps he will begin to regress to the mean, but with a $12 million vesting option contingent on him pitching at least 180 innings — a mark he hasn’t reached since 2013 — he has all the motivation in the world to stay on top of his game.

FanRag’s Jon Heyman noted that Gonzalez may not even want to hit that number if he can keep up his current pace.

“Gio Gonzalez is pitching well enough that he might not want to hit 180 innings, which triggers a vesting option for $12 million,” Heyman said. “He’d surely do better than that as a free agent the way he’s pitching.”

Either way, there are millions of dollars on the line and a potential long winter at stake if Gonzalez can’t sustain his run of success. The Nationals have serious World Series aspirations as well, and with Gonzalez in the midst of a career year, he has the chance to play a major role in bringing a championship to D.C.