Wednesday, December 9, 2015

2015 Season Review: Gio Gonzalez

For someone as boisterous and outgoing as Gio Gonzalez, Nationals’ fans might miss that he quietly posted another solid year in 2015. It may be because the same guy who gave an entire interview on his dog posted a middling 3.79 ERA. Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes apparent that the ERA from 2015 doesn’t do justice to Gonzalez’s year.

That 3.79 ERA was driven by a strangely high .341 BABIP. Chalk up another victim of the Nationals poor defense. Gio’s strikeouts were down on 2015, however slightly, to a 22.3% strikeout rate, but he countered that with a huge spike in the number of groundballs forced. For the first time in his career, Gio allowed fly balls under 30% of the time. Those missing fly balls didn’t turn into the more dangerous line drives. No, those fly balls turned into groundballs as Gonzalez opponents put the ball on the ground 53.8% of the time. Usually, that 22% strikeout rate coupled with such a high groundball rate is a god send for a pitcher. For Gio, it was anything but as those groundballs were hit into the crumbling teeth of the Nationals infield defense.

Strip out that terrible defense (something Mike Rizzo might be doing by moving Rendon back to third and Escobar out of DC), and Gio’s season looks a lot rosier. The Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) stat does just that and, by this measurement, Gonzalez was actually a 3.05 runs per nine level pitcher, nearly a full run per game better. Based on the factors directly in Gonzalez's control, he was a much better pitcher than ERA would have you believe.

Credit Gonzalez’s control for that impressive FIP. Knocked for his lack of strike throwing ability before coming over to the Nationals, Gio put up yet another year that implies those days are a thing of the past. For the fourth straight year as a National, Gio posted a walk rate under 10% without sacrificing strikeouts in doing so.

The peripheral stats also like what Gonzalez did in 2015. His swinging strike rate was again consistent around 10%. He’s continued to pound the strike zone with his first pitches around 60% of the time, an often overused pitcher-ism that nonetheless has been effective for Gio in cutting down on the walks.

Known mostly for his curveball, Gio actually tweaked his pitching mix slightly in 2015. He still relies heavily on his fastball, holding steady at 92 MPH, but Gio has now started throwing his changeup at similar rates to his curveball. Both pitches are productive, but in different ways. The changeup actually gets more whiffs, a 21% swinging strike rate on the change versus 12% on the curve, and forces more groundballs. That’s not to take away from Gonzalez’s curve as hitters hit only .202 against the offering in 2015. The increase in usage of the change up might have contributed to the increase in groundballs in 2015 and also allows Gonzalez to continue to an effective pitcher when facing right handed hitters.

Now, despite those glowing remarks, Gonzalez is clearly not a perfect pitcher by any means. The biggest drawback with Gonzalez is his pitch counts. While Gio has definitely cut down on the walks, he still labors through at bats and builds his pitch counts quickly. As a result, Gio averaged less than 6 innings per outing in 2015. That puts a big tax on the bullpen, something the Nationals could ill afford in 2015.

Finally, Gonzales’s Home Run per Fly Ball rate (HR/FB) was the lowest of his career. Usually, a precipitous spike or drop in this rate is not sustainable as HR/FB tends to settle around the mean over a pitcher’s career. That would indicate that Gonzalez is due to give up more long balls next year and the FIP stat that normalizes home run rate (xFIP) agrees, marking him at 3.59 on the year. However, if the new batted ball mix (more groundballs, less fly balls) is a result of the change in pitch selection, perhaps it’s a change that’s here to stay.

While Gio Gonzalez is not likely to compete for a Cy Young in the next few years and his stuff is overshadowed by the impressive offerings of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez has been and should continue to be an important part of the Nationals rotation. He’s signed to a team friendly contract and has a history of generally good health. Put a better defense behind Gio and that ERA might creep its way down closer to 3.00 in 2016.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman
Danny Espinosa
Yunel Escobar
Bryce Harper
Michael A Taylor
Jayson Werth

1 comment:

  1. We have got to have a solid year from Gio especially if they do not replace Zimmermann. I always thought he would be good on a team like the Royals: 5-6 innings from a starter, allow 2-3 runs, let the bullpen take over from there. But we don't have that kind of bullpen at the moment.