The unchanged Gio Gonzalez

There are few pitchers in baseball whose name value and potential outweighs their actual performance the way it does with Gio Gonzalez, and this is quite frankly an impressive feat, as Gio has been a very good pitcher since being traded from the Athletics to the Nationals. He’s been worth a little over 3 wins every year in FIP-based fWAR over his time in the nation’s capitol (with the exception of a 2.9 fWAR 2016), being a paragon of consistency in terms of advanced stats.

With a 4.57 ERA in 2016, many were concerned about Gio heading forward, reaching 30 years of age at the time, which is around when we start seeing real evidence of declines in most pitchers. While his fastball remained consistent at 93 MPH from 2014-15, in 2016 it fell down a bit to 92 on average, and it experienced one of the worst swings in value from 10.1 runs above average the year before to 8.5 runs below average. And to boot, his first pitch strike rate went down from 59.9% to 57.5%. While this may seem insignificant, it’s been shown that a decrease in this number has been correlated with some accuracy to arm injuries, most notably a torn UCL which would require Tommy John surgery.

But fantasy owners who took a later round flyer based on the talent, or picked him up off of waivers at some point, were rewarded pretty greatly with a 2.96 ERA and 188 strikeouts on the year (22.7% of batters faced). The fantasy numbers were shiny, but the peripheral’s didn’t quite scream that he’s completely back to what we had seen before. His fastball velocity dropped even more to just a 90.4 MPH, forcing him to rely more on off-speed pitches. His first strike rate fell again to 55.3%, no longer the exceptional mark. And hitters continued a four-year trend of increasing contact percentage, up to 79.0%.

The thing is, Gio Gonzalez wasn’t much of a changed pitcher in regard from 2016 to 2017. His strikeout rate differed by 0.3 percentage points, grounder rate by 1.8 points. And then there were parts where he decreased in performance: a walk rate from 7.7% up to 9.6%, and whiff rate from 9.4% to 8.7%. And the biggest one, a left on base percentage from 67.6% to 81.6%.

Let’s dig into that LOB%, because it will explain a lot of what’s happening here. LOB% is largely influenced by luck, where only elite pitchers can really push this number higher. Instead, this will gravitate towards league average, 72.6%. The reason this is so luck influenced is that pitchers really don’t have control over the distribution of hits allowed. So bad luck will end up being a cluster of hits in an inning bringing more runs in, leaving less runners on base (as this counts overall baserunners, not just the ones left at the end of an inning), while good luck leaves more stranded on the basepaths. This will regress, so good luck artificially lowers ERA (as we were seeing from Gio last year) and bad luck artificially increases it (Gio in 2016). To add, we saw him feature big BABIP differences as well, something else related to luck as the pitcher has basically no control over how well his fielders play defense. His mark here dropped from .316 (slightly unlucky) to .258 (very lucky).

FIP is independent of baserunner clusters, relying on homers, strikeouts and walks, and has him as a pretty similar pitcher from 2016 to 2017 – FIPs of 3.76 to 3.93. Essentially, just based on the numbers, we saw the same Gio Gonzalez from year to year, just on the extreme ends of where luck allows.

But numbers are just that – sometimes we have to actually watch the game to truly understand what’s happening. Take a look below at Gio’s vertical release points over the past three years:

Dropping vertical release points can be effective for breaking pitches, increasing horizontal movement, although it will generally have a negative effect on the fastball as it lowers speed. We’ve already shown he lost a lot of velocity on the fastball, which can be explained more by the arm angle than potential injury, and the increased movement has shown to be effective for him. The increased run on the fastball has it as a usable pitch again, 11.8 runs above average, as well as the changeup (from 3.4 to 14.5) and curveball (-0.9 to 5.8). So it’s not simply luck that he had a bounceback year, but Gio is adapting to the league around him, fixing his mechanics to make the most of what he has.

Overall, we’ve seen two very different versions of Gio Gonzalez on the surface, and mechanically, but in the end they’re pretty close to the same in terms of isolated performance. Gio is nowhere near as bad as his 2016 self, but at the same time he isn’t quite as good as what we saw in 2017. The answer is somewhere in the middle, and I would wager it’s closer to 2017 thanks to the extreme bad luck in 2016, and the mechanical adjustments made last year to facilitate his performance. But it;s not close enough to the sub 3.00 ERA he boasted for me to justify taking him at his ADP, for a few reasons.

His new arm slot could get figured out, and it’s low enough now to where he doesn’t really have anywhere to go from there (higher up is 2016 again and lower is sidearm). He’s older, turning 32 this year, with a lot of mileage on his arm, not to mention he has battled minor injuries before (these can add up). And ultimately, while his real value is closer to 2017 than 2016, it’s unlikely he replicates or comes that close to his 2017 performance again, without a heap of luck.

I don’t bet on luck, so I wouldn’t bet on Gio having a season worth drafting, barring a huge fall in your league.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.