Last Tuesday night against the Angels, Miguel Gonzalez looked like the ace that he was down the stretch in 2012, limiting Los Angeles to one run on four hits and one walk in eight innings, striking out five. He worked efficiently, throwing just 96 pitches and inducing 12 groundball outs. He only recorded three “three-up-three-down” innings, but utilized three double plays en route to his best outing of the season.
Gonzalez was able to keep the Halos off balance all night, mixing in a never-before-seen mid-80s changeup, which induced five groundball outs. However, it’s possible that the “changeup” identified by the folks at Brooksbaseball.net was actually a splitter, as the velocity and movement were similar. The “changeup” also helped to set up his fastball — which was his strikeout pitch on all five of his K’s — on two of his strikeouts. Despite the high groundball numbers, he actually used his sinker less than usual.
|Gonzalez's pitch usage per start, going back to May 2012.|
Despite inducing just 10 whiffs on the night, Gonzalez did show good control, throwing 68.75% of his pitches for strikes. He didn’t throw more than 15 pitches in any inning, which enabled him to go eight full innings for just the second time in his career.
Brooks Baseball did note once again during Sunday’s 6-3 win against Boston that the pitch Gonzalez was throwing was indeed a changeup, though two of the four groundballs he induced with the pitch went for base hits. He still picked up the W, going 6.1 scoreless innings before giving up a three-run homer to Will Middlebrooks, the last batter he faced on the day. He struck out two, walked two, and gave up five hits.
Gonzalez, who’s been solid in six starts since his return from the disabled list on May 21 (39 innings, 7.38 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.00 ERA), came out of nowhere last season to help anchor the starting rotation.
In 27 career starts — all made in the past 12 months with the Orioles — Gonzalez is 14-6 with a 3.55 ERA. He hasn't been dominant by any means, with just a 6.90 career K/9. That number isn’t atrocious, but it is below average (the current MLB average K/9 is 7.57).
Not to take anything away from what Gonzalez has been able to do: He is seeing slightly better movement on some of his pitches in 2013, which no doubt has something to do with his continued success. However, his movement still isn’t anything special.
Looking at his body of work, Gonzalez comes across as one of those pitchers who doesn’t do any one thing tremendously, but is effective by doing a lot of little things well. Of 99 ERA title qualifiers in baseball right now, here’s where Gonzalez ranks in several key areas:
The numbers that jump out at you immediately are the high swing percentages and average contact rate, which have led to Gonzalez’s above-average whiff percentage. This could be a result of a number of things, though several of which we know not to be true: We know Gonzalez doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, and we know that his secondary pitches aren’t particularly devastating. What this may mean is that Gonzalez is oftentimes fooling hitters by mixing up his pitch usage and not giving his opponents any sort of pattern to follow.
In addition, one of the most important facets of Gonzalez’s game is the way he’s able to pound the outer third of the plate. As shown in the chart below, this season Gonzalez has thrown 35.47% of his pitches against right-handed batters either on the outer third of the zone, or just outside it.
His numbers against left-handers are similar, having thrown 37.44% of his pitches in that same location. Gonzalez has induced contact on 55 pitches in those spots (21 vs. righties, 34 vs. lefties). Of those 55 balls in play, 52.7% having been groundballs, and only 18.2% have been line drives. He’s has also been relying less on his four-seam fastball and more on his secondary pitches since his MLB debut last summer.
So even though Gonzalez only throws a low-90s fastball and doesn’t have tremendous movement on any of his pitches, he’s still able to put solid starts together by mixing in all of his pitches to prevent hitters from getting comfortable against him. That, along with his ability to locate the ball away from hitters, is helping to solidify him as Baltimore’s ace.
Gonzalez’s split stats also warrant a second look. This season, his wOBA against left-handed hitters is .237 — that number jumps to .373 against righties. All 10 home runs he’s given up have come from right-handed batters, and his ERA against righties (5.67) is also significantly higher than it is against lefties (1.84). He’s also run into a little bit of bad luck; a lot of the runs he’s given up against righties have come off of home runs, and those home runs have come off the bats of the some of the game’s best in Evan Longoria, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout, (twice). In 2012, Gonzalez’s splits were a lot more similar (L/R: .308/.299 wOBA, 3.02/3.48 ERA).
Another interesting tidbit regarding Gonzalez’s short career in the majors is the fact that Buck Showalter likes to occasionally give him an extra day’s rest — probably because Gonzalez has never thrown more than 130.2 total innings in a season and Showalter doesn’t want to wear him down. Of his 27 career starts, 10 have come on more than a starter’s regular, five-day rest (not including his first start of 2013). His numbers in those 10 games: 6.1 innings per start with a 2.28 ERA.
Gonzalez’s success rate when he gets an extra day or two off speaks for itself. I would imagine Showalter will continue to sit Gonzalez as much as he can afford to if it means the 29-year-old sophomore will be as sharp this fall as he was in 2012.