On Monday, Will made the case for Max Scherzer as the Nationals’ best starter, followed by Joe’s argument for Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday and Andrew’s claim for Jordan Zimmermann on Wednesday. Now comes the moment online poker ipad readers of The Nats Blog have anxiously anticipated: the minor league guy is making a case for Gio Gonzalez.
Logically, Gonzalez is not better than Scherzer, Strasburg, or Zimmermann, and might not even stack up favorably to Doug Fister, whom Erin Flynn will discuss tomorrow. A typical season for Gonzalez features good strikeout numbers, but also a high walk rate and an ERA somewhere in the mid threes with an FIP that’s not too far off that mark. Those are good numbers, but unlikely to make him the Cy Young Award contender that Scherzer, Zimmermann, and/or Strasburg seem destined to be this year.
Be that as it may, Gonzalez’s contributions over the past three seasons have been nothing short of solid, if not very good. Over the length of this post, I’ll measure Gonzalez’s production with the Nationals since they acquired him in a December 2011 trade from the Oakland A’s.
Over his first three seasons in Washington, Gonzalez has gone an accumulative 42-26 with a 3.25 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 119 ERA+, 9.1 K/9, and a 3.4 BB/9 in 553 and 2/3 innings over 91 starts. Both Baseball-Reference’s and FanGraph’s version of WAR reflect Gonzalez as a good value over that stretch, with 10.1 and 11.3 marks respectively. His best season in that span remains 2012, when he led baseball with 21 wins, a 2.82 FIP, 0.4 HR/9, while sporting a National League-leading 9.3 K/9. He went on to finish third in Cy Young voting.
Gonzalez has not been as dominant since that season, when he benefitted from a career-low 5.8% home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB). (For context purposes, FanGraphs pins the league average HR/FB around 10%, with anything below or above the range of 8-12% considered a product of good or bad luck). Last year was especially frustrating at times as a shoulder injury limited him to 158 and 2/3 innings pitched over 27 starts, but he still came away with a 3.02 FIP and a 9.2 K/9 rate.
Pitching in a rotation with as much talent as the Nationals have will leave most pitchers overlooked. In Gonzalez’s case, he came to Washington as the anchor for a developing starting rotation. Since he joined the team, the Nationals have seen Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg reach their full potential, acquired Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, and found a pleasant surprise in Tanner Roark.
Aside from his injuries last season, Gonzalez has pretty much been the pitcher he was in Oakland. He has been durable, generated strikeouts, and while he’s still prone to walk batters, he has actually improved in that area over the last three seasons. Gonzalez departed the A’s with a career 4.4 BB/9 rate, a number that has since dropped to 3.9.
It would be easy to say that Gonzalez would be more than a number four or five starter in any rotation other than Washington’s. Still, though, when I began this piece I was interested in seeing where he would actually be a viable candidate as either the first or second starter in a pitching staff.
Using the MLB depth charts available at RosterResource.com, I combed through all 30 teams’ projected rotations. On roughly half of those teams, his past production and potential for future success make Gonzalez a strong candidate for one of the first two spots, including on 2014 playoff squads such as the Orioles, Pirates, Angels, Giants, and Royals. Mind you that this is somewhat subjective, but it does still further the notion that Gonzalez is a very good pitcher who is just being overlooked because of his team’s otherworldly talent.
If he returns to good health this year, Gio Gonzalez will be the same pitcher he has been in the past: A consistent, durable lefthander who will generate strikeouts and keep the Nationals in games. As I said in the opening of this post, that role is not as flashy or perhaps even as valuable as what Scherzer, Strasburg, or Zimmermann will do. Yet, Gonzalez is beyond capable of continuing to provide premium value and standout as the most overlooked option in baseball’s rotation.
The data provided by Cot’s Contracts shows that he has been an excellent value for the Nationals thus far, earning $18 million since joining the team. With a contract that could run through the 2018 season, Gonzalez will earn $11 million for the upcoming season before receiving a final pay bump to $12 million in 2016. The Nationals hold a club option at that same price for 2017; if in that season he pitches at least 180 innings, his vesting option for another $12 million will kick in.
If he remains in Washington for the entirety of that deal, Gonzalez will hit the free agent market before his age-33 season. By then, he will have given the Nationals as much, if not more, than what they could have asked for.