The Washington Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers (62-50) 8-3 Monday night behind eight shutout innings from Gio Gonzalez, who won his fifth straight decision. Over his last eight starts dating back to June 21, Gonzalez is 5-0 with a 1.48 ERA, has struck out 43 batters, and only walked 14. He has allowed only two home runs over this stretch, while inducing a total of 83 ground ball outs in the process.
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Where is this success coming from? During his stretch of dominance, rather than going for the strikeout more often than not, as he has done in previous years, Gio has been keeping the ball down in the zone and focusing on forcing ground balls. Per Brooks Baseball, his sinker has been his go-to pitch. Since that start against the Pirates on June 21, he has thrown that pitch about 39 percent of the time, inducing ground balls on nearly 14 percent of them (his highest of any pitch).
His fastball, which has been averaging 93 miles per hour, has been almost as untouchable. He has not allowed a single home run to be hit against is fastball this year. What has really separated him from the rest of the Nationals staff, however, has been his changeup. While only throwing it only 14.6 percent of the time, Gonzalez has been lethal when he chooses to use it. Batters swing at the pitch nearly 56 percent of the time, and whiff on half of them. He also throws it for a strike more often than any other pitch, putting the ball in the zone 36 percent of the time.
While he does throw the sinker more than any other pitch, Gio has been seen making adjustments throughout games, that have brought him more success. After going through the order the first time, Gonzalez starts relying less heavily on his sinker and curve, and shifts more toward his fastball and changeup. At a closer look, when he uses his sinker less, it actually improves the lethality of the pitch. He has induced batters to swing nine percent more in the third time through the order than the first. That’s not to say using a pitch more isn’t any more effective. Since June 21, when he goes the first time through the lineup, batters hit .263 against the fastball. On the second time through the order, it drops to a mere .133.
While Gonzalez’s recent run of success isn’t unprecedented (he did win 20 games in 2012), he certainly wasn’t expected to be this dominant. You could definitely make the case he has been the best pitcher for the Nats in the second half of the season. Matt Williams and the rest of the Nationals will certainly take it, though, with all the struggles the rotation has endured this season. With Gio Gonzalez pitching like he’s been, Stephen Strasburg back on the mound, an ace like Max Scherzer taking the hill every five days, Jordan Zimmermann rediscovering his touch, and rookie Joe Ross bursting onto the scene, this rotation may finally be living up to the hype it was getting before the season.