Trying to bounce back after a bad year, Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez is off to a great spring. What does it mean for 2017?
In a strong effort, Gonzalez left the New York Mets hitless during his five-inning stint Thursday. With an ERA of 0.75 in for starts, he has surrendered five hits over 12 innings.
Yes, Grapefruit League statistics are as meaningful as unicorns and pixie dust. With watered down lineups and no pressure, it’s easy to excel under the Florida sun.
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This spring for Gonzalez feels different.
After a 2016 that led everybody shaking heads, this year’s Gonzalez looks loose. He is locating pitches. It appears he is having fun, something we have not seen in years.
Last year, he allowed a career-high 19 home runs as the ERA ballooned from a decent 3.79 in 2015 to 4.57 in 16. Sure, Gonzalez made his normal 30-plus starts, but averaged less than six innings per game.
After a mediocre start in the National League Divisional Series, his spot in the rotation this season was not guaranteed. Trades over the winter shipped top pitching prospects to Chicago for Adam Eaton. A.J. Cole is not consistent this spring. Joe Ross has lingering durability issues.
The Nats need Gonzalez to be a solid fourth starter and, so far, they have it.
Confidence plays a big role for Gonzalez. If his stuff hits spots, you can see how he carries his body between pitches. Stiff and upright. Last year, he slumped, shoulders slouched with eyes searching around for answers.
Gonzalez is never returning to his 20-win form from 2012. What he can do is start pitching into the seventh inning regularly. The more he can help keep the bullpen out of games, the better Washington’s chances are.
Although the pen has greater depth with the addition of Joe Blanton and a healthy Koda Glover, one key to the Nats success this year is keeping those arms fresh. The last time Gonzalez topped 180 innings was 2013. His won-loss is not as important as the ERA and innings.
What you should watch for instead during Gonzalez’s starts is this, can he give them a chance to win? If the overall ERA is under 4.00—and he pitches over six frames—then the answer is yes.
It might sound trivial to give the bullpen a few less outs to end a game, but those saved innings add up come October. This year is about advancing.
Whatever work he does with pitching coach Mike Maddux works. It will not always be peaches and cream this year, but the Gonzalez we see right now should bust out of the gate strong.
As Washington struggles with pitching depth, the promise shown by Gonzalez kicks those issues down the road.