Washington Nationals: Which Gio Gonzalez will show up in 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: Pitcher Gio Gonzalez
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: Pitcher Gio Gonzalez /

Gio Gonzalez bounced back last year after a disappointing 2016 performance. Which version can the Washington Nationals expect to see in 2018?

After a remarkably consistent run from 2010-15, Gio Gonzalez has posted very strange statistical seasons for the Washington Nationals over the past two seasons.

Most of his numbers held relatively steady from 2016 through 2017, but his results varied wildly. Two seasons ago, Gonzalez struggled to complete five innings in any given start.

This past year though, Gonzalez finished in the top six among National League pitchers in WAR, ERA, wins, starts, innings pitched, and Cy Young votes.

But Gonzalez’s 2017 was split into two distinct parts: a dominant first four-and-a-half months, followed by a lackluster September showing. Check out the numbers comparing his mediocre 2016 and improved 2017.

2016Apr. – Aug. 2017Sept. 2017
LOB %67.6 %85.8 %65.3 %
Hard hit %32.7 %28.3 %34.4 %

For the majority of Gonzalez’s 2017 season, his underlying statistics matched his poor 2016, but his ERA was still over two runs lower. One real difference was the left-on-base percentage, which was the fourth-best mark in 2017. In the previous season, he finished 69th out of 73 qualified starters in that category.

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Gonzalez’s numbers with runners in scoring position further also led to the ERA jump. His OPS allowed with RISP dropped from .913 to .518, which even accounted for his lackluster finish to the season. That’s the difference between Nelson Cruz and the indomitable Mikie Mahtook at the plate. Unfortunately, down the stretch, opponents started whacking him again with runners on, which contributed to several poor starts in September and into the postseason.

Going back to that chart, Gonzalez fell off in several other categories as well towards the end of 2017. His hard-hit numbers were similar to the statistically poor percentages he posted in 2016. And, while his strikeout rate ticked upwards, his walk rate and homers-per-nine also spiked.

What’s concerning about the sudden change in his September numbers is that there was no considerable difference in pitch usage or velocity. Why did teams suddenly hit him so much harder?

According to Fangraphs’ Pitch Value data, while his pitch rates remained consistent during the season, those pitches became much less effective towards the end of the year.

Through Aug. 26, Gonzalez had one of the most effective fastballs and change-ups in the majors, plus a solid curveball. But from then on, his fastball success plummeted, and he ran into trouble. His poor fastball allowed too many runners on-base, and he couldn’t strand them once they got there. His WHIP jumped to 1.44 in the final month, and his RISP-luck ran out.

These are fixable issues though. Gonzalez’s secondary pitches held strong through the entirety of 2017. His fastball has generally ranged from average to very good in any given season. A quality fastball, even at 89-91 mph, is his key to success.

And Gonzalez has typically been pretty good with runners on base throughout his career.

His left-on-base marks have typically hovered in the mid-70’s, so his last two seasons have reached both extremes. From 2010-15, he held opposing hitters to a .639 OPS with RISP. He probably won’t be as tough as he was for most of last year, but he won’t be as bad as he was in 2016 and the tail end of 2017.

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Don’t expect Gonzalez to contend for an ERA title again but, with some regained control and a normalized RISP rate, he should post another year as one of the league’s best third-options.