Washington Nationals: Gio Gonzalez getting a quick hook

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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 04: Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez #47 of the Washington Nationals reacts as he walks off the field after the top of the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on May 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 04: Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez #47 of the Washington Nationals reacts as he walks off the field after the top of the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on May 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /
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Gio Gonzalez has been incredibly reliable since joining the Washington Nationals in 2012, but Davey Martinez seemingly has him on a quick hook in 2018.

Through seven starts this spring, longtime lefty Gio Gonzalez is proving his 2017 campaign was no fluke for the Washington Nationals. However, despite his phenomenal rate stats, new manager Davey Martinez seems to have Gonzalez on a short leash once he reaches the middle innings.

Let’s start with his numbers thus far. After finishing sixth in the NL Cy Young race a year ago, Gonzalez has lowered his ERA (2.33) and raised his strikeouts (9.78 K/9). His walks have held steady and his FIP is a much-improved 2.57.

He does rank 12th in the NL in stranding runners, but he was extremely adept with runners on base last year as well, so this is something of a trend for him. He is yet to allow more than three earned runs in any given outing this year, and his success seems fairly sustainable.

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The only real red flag is his innings total. Gonzalez has always been a quasi-workhorse, averaging 185 innings per season from 2012-17 and ranking third in the NL in total innings since he joined the Nationals. But this season, Martinez has limited Gonzalez’s innings and his pitch counts.

Gonzalez has completed 5.1 innings or less in 5 of his 7 starts this season. He has only exceeded 100 pitches twice. Last year, he averaged roughly 6.1 innings and 105.1 pitches per outing, but those numbers are down to 5.1 innings and 97.5 pitches in 2018. And as previously documented, it’s not because of his overall success on the mound.

Gonzalez’s lower pitch totals are slightly skewed by the 39-minute rain delay in his last start against Philadelphia. Still, he returned for one more scoreless frame after the delay, finishing with 5 IP on 89 pitches. He may have been able to come back for the sixth on an otherwise clear night, but he probably was not long for the game no matter what.

Former manager Dusty Baker was known for pushing his starters deep into ballgames. But when you look at the four starters who pitched under Baker and now Martinez, you’ll find Gonzalez is the only one who is throwing fewer pitches this season. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Tanner Roark have all seen slight upticks in pitch counts so far.

Factoring in the Nats’ issues in the back of their bullpen, and it makes even less sense why Gonzalez is getting pulled so early in games.

Opposing hitters have posted a 1.010 OPS against Gonzalez when they face him for the third time, but that is in a very limited sample size (41 plate appearances). Also, Gonzalez was excellent when facing hitters for the third time last year, holding them to a .642 OPS across 231 PAs.

He deserves more of a look late in games rather than simply handing the ball over to whichever middle reliever the dart lands on that night.

There is a case to be made that Martinez is trying to save him some bullets for later in the season. Gonzalez did surrender 15 runs over 17.1 innings in his final four starts last year (including the playoffs). But then it doesn’t really make sense why he isn’t limiting the other pitchers, especially Strasburg who has a history of arm trouble and has not looked especially crisp to start the year.

Gonzalez will turn 33 years old in September. He knows his body and his arm by now, so if he and Martinez have a had a conversation about easing into the season, then that is just fine. In Boston, Chris Sale waited until May to really turn up the heat after wearing down late in 2017.

But it’s not like he necessarily has another gear to go to like Sale. This is about letting Gonzalez work just a few batters deeper into games, especially with the Nationals’ shaky bullpen blowing up seemingly every night.

And Gonzalez is certainly no stranger to high pitch counts – he topped 100 pitches in 27 of his 32 starts a year ago, including 13 straight times from late May to early August.

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On Wednesday night in San Diego, it would be nice to see Gio Gonzalez at least work into the seventh inning. The Padres rank just 23rd in the majors with a .702 OPS against left-handed pitching. It might be time to let him loose.

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