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Gonzalez was a pleasant surprise amid a tumultuous year

One by one this week, White Sox fans have bid adieu to each member of the rotation as the team puts away the final games of the season this weekend. Wednesday night, starter Miguel Gonzalez gave us his final farewell with a brilliant outing in which he lasted 8 ⅓ innings, his longest outing of the season, and dealt the Tampa Bay Rays five strikeouts, no walks, and no earned runs.

Gonzalez’s final start of the season served as a reminder that throughout the year, we’ve watched him transcend on the mound right before our eyes, and that during the past four months he went from questionable organization swingman to solid fourth starter in a White Sox rotation, a rotation that has had it’s share of struggles and fluidity in 2016.

After Gonzalez’s first start against the Blue Jays in May, an outing that kept me fascinated with Gonzalez from the start, I wrote about how perhaps the best way to approach the idea of Gonzalez was to wipe away any memory baseball had of him as a successful Orioles starter, before his slew of injuries. I pressed that the best way to look at Gonzalez was to evaluate his performance from the moment he put on a White Sox uniform in isolation.

Well, I may have been wrong about that. Even when you hold Gonzalez’s final totals from 2016 up against the backdrop of his previous four seasons as a major league starter, with the exception of 2015, he looks as good as he ever was — and in some ways even better and more refined. Let’s take a look at the ways in which Gonzalez has improved in 2016.

His walk rate was low … very low

At just 6.2 percent, Gonzalez put up the lowest walk rate of his career in 2016. He learned to control the strike zone, and though his swing rates haven’t seen any sort of significant change indicating that the movement on his pitches has become more deceptive and whiff inducing — as long as Gonzalez is throwing in the zone and not off the plate, things are looking a lot better for him. Gonzalez had a walk rate of 9 percent in the first half, and though he missed nearly the entire month of August on the DL with a strained groin, he posted just a 3 percent walk rate in the second half.

His home run rate sank … a lot

Another career low number for Gonzalez came in a White Sox uniform this season as well. In 2016, Gonzalez successfully lowered his HR/FB rate to just 6.8 percent. That’s an 8.2 percentage point decrease from 2015, and a 5.3 percent decrease since 2014, his last successful year before the injuries occurred in 2015. This is all despite the fact that while not exceptionally meaningful, Gonzalez did see a 2.2 percent increase in his flyball rate this season after moving to hitter friendly U.S. Cellular Field. (Though Camden Yards is quite similar in the way of park factors.) All of this leads me to my next point…

His FIP was finally in line with his ERA

After season upon season in which Gonzalez failed to post a FIP nearly as quality as his ERA, it finally has happened. A nearly perfect harmony was found among the two numbers when Gonzalez finished 2016 with a 3.73 ERA and 3.71 FIP. Now, before the celebration ensues, DRA was not as much of a fan of Gonzalez this year, giving him a 4.70 mark which is quite in line with his career DRA. While FIP looks at the barebones of fielding independent stats to measure a pitcher’s true performance — strikeouts, walks, home runs — DRA looks a bit deeper into the nuances of the game that can affect a pitcher’s performance and the lens in which we view it through, which can be better detailed here. FIP is a great way to look at how well Gonzalez is limiting walks and home runs allowed (the two points above illustrate better why FIP liked Gonzalez so much this season) while DRA is a truer look into the pitcher’s performance. For now, though, I’m happy with Gonzalez having the lowest FIP of his career.

He lasted longer through starts in the second half

Since July 1 (so even a bit before the second half was officially underway), Gonzalez only had one outing in which he did not pitch at least six innings. Despite having outings in which he threw more innings in the second half, Gonzalez’s pitch totals were quite similar as they were in the first half. He was throwing nearly the same amount of pitches across more innings, indicating that his repertoire was suddenly more effective. Should Gonzalez have not missed approximately four starts, and should he have pitched at least six innings in each start, he would have concluded the season with around 160+ innings, something he has not done since 2013.

His velocity went back up

During the end of 2015, Gonzalez’s velocity took a steep decline, dropping off by 2-3 miles per hour on every pitch he threw across the board. But in 2016, some of that velocity was recovered — an issue White Sox fans had been keeping a watchful eye on. His fastball touched 95.3 mph at one point, his slider was back up to 89 mph, his curveball was sitting happily at 80 mph, and one of his signature pitches — the splitter — was back touching 87 mph. These velocities are perfectly adequate for these pitches, and though Gonzalez’s fastball only rarely touches 95 and mostly sits at 92, his repertoire has become so strong and interchangeable that Gonzalez rarely needs to rely on the pitch to survive. So his fastball sits at 92 mph, and that’s OK.

Gonzalez was certainly one of the most pleasant surprises the White Sox were graced with among what felt like constant pitfall in 2016, and the best part was that Gonzalez was not even part of the Opening Day rotation. He was a total surprise. White Sox fans were not even sure what Gonzalez’s future held after his one outing against the Blue Jays in May. But four months and a 3.73 ERA later with many improvements on his 2016 resume, Gonzalez has seemingly carved out a place for himself in the 2017 White Sox rotation. And I am more than comfortable with that.

Photo courtesy of John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

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