A year ago the White Sox were still doing their scratch and claw and hope for an outside chance at playing in the Wild Card game tactic. It was a tactic that required scraping the bottom of the barrel for whatever useful players they could find without digging too deep into their wallets. One of those useful players they found for 2016 was Miguel Gonzalez.
Gonzalez seemed to have a case of post-Orioles-itis that helped propel him to a 3.73 ERA, which nestled him between current god of pitching Chris Sale and future stud Carlos Rodon on the White Sox leaderboard. The peripherals weren’t great, and his 4.23 DRA warned of trouble to come. His efforts didn’t help the White Sox find their way to the playoffs, though. Instead they were wasted efforts for an offense that found itself to be inert.
In 2017 the White Sox’ tactics have done a 180. No longer are they making weak attempts at contention. With the team in a state of rebuilding, the pressure was off Gonzalez to perform at a high level. Sure, if he had continued to show the good signs of 2016 he was bound to be on the move to help pack the farm system with even more talent. But mostly he had no expectations laid on his shoulders. Perhaps that is a good thing, because his 2017 season has been a mess of confusion and poor play. He’s had good starts and bad starts, with a DL stint thrown in the middle of the season, and remains a mystery that can’t quite be solved.
Gonzalez has been able to put together solid outings this year. He went 8 1/3 innings against the Yankees in his third start of the season, allowing just one earned run, and followed that up with eight innings without an earned run against the Royals. He’s had a couple starts reach six or seven innings with just one earned run allowed in the past month. In his last three starts he has gone a total of 20 innings with just two earned runs allowed. The start before those three was a stinker in which he recorded just five outs before being yanked from the game with seven earned runs already on his record. His game logs scream inconsistency and beg the question: is Gonzalez good?
Gonzalez has never been the type to blow hitters away. The highest swinging strike rate of his career is 8.9 percent in 2015, and his career-high strikeout rate is just 17.7 percent from 2012. Despite his inability to do so, he has had some good seasons in his past. None of those seasons is quite as good as the one he had a year ago, but his career is that of a good pitcher to place at the backend of a rotation. For that reason, his 13.4 strikeout rate and 6.5 swinging strike rate don’t come as much of a surprise. However, that swinging strike rate is the worst of his career and a huge drop-off from his 8.0 percent mark in 2016.
Inability to miss bats is certainly concerning; it’s a huge reason why Gonzalez’s success has always been met with doubts about his ability to maintain a low run average over a larger sample of innings. DRA agrees with those doubts, constantly stating that Gonzalez’s individual performance is worse than his run average makes it out to be. Believing in DRA’s ability to evaluate performance and hint at the future is a good and smart thing to do, but it can be wrong about players from time to time. There is more than just DRA that points towards Gonzalez being inept on the mound.
While the lowered swinging strike rate and strikeout rate are both signs of a failure to miss bats, the contact rate is perhaps even more alarming. His overall contact rate sits at 86.3 percent, which is fourth highest in all of baseball (100 IP or more). His contact rates in the zone (90.8 percent) and out of the zone (77.5 percent) sit similarly at the top of the leaderboard. Hitters have no trouble putting their bat on the ball against Gonzalez. It stands to reason that when the contact is bad, Gonzalez excels. When the contact is solid, Gonzalez has a bad start.
What allows hitters to make contact with such ease? The lack of elite velocity on his pitches certainly plays a part. His fastball averages just 91.2 mph with his slider at 86.8 mph, splitter at 84.4 mph, and curveball at 77.6 mph. None of those is great or elite, but the wide variety of pitches should provide him a better ability to keep hitters guessing. His usage of those pitches doesn’t provide a a better answer. He’s used hard stuff (four seam or sinker) on nearly half of his pitches thrown this season (48.5 percent). Meanwhile, he’s all but abandoned his splitter while turning to his curveball more than ever before. Looking at isolated power against and slugging percentage against, each of his individual pitches show there isn’t evidence that the change in usage has made much of a negative difference. In fact, it may have even helped on a couple of those pitches. In other words, it’s not simply one pitch that has failed for Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s entire repertoire is getting sent back his way with authority, and he seems to have no way to quell the onslaught of contact hitters are making. That doesn’t necessarily make Gonzalez bad, but it does make him more susceptible to really, really bad performances from time to time. Contact isn’t always going to land nicely in a fielder’s glove. Sometimes it lands in the outfield grass, or even worse, in the hands of a lucky fan sitting in the outfield bleachers. Inability to prevent contact or minimize the damage of contact leads to bad outings, something Gonzalez has become all too familiar with. In that sense, he’s certainly not good.
The White Sox were able to scrape up a useful starter they really needed a season ago. Now the team is in a state of rebuilding just begging pitchers to throw enough innings to finish the games remaining on their schedule. Gonzalez has, for the most part, fulfilled that duty. What he has not done is be consistent. His extreme tendency to allow contact has helped the White Sox move along quickly through games in which the outcomes don’t matter, but it’s also caused Gonzalez to melt down from time to time. It doesn’t seem like a trade partner has or will come knocking for Gonzalez on the waiver wire, but if they do they will be rolling the dice on which Gonzalez shows up. Or more accurately, which type of contact Gonzalez watches fly over his head.
Lead photo credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports