Gio Gonzalez has a new team.
On Monday, the Yankees signed Gonzalez to a minor league deal of $3M if Gonzalez reaches the big leagues. For a team that could use the depth, it’s a zero risk play for the Bombers.
Luis Severino is out until May. CC Sabathia is out until mid-April, maybe even May himself, as he recovers from offseason surgery. The Yankees big offseason get, James Paxton, has a non-existent track record of health, as he’s pitched 150 IP just once since being drafted nearly ten years ago. Masahiro Tanaka has made it to 200 IP in the Majors just once as well.
Enter Gio Gonzalez. Over the past near-decade, Gio Gonzalez has been one of the most durable SP in the league. Since he became a full-time starter as a 24-year-old in Washington’s rotation in 2010, Gonzalez has started the 5th most games in all of the MLB with 283, trailing only Scherzer, Lester, Verlander, and Shields. He also pitched the 11th most total innings over that time. This total is a bit skewed towards the first half of this 9 year period – when Gonzalez pitched 32+ games and 195+ IP in 4 straight years – but even if you narrow the scope to 2014-2018, Gio still ranks in the top 10 for games started and just outside the top 20 for IP.
They aren’t just dry, meaningless innings, either. Last time Gio has less than 2.0 WARP (Baseball Prospectus), was in 2009, when he only pitched 98.0 innings (Still a 1.7 that year). They may not be Cy-Young-vote-receiving seasons anymore, but 31+ starts with 170+ IP seems almost expected from Gonzalez if given the opportunity, and there’s a certain level of comfort, safety, and value tied to a pitcher that is a near guarantee to hit these marks and stay healthy.
As for what kind of pitcher he can be in those innings, Gio and the Brewers gave us a bit of insight as to what to expect in 2019. Before being shipped out of Washington for minor leaguers KJ Harrison and Gilbert Lara, Gonzalez had a 4.57 ERA with the Nationals, an ERA 7% worse than league average when adjusted to the ballparks he pitched in, and it wasn’t hard to see why:
There are a few things going on here, but almost across the board, 2 things are very clear; Gonzalez threw fewer strikes in 2018, and when he did throw a strike, it got hit harder. That’s typically a poor recipe. Yet, post-trade, Gonzalez found success in Milwaukee, albeit in a very small sample size of just 5 starts. His FIP in those 5 starts was just 3.63 after resting in at 4.25 with the Nationals.
The secret that the Brewers shared with Gonzalez was one that perhaps wasn’t that big of a secret, to begin with; Gio needed to use his sinker far less. The pitch had been getting murdered in Washington. Hitters were hitting .301 vs. the pitch with a .454 SLG against it. It garnered the fewest whiffs of any pitch in his arsenal by a staggering amount. In fact, he threw 120 sinkers in the entire month of May and not a single one resulted in a swing and a miss. Upon arriving in Milwaukee, shedding some sinker usage was exactly what he did.
There were changes to his changeup and curveball rates as well, but both were within 4% of the previous frequency, so neither is likely a change in usage, just variance. The sinker decrease is noticeable though, as it’s usage dropped over 10% after the trade in favor of more four-seamers.
The fourseamers in Gio’s time in Milwaukee had a little bit more spin on them as well. In the month+ he was with the Brewers, the spin rate of his 4 seam fastball increased to an average of 2253 RPM, up from 2221 in earlier 2018, a 1.4% increase. That sort of increase may not sound like a lot, but it is. The increase in rotation improved the pitch’s horizontal movement from 5.37” in Washington to 6.02” in Milwaukee. It’s vertical movement improved from 8.86” to 9.17”. That change looks a little something like this:
Once again, it doesn’t look like a lot, but in the 250 milliseconds that a batter has to make a decision and swing the bat, every inch counts. These sort of movement numbers, especially in vertical movement, are closer to the sort of movement Gonzalez got on his fastball in 2014-2015, when he was a 105+ ERA+ starting pitcher. I’m not sure if the bump in spin rate is simply another small sample issue, but if the Brewers gave Gonzalez some information to ever so slightly increase the 4 seamers spin rate, it should carry over into 2019.
The point here, of course, is not to try and convince you that Gonzalez has the capacity to once again go out in 2019 and pitch as well as he ever has. That won’t likely happen as a 33-year-old pitcher whose fastball has dipped into low 90’s and whose curveball landed in the zone at just 34% of the time, sometimes losing command all together:
The point here is that Gio Gonzalez shouldn’t be expected to pitch as he did in the first 5 months of 2018 should he continue to use less sinkers in favor of his 4 seamer. The decreased frequency in sinker usage (plus a slight increase in 4 seamer movement) allowed his sinker to play up in the fewer times he threw it, as the average exit velocity dropped from 88.5 MPH to 82.4, dropping the expected wOBA from 0.350 to 0.286. The new pitch mix worked for him in Milwaukee and should continue to do so going forward. Expect Gonzalez to pitch somewhere near the 95-100 ERA+ mark, which, given his typical yearly 180+ IP, would come out to something like 1.0-1.5 WAR over the course of 2019 and makes for a perfectly fine #5 starter, even if they only use him in the short term. If the curveball command can resurface, he has a chance to be even better than that. The signing represents not only depth for the Yankees, but surefire, nearly free depth. Personally, Gonzalez would be pegged as my #5 starter for the Yankees to start the season if I was in charge; my trust in Jonathan Loaisga, Domingo German, or Luis Cessa is extremely limited. But for a relatively measly $3M, it’s an absolutely phenomenal signing for the Yankees, even if it is just for safety purposes.
Photo: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports