In a move that came as no surprise, Gio Gonzalez is back in navy blue. The Brewers reunited with the veteran southpaw on a one-year deal with a base salary of $2 million, plus performance bonuses that can bring the total value up to $4 million.
The match between Gonzalez and the Brewers was pretty obvious. David Stearns and company insisted on giving their young arms every opportunity to start. He passed on several chances to add cheap, solid pitching, continuing to express confidence that his in-house options would perform well. They have not performed well. Now, the club finds itself in desperate need of effective innings, and Gonzalez clearly enjoyed his time in Milwaukee last season. He expressed a willingness to pitch in any role the team needed him to, which fits in well with the organization’s pitching philosophy. He referred to being on a contending Brewers team as “an opportunity of a lifetime,” and he sure looked like he was having the time of his life when Brandon Woodruff launched his legendary home run off of Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS.
The veteran southpaw has compiled some impressive career numbers. Over 11 big-league seasons, he has made 313 appearances (303 starts) with a solid 3.69 ERA, 3.63 FIP, and 3.55 DRA while racking up 30.4 fWAR. However, at 33 years of age, Gonzalez’s peak years appear to be behind him. His fastball velocity has been steadily declining, and he now averages only 90 miles per hour on his heater.
The current iteration of Gonzalez is your typical fourth or fifth starter: average. He finished the 2018 campaign with a 103 ERA- and 102 FIP-, while DRA- believed he was slightly above average at 93.2. Much of his value is in his durability. Gonzalez made 32 starts for the third consecutive season. All in all, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both pegged him as a two-win player.
His peripherals lined up perfectly with his results, and there’s not much of a reason to believe that Gonzalez won’t be able to replicate that production. However, his brief stint with Milwaukee last season hints that he might have a little more than that left in the tank. It was a small sample size of only five starts, but he saw a significant improvement in his results. Some of this was due to an absurdly low BABIP of .182, and it also helped that the Brewers rarely let him face the opposing order a third time.
It was more than a fluky stretch of good luck, however. Gonzalez made some noteworthy adjustments with his new club. He significantly increased his four-seam fastball usage while relying on his sinker less.
This adjustment made plenty of sense. Gonzalez’s sinker is bad, and it’s been bad for quite some time. Last season, it was hit hard to the tune of a .352 wOBA, and it has yielding a wOBA of .340 or higher in each of the past six campaigns. His standard fastball, thrown up in the zone rather than down in the zone, held opposing hitters to a .273 wOBA last year. Throwing a bad pitch less often brought predictably positive results.
More noteworthy, however, is that Gonzalez vastly improved his changeup. As a member of the Nationals, his changeup was getting obliterated. With the Brewers, it became a weapon.
The changeup was death on opposing hitters, limiting them to a .115 wOBA. Its whiff rate increased to 38.5%. This was because it caught much less of the plate once Gonzalez joined his new squad. Compare his changeup location with the Nationals to his location with the Brewers:
Gonzalez kept his changeup at the bottom of or below the strike zone, limiting much of the damage that had been done to it previously. If he can continue to locate the pitch well, it will help his chances of repeating (or even exceeding) his production from last season. Last year was his first season since 2014 in which he threw more changeups than curveballs, and it may be best to continue throwing the offspeed pitch even more frequently this season.
The interesting structure of his incentives hint that Gonzalez may not function as a typical starter for the entire season.
Deal includes performance point bonus system, sources tell The Athletic.— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) April 24, 2019
2 points awarded for each appearance of three innings or more as a pitcher. 1 point awarded for all other appearances as a pitcher.
$333,333 at 25, 30, 35, 40 points.
$333,334 at 45, 50 points. https://t.co/ZMWer9D645
Gonzalez gets two “points” any time he pitches three or more innings, whether it’s as a starter or as a reliever. This opens up the possibility of using an opener for him or potentially shifting him to the bullpen. With the ineffectiveness of Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta on the shelf, Gonzalez is all but guaranteed to start his second tenure in Milwaukee as a member of the rotation. However, if some of those arms can eventually step up, the Brewers might alter his role.
Make no mistake, Gio Gonzalez is not going to be the savior of the Brewers pitching staff. Other hurlers need to step up. Rather, he gives them a durable back-end arm who pitches every five days and puts up league-average results. That’s nothing special, but it’s valuable, and it’s a significant upgrade over the performances the team has gotten so far. His presence may allow the team to shift one of their young arms into a relief role if their early struggles continue, or he could move to the bullpen himself. Gonzalez’s ceiling, however, may be a little higher than one might assume, given the adjustments he made down the stretch last season. Either way, he adds some clarity to a group of arms that have been inconsistent at best.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant