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Will the real Marco Gonzales please stand up?

VEB reader IHeartBoog (she really, really does guys, even though he's now a Yankee) asked in the main thread yesterday whether we Marco Gonzales was "as good as he was on Sunday". I responded in the comments there, but thought the issue deserved a little more thought.

Dilip Vishwanat

If you've followed the Daily Farm Reports this summer, you've noticed just how dominant Marco Gonzales has been at nearly every level of the minor leagues. In 122 minor league innings across three different levels this season the story has been pretty much the same: A 2.51/3.06 ERA/FIP with a better than 4/1 K/BB ratio overall.

The real difference between Minors Marco and Majors Marco to this point has been command: In those 21 minor league starts he walked just over 5% of hitters he faced.  In the majors thus far it's been a shade over 12%, which is a bit concerning for a pitcher that doesn't have the power stuff to rack up a ton of strikeouts.

Gonzales' last two starts have been better in terms of run prevention, but what, if anything, has changed between those starts?  Taking a look at the Pitch F/X data can tell us a bit more:

The overall pitch mix Gonzales is using really isn't much different from his first stint in the big leagues to his second:

I believe that there's some slight classification errors on the second chart as I don't believe Gonzales is now throwing a sinker/cutter type two seamer.  If you add those together, you end up with a pitch mix of ~60% fastballs, ~30% changeups, and 10% curveballs.

Gonzales' fastball command hasn't been good in either stint in the big leagues:

In the latter two starts and relief appearances he is managing to keep the ball down a little bit better, but he's still off the plate more than 60% of the time. Cross reference that with another Cardinals pitchers who's struggled this year, Shelby Miller, who had all kinds of command problems for most of the season and yet was still able to throw strikes better than half the time in most of his starts. Fastball command will be a real problem for Gonzales if he continues to try and nibble at the corners, as his changeup is far more effective when he's ahead in the count. On that note...

Offspeed/Breaking pitches were much better located late in the season:

Yes, there's not a lot of strikes here either, but I think that's mostly on purpose, especially in his last few outings. These are the pitches he uses to try and end plate appearances for opposing hitters, and his change is so fall-off-the-table good that it gets a lot of swings even when it's out of the strike zone:

As you can see, there's really no big difference in Gonzales' pitch mix, location, or command from his first two starts with the Cardinals to his last two starts. Just different outcomes. Here at VEB we talk a lot about separating process from results and I think this is an excellent example of why we strive to do so.

The difference between the first two starts and the last two starts boils down to about 4 or 5 pitches that were either crushed for an extra base hit or weren't hammered and instead fly outs to a deep part of the outfield instead. From start to start, that can be all the difference at times.

The "Real Marco", based on watching him pitch in the minors this year, is more the one we saw against the Cubs:

  • Pitches mostly near the bottom of the zone.
  • Gets a lot of weak contact by mixing up pitches to the same location.
  • Uses his fastball to get ahead of hitters and his changeup to put them away.
Gonzales still needs to do a better job of throwing strikes, as he was around 40% In Zone in that Cubs start too, but given the aggressive nature of the hitters in that lineup, you can hardly blame him for not wanting to give them much to hit.

I really think the command problems are a confidence issue more than anything given his minor league track record. Crash Davis said you need to pitch with "fear and arrogance" and I think Gonzales has strayed a bit too far towards the fear side of that equation and needs to get some of his arrogance back on the mound. If he can do so there's a real chance of cracking the rotation for the Cardinals next April.