Last year my brother and I were lucky enough to be in attendance at Coors Field for the big-league debut of Marco Gonzales. After opting for outfield bleacher seats the game prior (so that we could be as far away from Shelby Miller's pitching as possible while also experiencing seats in a different part of the ballpark), we got pretty good seats several rows behind the first-base dugout.
Our perch was perfect for watch Gonzales strike Troy Tulowitzki out with his changeup in the first inning, to the loud cheers of the native Coloradoan's family and friends. But as Gonzales threw more pitches, my brother began calling out the southpaw's curveball as he was in the process of releasing it. What's more, the curve didn't look very good.
I didn't judge Gonzales too harshly. No one anticipated that the Cardinals would be forced to turn to the June 2013 first-round pick for his first MLB start in June 2014. But injuries had forced the organization's hand and so they summoned Gonzales from Double-A, placed him on the 40-man rotation, and gave him the ball in the hitter's paradise of Coors, where the southpaw had last thrown as a high-schooler. All things considered, he acquitted himself well. It was just a matter of expanding his repertoire to complement his decent-but-not-great fourseamer and change.
Derrick Goold wrote a profile on Gonzales that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two weeks ago. It included the nugget that the Cardinals instructed Gonzales to work on a twoseamer. "The purpose," Goold reports, "is to give him something else to use against lefties than his agile changeup and four-seam fastball." It seems folks in the Cardinals organization might have been as underwhelmed with Gonzales's breaking ball as I was back in June. For what it's worth, Gonzales told Goold this week that he feels very good about his Uncle Charlie as we enter 2015 due to its improvement since he signed. (Gonzales also shared some interesting insights about grip and placement.)
When manager Mike Matheny kneeled down behind the dish this week to catch Gonzales, he wanted to see the cutter. MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch has the details:
At one point during Gonzales' bullpen session, Matheny asked to see the cutter, a pitch Gonzales resurrected from his repertoire midseason in 2014 and one that he expects to utilize with more regularity going forward. Gonzales answered the challenge with three well-executed cutters in a row.
"Is it that easy that you can throw it there whenever you want?" Matheny quipped from behind his catcher's mask.
After the session, Matheny added: "That cutter, I think, is going to be the biggest difference-maker for him."
onzales stopped throwing the pitch last spring after thinking it may have contributed to the forearm strain he developed during Spring Training. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley encouraged Gonzales to pull it back out last summer, though the lefty hardly threw it. But he intends to this year, along with a refined curveball that features a tighter grip.
According to the invaluable Brooks Baseball, Gonzales throwing four types of pitches last season: fourseamer, change, slider, and curveball. I assume that the slider is the same pitch Gonzales and the Cardinals are referring to as the cutter. (Sometimes folks will refer to these two pitches as one when discussing Pitchf/x data, but the amalgamated term they use makes me cringe, so I'm not going to use it here. I prefer "culider.")
Brooks has Gonzales throwing 54 sliders all of last season: 0 in June, 4 in July, 3 in August, 28 in September, and 18 in October. He had a 44.44% groundball rate with the pitch, which is roughly on par with his other offerings, and a 9.26% whiff rate, which is better than his curve (7.26%) and his fourseamer (4.09%), but well below his change (24.73%). In October, Gonzales used the slider as much as the change.
Gonzales throws his fourseamer in the 90-91 mph range. That's not bad, but it's also not anything that will overpower big-league hitters. His change can help speed that 90-91 up a little bit, to be sure, but his long-term success as a major-leaguer was always going to hinge on him developing more pitches that he can command. Thus, it's heartening to hear that Gonzales feels good about his curveball's development and may have added a couple more offerings to his arsenal for 2015.