When you take a look at the stats below, you might be amazed at the differences, or lack thereof, of the dominance that each pitcher has displayed: (All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference)
Pitcher A: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.39, IP: 162.0, SO: 150, WAR: 6.3, ERA+: 185
Pitcher B: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.25, IP: 160.1, SO: 220, WAR: 6.1, ERA+: 197
Based on the high strikeout total you probably figured out the Pitcher B is Max Scherzer, having another incredible season that has him ahead of the pack for his second consecutive CY Young Award (barring an extended DL stint due to neck issues that have continued to bother him). To the shock of all around baseball, Pitcher A is none other than Gio Gonzalez, having one of the quietest great seasons in recent history. How can a pitcher with a 4.57 ERA a year ago with declining Fastball velocity be so dominant just one season later? It seems unfathomable to comprehend, but that is where things stand with Gio this year.
Everyone knew the Nationals had a great rotation going into the season. It is one of the many reasons they were picked to win the NL East and challenge the Cubs and Dodgers in the playoffs. When analysts and smart baseball guys talked about the rotation, most mentioned the obvious names such as Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Some expected the continued excellence of Tanner Roark and that Joe Ross might make the leap this year in his third season. There was even high praise for hotshot prospect Erick Fedde after a strong spring and after the Nationals traded away Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez over the winter. The least talked about holdover from last season’s rotation was Gio, a pitcher seemingly in decline and who has been unable to throw enough strikes throughout his career. Now, with Joe Ross out for the year after having Tommy John Surgery, Scherzer currently on the DL, Strasburg just having returned from the DL, and Roark struggling this season, Gonzalez has been the steadying force in the rotation throughout the entire year.
ERA+ is a stat that measures how much above or below average a pitcher is over the course of a season. Factors such as the average ERA around baseball as well as the nature of the ballpark (hitter or pitcher-friendly ballpark) are taken into account with a baseline of 100. According to B-R, Gio Gonzalez has been 85 percent better than the average pitcher around baseball this year. This is a shocking turnaround given that Gio was 9 percent below average last season. The ERA+ last season demonstrated a continued trend over the last few seasons as it had gone from 138 in his awesome 2012 season (his first with the Nats) to the measly 91 he put up last year. All the advanced and non-advanced pitching stats point to a pitcher coming into his own after a few down seasons. His innings per start are up over 6 IP/start after checking in at 5.1/IP start last season. While he’s still walking a few too many guys, he’s managed to give up only 6.6 H/9 after giving up more than a hit per inning the last two seasons. All of this begs the question of how has he done it?
Watching Gio Gonzalez in recent years was akin to a slow climb up a sloped mountain. There was a lot of talking to himself, lots of pacing aimlessly, and a very slow, methodical approach. This year, Gio has continued to talk to himself, but the rest of the experience has sped up exponentially. He’s pitching with confidence and a renewed sense of self-belief even with declining velocity. The most basic way to look at this is how he’s fared when facing batters with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP). Last season the league batted .333/.406/.507 in those situations as he essentially turned every hitter he faced in that situation into Jose Altuve. The season before, those numbers were .272/.333/.424. Thanks to an improved pace and a belief in his stuff, the numbers this year are .121/.220/.168, numbers that reflect a below-average hitting pitcher.
While it would be too simplistic to say that Gio is better because he’s pitching faster, watching him this year reveals a much more relaxed and calm individual on the mound. He’s learned to take a deep breath when things don’t go his way and focus only on the next batter and the next pitch and not what just happened behind him. Even when he’s fallen behind hitters, he has had the confidence to come right after them and make his pitch and get the outs. There is no stat to back this up, but it seems like he’s given up 0 hits to batters that he’s fallen in the count 3-0 to. The same self-confidence is evident in Stras this year and it might be time to give Mike Maddux the due he deserves for the work he’s done with the staff this year. He’s gotten everyone to buy in and believe in their stuff; it is one of the reasons that the starters are pitching with more confidence and going deeper into games.
With Scherzer due back shortly and Strasburg pitching strongly in his first game back from his DL stint, the Nationals rotation is set up very nicely at the top. Given that Strasburg missed the 2012 and 2016 postseasons and Scherzer was not around in 2014, the continued excellence of Gio this year gives the Nats hope for their best playoff rotation yet. With tough lefties such as Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber Cody Bellinger, Curtis Granderson, and others looming in the playoffs, Gio will play a key role in just how far the Nationals advance this year. That is no longer scary thought for the Nationals and their fanbase.