For much of 2012, Gio Gonzalez was the most dependable pitcher on the Nationals. He led Washington in innings, tied for most games started, and also finished first in strikeouts. Not in strikeout rate -- that was Stephen Strasburg's territory. Since Strasburg was expected to be shut down before the year ended, though, it was Gonzalez who was the club's most important pitcher from February through today, and it's Gonzalez who will take the ball in the winner-take-all game five against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday.
This was something the Nationals hoped Gonzalez to be when they acquired him from the Athletics for a bushel of top prospects. Gonzalez would give them a left-handed arm that had tossed at least 200 innings in consecutive seasons, one that could miss bats and someday lead a rotation. With the past injuries of other starters, this was a key addition for balance.
It hasn't completely worked out that way, though. The problem is how that first paragraph starts: "For much of 2012" is not all year. You can blame Gonzalez's September for that, as in his last four starts of the month, he threw 24 innings while walking 13 batters. That's nearly five walks per nine innings, a far cry from 3.2 mark he posted in his other 28 starts. Pitchers can be off of their game sometimes, without it meaning much in the long run, but the timing is poor, especially since Gonzalez walked seven batters in five frames against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLDS. Gonzalez doesn't have time to work out the kinks and return to form: he needs to have already returned to form by the time the first pitch is thrown.
Gonzalez gave up just two runs in that outing, somehow, despite seven free passes. That goes with the theme of the rest of his September, though: despite nearly five walks per nine in his four starts to end the year, Gonzalez posted a 2.25 ERA in that stretch.
Part of that was Gonzalez continued to miss bats, punching out 22 batters in those 24 frames. But another part was small-sample luck, as the lefty limited opponents to a .231 batting average on balls in play. You can't rely on that in the long-term, but the Nationals and their fans would certainly take another appearance like that and worry about the details later.
The stretch is worrisome, even without mentioning his good luck of late. Gonzalez threw just 59 percent strikes, below the league-average and his rate from the rest of the season. He averaged over 17 pitches per inning, after sitting under 16 in his other 28 starts. Just 54 of his 110 pitches in game one were strikes, and unlike in September, he did't induce grounders to help his cause. The Nationals were lucky to win the first game of the series, given the offense mustered just three runs, and the Cardinals stranded 10 runners while going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Banking on a sequel in game five is pressing your luck -- the Nationals would be better off with the Gonzalez of pre-September.
His velocity has been down lately, with Gonzalez averaging 92.5 miles per hour on his four-seamer, and 92 on his two-seamer over the last five starts. Prior to that, the southpaw was a full mile per hour faster with the latter. He also threw more strikes with it (65 percent compared to 60) while inducing both more swings and swings-and-misses. His two-seamer has its own issues, as it's being fouled off more often in addition to notching fewer strikes for Gonzalez. There's a trickle-down effect here, when fastballs can't be located for consistent strikes. In Gio's case, it means his curve is seeing fewer swings, and has been put into play more often despite this.
None of this means Gonzalez or the Nationals are doomed against the Cardinals. But St. Louis already saw these issues once, and with Mark McGwire's individual plans against opposing pitchers at the disposal of the potent Cardinals' offense, you have to think there is a better chance for them to drive home that extra runner or two they needed, runs that would have already ended this series. (The Cardinals aren't special in this regard: any team that can pay attention and adjust fits the bill here.) It's one game, so anything can happen. In game one, that anything was the Cardinals failing to capitalize on Gonzalez's struggles. Things could go the other way just as easily this time around.
Gio Gonzalez is a quality pitcher who, until recently, seemed to have his control issues under... well, you know. But lately, he's been erratic, and lacking the velocity that made him so good for most of the season. It's worrisome, but it's not a deal breaker for the Nationals just yet. If the Nats survive today, though, and Gonzalez continues to be more lucky than good, then it's a problem that will likely have to be solved for Washington to get much further, though.
PITCHf/x data courtesy of Texas Leaguers