Not a Rookie: Gio Gonzalez
One of the more enigmatic young pitchers in the game today is Oakland Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez. He entered 2010 as a huge questionmark, but has made significant improvements this year, currently 7-5 with a 3.50 ERA in 17 starts, cutting his ERA by more than two runs compared to last year. Let's take a look at his background and development as a prospect.
Gio Gonzalez was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the supplemental first round of the 2004 draft, out of high school in Miami, Florida. He was considered a certain first round pick as an amateur, but his stock dropped somewhat after an argument between his mother and his high school coach (over his brother) got Gio dismissed from the team. He was also thought to be rather arrogant and with an off-putting personality. The White Sox liked his 88-90 MPH fastball along with his big-breaking curve, and he got off to a good start with a 2.25 ERA and a 36/8 K/BB in 24 innings in the Appalachian League. They jumped him up to Kannapolis in the Sally League in August, a huge jump for a high school kid, but he more than held his own with a 3.03 ERA and a 27/13 K/BB in 32 innings. Highly impressed with this, I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book and ranked him as the Number 31 pitching prospect in the game.
Gonzalez began 2005 with Kannapolis again, posting a 1.87 ERA with an 84/22 K/BB in 58 innings, an outstanding strikeout rate. Promoted to High-A Winston-Salem, he remained effective with a 3.56 ERA and a 79/25 K/BB in 73 innings. His velocity went up a notch to 90-93 MPH, and he made further strides with his curveball and changeup. His combined numbers were 13-6, 2.82 with a 163/47 K/BB in 131 innings, with only 97 hits allowed. I gave him another Grade B+, ranked Number 34. He was traded to the Phillies in the Jim Thome trade; at this point, the main concern was that his scrawny body might not hold up under a large workload.
The Phillies sent Gonzalez to Double-A Reading for 2006. He struggled at times, going 7-12, 4.66 with a 166/81 K/BB in 155 innings, 140 hits. The K/IP and H/IP were strong, but his control was poor and too many walks resulted in an inflated ERA. His velocity was up into the 92-95 range, but mechanical inconsistencies hampered his control, and he losts his composure on the mound at times. The Phillies traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia at the end of the year. I was concerned enough about the command problems, his workload, problems dealing with stress, and the transaction pingpong to lower his rating a notch to Grade B, and had him at Number 39 on my list.
The Sox sent him back to Double-A, with solid results: 3.18 ERA, 185/57 K/BB in 150 innings, 116 hits. Again, the K/IP and H/IP were excellent, and he reduced his walk rate and home run rates substantially. His velocity, interestingly enough, was actually down to 88-93 MPH. But his secondary pitches and command were sharper, and his mechanics were more consistent. I moved him back up to Grade B+ and ranked at Number 11 on the prospect list.
On January 3rd, 2008, Gonzalez was traded again, this time to the Oakland Athletics. Gonzalez split 2008 and 2009 between Triple-A and the majors, pitching well in the minors, but getting hammered in his major league time. His stats for Oakland:
2008: 7.68 ERA, 7.04 FIP, 5.17 xFIP, 9.0 K/9, 6.6 BB/9, 8.5 H/9
2009: 5.75 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 4.02 xFIP, 9.9 K/9, 5.1 BB/9, 10.3 H/9
2010: 3.50 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 4.39 xFIP, 7.3 K/B, 4.2 BB/9, 7.6 H/9
As you can see, his FIP and xFIPs were always better than his ERA;s indeed, if you trust xFIP he's actually slightly worse this year than last. His strikeout rate is down. On the other hand, his walk rate is down also, and continued progress in that direction will help him maintain his current performance. His velocity has actually been a bit better this year than in previous seasons, averaging 92.1 MPH compared to 91.6 in '09 and 89.7 in '08.
I interviewed Oakland GM Billy Beane back in November and he had this to say about Gio:
"Gio is a really interesting guy. Even when he's getting hit hard, he still strikes guys out. Ultimately we think it will play out in his favor. Gio is a very high-strung guy, high-energy, and sometimes that works against him. It will take him a little longer to get comfortable, but we understand that. Brett Anderson is the opposite, he's very calm and under control emotionally, but Gio is still learning to harness his emotions. We think he made a lot of progress doing that.
If you look at his game-by-game lines, you can see signs that he's pulling things together. Back in July, he had a really bad game against the Twins (ed.--10 hits and 11 runs allowed in 2.2 innings on July 20th), but he came back from that to pitch well against the Yankees (July 25th, one run in 6.2 innings) and Red Sox (July 30th, eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings) on the road. That's not easy in those environments, so he showed he could bounce back. We were also really happy with his last start, where he fanned 10 and didn't walk anyone (October 2nd against the Angels) in six innings. That shows the kind of potential he has. He just needs more time to put it together consistently, learn to channel his emotions when he gets amped up."
Gonzalez still has some adjustments to make; he's leading the American League in walks, and the component ratios show that he hasn't improved as much as the raw ERA indicates. Still, he's quite clearly made progress over the last two seasons, and at age 24 he still has lots of time on the clock.