“I’d throw it and throw it and one day I just got so fed up with, ‘You’re not throwing it right, you’re not throwing it right,’ ” Gonzalez said. “And I just started throwing and slinging and I wanted to throw it as hard as I can and snap it.”
And with that, perhaps the best left-handed breaking ball in the major leagues was spawned. There, Gonzalez found his own unconventional grip, began mastering his textbook mechanics and deceptive delivery, and started on his path to becoming a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award this season.
The Washington Nationals forked over four top prospects last winter to acquire the pitcher from the Oakland Athletics, a hefty price for an all-star still learning to harness his prodigious talent. But Gonzalez, 27, has exceeded all expectations. He was the first pitcher in the majors to 20 wins, one of the majors’ best left-handers, the Nationals’ unquestioned ace without Stephen Strasburg and their Game 1 starter in Sunday’s National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. His wicked, hard and disappearing curveball is a major reason why.
“It’s the best left-handed curveball in the big leagues,” said former pitcher Dan Plesac, a three-time all-star and now an analyst for MLB Network.
Deception is key
Pitching relies heavily upon deception. Batters look for any clue to help them figure out what a pitcher will hurl at them: the rotation of the ball, the location of a pitcher’s arm, any difference in mechanics. Gonzalez’s best trait, pitching experts say, is that there’s no perceivable difference between how he looks when throwing his curveball and his fastball.
“If you could overlay all three of Gio’s pitches — fastball, breaking ball, change-up — the positioning of his arm is nearly identical,” said Tom House, a renowned major league pitching coach. “It’s what happens the first four feet out of the hand that makes it so hard for a hitter to see, read and commit to the pitch.”
Gonzalez achieves that with arm speed and consistent arm position. The same force that he uses to fire his lively 94-mph fastball he uses to throw his devastating 80-mph curveball. The whip of the arm is the slingshot that gives the ball the speed and wicked spin. Gonzalez also keeps his arm in the same three-quarters slot for every pitch.