Through four starts this season, Gio Gonzalez has shown the dominating flashes that make him a 21-game winner last season, a Cy Young Award finalist and one of the best left-handers in all of baseball. But that’s just it; he has had spurts of strong pitching that have unraveled with wayward control.
Gonzalez, 27, allowed zero runs in his first start of the season against the Miami Marlins and then followed with a one-run, five-inning outing against the White Sox. His past two outings have been larger struggles: 12 earned runs, 12 hits and seven walks over nine innings combined against the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. The prevailing theme of all of his starts, even in the first two, is his pitch counts. He has averaged only five innings per outing because of a 95-pitch average. He leads the majors with 4.34 pitches per plate appearance.
Gonzalez thinks he has identified a flaw in his mechanics early this season, which he attributes to a rushed delivery and approach. “Speeding up the process and not taking my time,” he said.
As a result, Gonzalez thinks his left arm is dropping below his usual arm slot and his control is suffering. His velocity has been down about 1 mph from last year (92.4 mph versus 93.3 mph on his fastball) but it’s still early and will normalize with a few more starts. (The cold weather could be a factor and Gonzalez has said his velocity and arm strength feel fine.) A lower arm slot, he believes, is telegraphing some of his pitches.
“I feel like my arm isn’t catching up to where I want it to be,” he said. “My arm slot is not where it is.”
Gonzalez isn’t one to watch video of his starts, opting to avoid the negative reinforcement. Since pitching is a skill so dependent on feel, Gonzalez likes to work on what is or isn’t feeling right in bullpen sessions between starts and listen to pitching coach Steve McCatty. Tuesday afternoon, McCatty and Gonzalez were in the Nationals bullpen in right field doing the same ahead of his next start on Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds. Gonzalez said McCatty always reminds him to slow down.
“It seems like after the first two games [my arm slot] started changing a little bit more,” he said. “Arm wasn’t catching up where I wanted it to be. Location is not where I want it to be.”
Gonzalez noticed this especially against the Mets on Saturday when he pitched three strong innings to start before allowing five runs on five hits in the fourth inning. He is an excitable person and once he stumbles, whether that be a hit or walk, he starts speeding up instead of slowing down and taking a deep breath.
“Instead of slowing it down, trying to get that out, maybe you’re giving up a run for the out,” said Gonzalez, who added he went through the same hiccup when he pitched for Oakland. “I was like, ‘Let’s go faster, faster.’ ”
Gonzalez said he wants to mimic teammates Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, quick workers on the mound who have learned to shrug off hits and stay focused. He has noticed them pick up their target behind home plate and deliver the ball — all in the same motion. Gonzalez feels he has been more disjointed recently, not keeping it one fluid motion.