“It starts in the bullpens,” Maddux said. “We’re not just exercising our arms, we’re exercising our minds. The more we exercise our minds, the better shape we’re in. It’s a daily focus. Every time we play catch. He’s all in with that.”
Gonzalez averaged 92 mph or better with his fastball for every season from 2010 to 2015. So far this season, he is averaging 89.9. In some cases, that disparity would be a cause for concern. In this case, Maddux said, the change comes from the fact that Gonzalez is throwing more two-seam fastballs than ever — typically slower but more active than four-seamers.
“It’s not like we’re going for strikeouts, we’re going for good strikes,” Maddux said. “… If he gets two strikes, then he’s got something to miss a bat with. But that’s not our objective right now. It’s go longer into games, how am I gonna get early outs? How am I gonna get early outs? Make quality pitches early. That’s been a pretty big focus. To his credit, he’s doing it.”
Gonzalez is averaging more than six innings per start so far this season, and has allowed one earned run. In that tiny two-start sample, he is using his change-up more frequently than he has in his career, and therefore using his curveball less. By FanGraphs’ trustworthy count, he earned a greater percentage of soft contact than he has in the past, and a smaller percentage of hard contact. He is averaging 2.08 walks-per-nine innings in two starts this season. His career average is 3.44.
But the question, of course, is can he keep this up? Can the 30-year-old continue to progress when tougher lineups test him, when things get rough? Gonzalez said he is doing all he can to ensure he does.
He says he has been absorbing as much as he can about the mental side of things from Maddux, closer Jonathan Papelbon, and Nationals mental coach Mark Campbell. Gonzalez said he’s gleaned different things from all of them. Maddux pushes constant focus. Papelbon pushed staying closed and driving his legs. Campbell has helped him develop techniques to maintain his focus when situations escalate.
“My last couple starts, I’ve tried to use things to slow it down a litte bit, like with runners on base. Not rushing to get to home plate. Throwing my pitches with a purpose, an idea,” Gonzalez said. Maddux, Papelbon, Campbell and other coaches “helped me find the guy that I used to be. That’s what I was lacking. I know I can continually do my job. Sometimes you need a little kick in the butt, and that’s what I needed. I’m just happy these people found the right way to do it.”