When the Nationals traded four major prospects for Gio Gonzalez this winter, many fans in D.C. were hesitant about the potential reward such a risky move could bring.
Gonzalez, 26, had two All-Star caliber seasons under his belt, and was one of the best left-handed strikeout pitchers in baseball, but some wondered about his potential to be an elite pitcher moving into the future. While he had succeeded in 2010 and 2011 with Oakland, he had also allowed more walks than any other pitcher during that span. Some also looked at his home/away splits, and attempted to make the argument that Gonzalez couldn't pitch outside of the A's spacious home turf. Others were concerned that while Gonzalez could be a solid starter for Washington, he could never equal the potential ability of Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, Brad Peacock or A.J. Cole combined.
Fast forward to the end of May, and it's safe to say that no one in Washington is second-guessing general manager Mike Rizzo's move anymore.
While it's still early in the season, Gonzalez has been the best pitcher in the National League, if not in baseball. His 2.04 ERA ranks third in the NL. His seven wins are him tied for third, and his 79 strikeouts lead all of Major League Baseball. It is clear that he has taken his game to the next level, as he has increased his strikeout rate while also lowering his walk rate.
The biggest change in approach for Gonzalez has been in his pitch selection. In 2011 he threw his curveball, arguably his best pitch, 27.8 percent of the time. This year, he has elected to be more selective with the hook, tossing it just 19.7 percent of the time.
This has resulted in two things. First, he's throwing more strikes in general because no matter how strong a pitcher you are, when you have a curve that has that much movement it is not easy to locate it in the zone as often as you want. Second, by throwing it less often, it makes it harder for opposing batters to pick up the pitch and adjust to it. This is why he's getting so many more strikeouts this season.
According to Fangraphs pitch values, Gonzalez's curveball has gone from a 00.6 to a 5.0 this season with his adjustments.
So what does this strong start mean? It's hard to say, really. Last year, through 10 starts, Gonzalez posted a 5-2 record with a 2.21 ERA and 62 strikeouts, which isn't a far cry from where he is now. He finished the year with a 16-12 record and a 3.12 ERA. In 2010, however, he had a terrible first half and a tremendous second half and finished with a similar 15-9 record with a 3.23 ERA.
Has Gonzalez figured it out enough to continue his current pace throughout the entirety of the season? There is no way of knowing for sure. What we can count on, however, is that the 26-year-old's enthusiasm and general love for the game will help set the tone for a Washington team that is looking to do some exciting things this summer.
Will Yoder blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.