Matt Kremnitzer: Miguel Gonzalez is at it again

Orioles pitching has been better lately, and Miguel Gonzalez’s solid performance on Saturday (7 2/3 scoreless innings of four-hit ball with a walk and six strikeouts) played a part in the turnaround. It’s been easy to routinely overlook Gonzalez, who always seems to be mentioned as a bullpen option instead of a lock for the rotation. I’m certainly guilty of that. But after five starts of posting a 2.59 ERA and a 3.89 FIP this season, Gonzalez is again chugging along and doing what it takes to prevent runs.

Considering the early-season struggles of Bud Norris, Chris Tillman and some members of the bullpen, Gonzalez has been needed more than ever. And his pitching has been a stabling force, along with a potentially rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez. Unlike Jimenez, Gonzalez is the cheapest of the O’s pitching options, but arguably the most interesting.

Gonzalez is never going to light up the radar gun, consistently pile up a bunch of strikeouts or overwhelm hitters by inducing a large amount of groundball outs. Instead, he does a little bit of everything. He gets just enough strikeouts. He’s more of a flyball pitcher than groundball one. He’s decent at holding runners and is adequate at fielding his position. And he mixes in four other pitches (a slider, splitter, sinker and curveball) to go along with a four-seam fastball that he throws about 40 percent of the time.

So far this season, Gonzalez, 30, has lost some velocity on his four-seamer. His velocity peaked at about 92.5 mph in 2013, his second season with the O’s. It dropped by about 0.5 mph in 2014, and it’s currently about 91.5 mph. But even with the decline in velocity, Gonzalez’s pitches are still moving, and he’s also able to locate them better.

Gonzalez has never posted a strikeout rate above 6.5 per nine innings. Yet right now, he’s sitting at a strikeouts/nine innings of 7.8 and hasn’t really changed his pitch usage. He even set his career mark in his second start this season when he struck out 10 Yankees (his previous single game high was nine). His walk rate is slightly up, but he’s combated that by allowing fewer home runs and getting more ground balls. But it’s early; these things can change in a hurry.

An encouraging sign is that batters are making less contact on pitches outside the strike zone against Gonzalez. Opposing batters are currently making contact on just 61 percent of Gonzalez’s pitches outside the zone. His career mark is 70 percent. His splitter has played a big part in that. In his career, opposing batters have swung and missed at his splitter about 20 percent of the time (twice as much as his next closest whiff-inducing pitch, his slider). But in 2015, batters have swung and missed at his splitter 27 percent of the time. The next-closest pitch is his slider (about 9 percent). Gonzalez loves to throw the splitter with two strikes, and he’s throwing the pitch even lower in the zone this season.

Throughout his career, Gonzalez has been able to outpitch his FIP every season and also strand a ridiculous rate of baserunners. Clearly, those two things are linked. Among qualified starting pitchers this season, Gonzalez is 19th in ERA-FIP differential (-1.31) and eighth in strand rate (85.4 percent). Over the past three seasons (minimum 350 innings pitched), he’s first in both categories.

So how has Gonzalez been able to do this? In an excellent analysis this past offseason, Ryan Romano of Camden Depot looked at this topic and discovered that Gonzalez bears down with runners on base. Gonzalez opts for fewer four-seamers and curveballs in those situations and throws more sinkers, which he keeps down in the zone. That’s led to fewer home runs allowed with runners on, which is also a Tillman trait (though to a larger extent in Gonzalez’s case).

Gonzalez has been able to keep doing this for 467 innings. That’s not some enormous amount of innings, but his surprising performance can’t be explained away with a small sample size designation or by mentioning the Orioles’ skilled team defense or some good luck on his part. All of these things are part of the Miguel Gonzalez overachievement puzzle. He’ll never be a team’s top starting pitching option, and he’ll never regularly overpower opposing lineups. But he’s been more than effective these past few seasons. The O’s picked him up off the scrap heap, and he’s given them a lot of innings and a lot of unexpected value. Even if Gonzalez stops being effective in the near future, he’s given the Orioles much more than they could have ever asked for.

Matt Kremnitzer blogs about the Orioles at Camden Depot. Follow him on Twitter: @mattkremnitzer. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome 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.

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