Matt Kremnitzer: O’s likely forced to hold steady during Miguel Gonzalez’s rough stretch

How bad does a starting pitcher have to perform before he gets removed from the rotation? For the last couple of months, Miguel Gonzalez seems to be pushing those boundaries. He was up to his usual tricks the first couple months of the season, but he’s been off his game since late June.

In the middle of that month, Gonzalez was placed on the disabled list with a right groin injury. Since his return outing on June 25, things have not gone well. In nine starts (46 1/3 innings), he has posted an ugly 6.22 ERA and has allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings pitched. In the 12 starts (73 innings) before the injury, he put up a 3.33 ERA. There’s obviously some sample size concerns when slicing up a portion of the season that way, but he did have a much lower average on balls in play and a higher strand rate in the pre-injury starts. That’s the similar run-preventing ability that Gonzalez showcased in his previous three seasons in Baltimore.

Unlike in past seasons, though, Gonzalez has struggled mightily with runners on base. As Ryan Romano noted before the 2015 season, Gonzalez seems to switch up his approach when runners get on in an effort to decrease home runs and limit damage. But this year, he’s been far worse with runners on (.380 wOBA) than bases empty situations (.314 wOBA). Eight of his 20 home runs allowed (40 percent) have come with runners on base in 2015. Before this season, only 24 percent of his home runs allowed were non-solo shots.

Gonzalez has been worse when it comes to home runs per nine innings, batting average on balls in play and strand rate, but not much else jumps off the page. His strikeouts per nine innings are slightly up (from 6.5 to 6.9), and his walks per nine are right at his career average (2.9). Opposing batters aren’t hitting the ball as hard against him and are pulling the ball less. They’re also hitting fewer balls in the air against him, and they’re both swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and making less contact.

Also, Gonzalez’s pitch velocities have held steady across the board and he’s not elevating his pitches. Even his fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 4.9 is identical to last season’s. It is worth noting, though, that two of Gonzalez’s breaking pitches, his curveball and slider, have been getting hit much harder this year than in years past.

Regardless of whether this slip in execution is a blip on the radar, partially injury related, or the potential end of an impressive run of good fortune, Gonzalez remains an enigma, and it’s always possible that he could stop being an effective starting pitcher at any time. Is this the pitcher Gonzalez could be without the BABIP and strand rate good fortune from his first few seasons? If this is the new version of Gonzalez, it’s clearly bad news for the Orioles both for the rest of this season and beyond. With Bud Norris already gone and Wei-Yin Chen likely to depart as a free agent, Gonzalez had previously been penciled in as a rotation favorite for 2016. He’ll still be included in that group, both because of past performance and a lack of great options, but the future outlook isn’t as sunny.

To get back to the point above, should Gonzalez lose his spot in the rotation? And who could or should replace him? Tyler Wilson is a popular candidate among hopeful fans, with his 2.19 ERA in 24 2/3 major league innings. Even if it weren’t mildly concerning that Wilson has only posted a 2.6 K/9 in his limited time on the Orioles, he missed a recent start for Triple-A Norfolk because of an oblique muscle injury and could be forced to miss more time. Mike Wright is also on the mend. Would you feel comfortable giving anyone else a rotation opportunity? I don’t think I would.

The Orioles might not have another choice than to hope Gonzalez turns things around and in a hurry. There are still reasons to be optimistic, but with the O’s in the playoff chase, there isn’t much room for error. A few more bad starts could sink the team’s postseason chances.

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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