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Why Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez likely won’t keep up his strong start

Washington Nationals SP Gio Gonzalez may be dealing now, but SI’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller explains why he likely won’t keep this up for the rest of the season.

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Six starting pitchers have ERAs south of 2.00. Jake Arrieta (1.29), Chris Sale (1.58) and Clayton Kershaw (1.67) are the three best pitchers in baseball. Jose Quintana (1.98) has been trending in the right direction for a few years, and is enjoying a legitimate breakout season. Even if his ERA climbs above 2.00, he has what it takes to remain among the top-10 fantasy starting pitchers for the remainder of the season.

The final two pitchers on the list are unexpected. The first is Drew Pomeranz (1.96) who is finally realizing his frontline starter potential in his first season with the Padres. The other is Gio Gonzalez, who boasts a 1.86 ERA across 48 1/3 innings this season. He has made eight starts and allowed two or fewer runs in seven of them. Gonzalez hasn’t been going very deep into games, finishing seven innings in just one of his outings, but he has been unquestionably effective when he has taken the ball. However, when looking at his repertoire, it’s clear that he hasn’t altered much this season. Gonzalez is doing more with less, and that’s bad news for his rest-of-season fantasy value.

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Gonzalez’s pitch mix has been right in line with what we’ve come to expect across his eight years in the majors. He’s using both the four-seam and two-seam fastballs, though he favors the latter because it’s a better offering against righties. He’s throwing his big, sweeping curveball a little less than one-fifth of the time and, given that he’s a lefty, he’s leaning heavily on his changeup. It’s a pitch Gonzalez has come to embrace over the last four seasons and this year he’s throwing it 18.3% of the time, which would be a new career high if it holds.

Statistics are incapable of lying, but they are quite adept at obscuring a few key underlying facts. Gonzalez’s 1.86 ERA and 1.10 WHIP aren’t figments of our imagination, and those are two key stats in all fantasy formats. The path Gonzalez has taken to those numbers, however, is troubling. The 30-year-old lefty has a 19.9% strikeout rate, 9.1% whiff rate, and an average velocity of 91 mph on the four-seamer and 90.5 mph on the two-seamer. All of those, excluding the whiff rate, would be the lowest marks of his career. He had a lower whiff rate once before, getting empty swings 8.5% of the time in 2010.

Posting career-low strikeout and whiff rates typically isn’t the route a pitcher takes to arrive at his best ever ERA and WHIP and those aren’t the only red flags waving violently around Gonzalez. He has been the beneficiary of a .257 BABIP despite owning the 29th-highest hard-hit rate in the majors, as well as an approximately league-average soft-hit rate. Gonzalez has an 80.3% strand rate, which outperforms not only the league average, but also Washington’s overall strand rate by nearly three full percentage points. Even if those don’t move all the way back to the mean from this point forward, but tack somewhat in that direction, Gonzalez is going to experience a rate increase.

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All of this should be enough to convince Gonzalez owners that now would be a good time to make him available, but we haven’t yet reached the end of the bad news. He’s getting hit when he comes in the zone more than ever before. Fangraphs measures a statistic called z-contact percentage, which is the rate at which a pitcher allows contact on pitches inside the strike zone. Remember Gonzalez’s buddies also in the sub-2.00 ERA club? The worst z-contact rate among them is Lester’s 87.7%. Here, again, Gonzalez is a trailer.

Gonzalez’s career z-contact rate is 86.4%. This year, it’s at 89.5%, according to Pitch F/X. Despite having the 24th-highest z-contact rate in the majors, sandwiched between Matt Cain and Jon Niese, Gonzalez has surrendered just a .220 batting average (22-for-100) and .310 slugging percentage on pitches in the zone. So long as hitters are making contact on 90% of those pitches, the hits and home runs will start to come in bunches.

None of this is to suggest that Gonzalez will be a bad pitcher, from either a real-life or fantasy perspective, the rest of the season. It is simply to point out that he’s likely at a high watermark in terms of fantasy value. Not only should his owners be looking to sell, they should also be ready to accept something less than a full dollar-for-dollar return, though not dramatically so. Most every fantasy owner will be able to sniff this out as a sell-high offer. He can still be attractive on the open market, especially for an owner in need of some rotation help, but you’re not likely to get the top-20 starting pitcher value he has pitched to thus far in 2016.

Pitchers to watch this week

Danny Salazar, Indians

Salazar’s ERA climbed above 2.00 for the first time this season, but there’s more reason to believe in him than Gonzalez. His presence as a No. 3 starter was a big reason why so many people, myself included, believed that Cleveland entered the season with the best 1-2-3 rotation punch in baseball. 

To this point of the year, Salazar has been the team’s best starter. The 26-year-old is striking out more batters than ever, fanning 61 in 50 innings for a 31% strikeout rate, but that has never been an issue. Homers have always been a problem has for the electric righty, and it sometimes got the better of him. In his first 347 innings across three seasons, he allowed 43 homers, which comes out to 1.12 per nine innings. He has surrendered just two this season, good for a 0.36 per nine inning ratio. A 1.12 HR/9 ratio would typically make a pitcher one of the 20 or 25 most homer-prone in the league. By comparison, Jake Arrieta led the majors with a 0.39 HR/9 last year. If Salazar’s newfound ability to keep the ball in the park is here to stay, he could be a legitimate real-life and fantasy ace. His next start is Saturday against the Orioles.

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Jacob deGrom, Mets

With all the attention paid to Matt Harvey’s problems this year, deGrom’s uninspiring seven-week stretch has flown under the radar. He has a 3.07 ERA, 3.36 FIP and 1.24 WHIP that simply don’t match up to his draft-day value by any measure. What’s more, after posting a 25.5% strikeout rate in his rookie year, and increasing that to 27.3% last season, deGrom has fanned a paltry 17.7% of the batters he has faced in 2016. That same rate would have tied him with Wade Miley and Kyle Gibson for 60th in the majors last season. In case you’re wondering, no one has ever confused Miley or Gibson for a strikeout artist. That’s the real cause for concern for the Mets and deGrom owners. His fastball velocity has lost two full miles per hour, which is a major red flag for any pitcher, but especially one who can overpower with his heat. That’s something to keep an eye on when he meets the Dodgers on Friday.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

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Wainwright had his best start of the year in his last trip to the mound, tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings with five strikeouts in a win over the Rockies. It was Wainwright’s longest outing of the year, as well as the first time he surrendered fewer than three runs. The difference may have been his pitch usage. More than two-fifths of his pitches were sinkers, which was a new season high. The cutter has been Wainwright’s bread and butter for a long time, and he still threw the pitch 28.4% of the time in the start. It is possible, however, that we see him lean on the sinker while easing a bit off the cutter, as he did against the Rockies. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles those pitches in starts against the Cubs on Monday and Nationals on Saturday.

Jeff Samardzija, Giants

Samardzija is thoroughly enjoying his return to the NL, amassing a 2.66 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 1.03 WHIP and 55 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings in his first season with the Giants. After setting career highs in earned runs, hits and homers allowed (and leading the majors in the first two) a season ago, Samardzija is back to being a mostly reliable starter for fantasy owners. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise with the expected NL bump, but he still could have reached that status without pitching as well as he has this season. He has an excellent matchup in his lone start of the week, which comes against he Padres on Tuesday.

Matt Andriese, Rays

Andriese had his first bad start of the season on Friday, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings against the Tigers. His offense did even more work, however, leading Andriese to his third win in as many starts. He was excellent in his first two turns through the Tampa Bay rotation, allowing a total of one run in 16 innings, with a shutout of the A’s mixed in for good measure. The real Andriese is likely somewhere between the versions the A’s and Tigers saw, but even that guy is worth owning in most fantasy formats. He’ll next take the ball Wednesday against the Marlins.

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Prospect watch

Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks

There are times where you have to not worry about how often you’ve been fooled, and this is one of those times. Many fantasy owners have bought into the Bradley hype at some point over the last two-plus seasons; that’s going to happen naturally when a guy is the seventh overall pick, and even more so when he dominates the first three levels of the minors. It should have been telling that Bradley never fully found his footing at Triple A before he made his Diamondbacks debut in 2015, but when has that stopped the fantasy community from buying a new toy?

For all his fits and starts, as well as injury troubles, Bradley remains an interesting commodity, especially since he’s still just 23 years old. More importantly, in seven starts covering 40 2/3 innings at Triple A Reno this season, he has a 1.99 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 47 strikeouts. He has allowed two or fewer runs while going at least six innings in six of his seven outings, including each of his last five. Bradley is coming off his best start of the year, during which he threw eight shutout innings, allowing just three hits while striking out nine, the third time in his last four starts he racked up at least eight whiffs. Bradley should be back with the Diamondbacks sometime this summer, and there’s more reason than ever to believe that this time he will be there to stay.

GIF of the week

Alex Wood quietly placed himself among the strikeout rate leaders over the last month, but he won’t sneak up on anyone after fanning 13 Padres in six innings on Saturday. The curveball, which is Wood’s go-to out pitch, was working pretty well, a fact to which Derek Norris can attest.


Two-start pitchers

  1. Clayton Kersahw
  2. Chris Sale
  3. Stephen Strasburg
  4. Johnny Cueto
  5. David Price
  6. Drew Pomeranz
  7. Taijuan Walker
  8. Francisco Liriano
  9. John Lackey
  10. Rich Hill
  11. Gio Gonzalez
  12. Vince Velasquez
  13. Michael Wacha
  14. Julio Teheran
  15. Jake Odorizzi
  16. Chris Tillman
  17. Matt Moore
  18. Wei-yin Chen
  19. Ian Kennedy
  20. Nathan Eovaldi
  21. Ervin Santana
  22. Edinson Volquez
  23. Jimmy Nelson
  24. R.A. Dickey
  25. Adam Wainwright
  26. Doug Fister
  27. Bartolo Colon
  28. Mike Clevinger
  29. Brandon Finnegan
  30. Shelby Miller
  31. Derek Holland
  32. Nick Tropeano
  33. Tom Koehler
  34. Ricky Nolasco
  35. Mat Latos
  36. Chris Rusin
  37. Mike Pelfrey