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Get to know Marco Gonzales, the Mariners’ newest pitcher

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There’s more to this lefty than meets the eye

MLB: Game 2-Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official: the Seattle Mariners have traded outfielder Tyler O’Neill to the St. Louis Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales.

Neat! Or not neat! I don’t know–-trades are a complicated beast! What we do know for certain is that Marco Gonzales is a Seattle Mariner, no matter how much we kick and scream and watch videos of Tyler O’Neill hitting baseballs 500 feet with Air Supply playing in the background. We’re all out of T’ON, but it’s not all lost as long as Gonzales brings to the table exactly what the Mariners are expecting him to bring to the table.

What exactly is that? Let’s look!

Background:

After being named Colorado’s Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, Gonzales headed to Gonzaga, where he made an immediate impact as a freshman, going 11-2 with a 2.57 ERA and was named West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year and Co-Freshman of the Year, sharing the award with Kris Bryant. He performed even better as a sophomore, dropping his ERA to 1.55 and winning WCC Pitcher of the Year and being named an All-American before going on to play for Team USA that summer. In 2013, his junior year, he was named a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award and won the John Olerud Award, given to the best two-way player in college baseball after putting up a 2.80 ERA and striking out 96 batters in 106 innings while only walking 25. The Cardinals drafted him 19th overall in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft.

Once in the Cardinals’ system, however, Gonzales encountered some adversity. The Cardinals were aggressive with Gonzales, starting him in Rookie ball for just 6.2 innings before promoting him to Advanced-A Palm Beach for the remainder of 2013. He started 2014 again at Palm Beach but only pitched 37 innings there before being promoted again to Double-A Springfield. Gonzales again impressed, running his best K/9 to date (10.71) while limiting his walks (2.23/9) and putting up a sparkling 2.19 FIP, even lower than his 2.33 ERA. In late June, an injury to Jaime Garcia forced the contending Cardinals to call up Gonzales, and it went about as well as you’d expect a kid who had been drafted last year making his major league debut to go. Gonzales made three unimpressive starts before being optioned to Triple-A Memphis, where his strong peripherals (7.69 K/9, 1.77 BB/9) outpace his unimpressive 4.77 FIP. He was recalled again at the end of August and made a strong start against the Cubs, only giving up one run and striking out five over six innings of work. He would remain with the big club for the rest of the year, mostly working in a bullpen capacity.

Things got harder for Gonzales after that. He struggled for most of the 2015 season with shoulder inflammation, missing over a month of action and putting up unimpressive numbers. In 2016, it was announced he would need Tommy John surgery and would miss the entirety of the 2016 season. In working back from TJ, Gonzales has had mixed results in 2017. He’s looked unhittable at times; he’s also had outings where he’s struggled. He’s had nine good starts where he’s gone at least six innings and given up no more than two earned runs, and he’s had three bad starts. The strikeouts are still there, and he’s limiting walks; the peripherals suggest that Gonzales is still an effective pitcher, even as he continues to rebound from TJ.

The Arsenal

Gonzales’ bread and butter is his fastball, which generally sits in the low 90s (90-92) with an ever-so-brief touching of 93. Gonzales leans on the pitch like a madman, throwing it around sixty-percent of the time and almost exclusively early in the count. He likes to jam batters and get foul popups to get into good counts in order to get to his changeup, but will also elevate a fastball to batters to get swinging strikes. The offering has some arm-side run and features a little bit of sinking action, as well:

Gonzales will throw the pitch to all locations of the plate, using the tailing action to generate swinging strikes away and to run it back over the inside corner against righties. Against lefties he’ll attempt to run it in on their hands or steal strikes on the outer corner.

His second–-and by far his most impressive–-pitch is his changeup, which used to sit in the high-70s, but now gets up to the lower-80s. The changeup is his go-to out pitch and at one point was considered to be a legitimate 70-grade offering. Its late life, both in tailing action and drop, can be brutal on hitters when he’s locating. He’ll throw it as a putaway pitch, able to spot it right on the outside corner and freeze right-handers, especially.

He’ll also mix in a mid-to-high 70s curveball, which doesn’t show much in terms of standout-ness, but could be a serviceable offering. In the majors, he primarily worked with the fastball and changeup, showing a lower degree of comfort with that pitch, but he’s able to throw it for strikes at the minor league level and should be able to continue to develop it. The curve shows good break and comes out of his hand similarly enough to the change that it can fool batters.

What gives Gonzales an extra degree of deception is the change can also come out of his hand looking like the fastball:

This was an especially badass at-bat: In an 0-1 count after a first pitch called strike, Diego Gorys was crowding the plate and Gonzales backed him off with some high and tight fastballs that had Gorys glaring out at the pitcher’s mound. He then moved to the outside corner to get Gorys to reach and tap a ball foul, and then came back with this. Filthy sequencing, filthy execution.

Mechanics

Aside from the high leg kick you can see in every gif up above, one thing that stands out about Gonzales is his compact windup. Rather than deploying the typical rock and fire, his starting point is practically in the set, with a tiny step back and a robotic-like twist being the entirety of his version of coming set:

Command

Command is a key cog in Gonzales’ effectiveness. It helps his fastball play up, it helped him work in the majors with essentially a two-pitch arsenal, and it’s a big reason he’s able to operate primarily in the lower half of the zone. There will be times where his command slips, when that fastball might tail out over the plate just a tad too much:

His raw stuff is better than the Chase De Jongs and Rob Whalens of the world, and therefore his misses will be a little more forgiving, but he’s still not a guy who has the luxury of being able to miss over the plate very often.

That being said, the command is typically very good. In watching his starts from AAA this year, you can see the catcher set the target, and most of the time, Gonzales hits it perfectly. The command is why he’s able to keep the walks under control and one of the reasons he has a higher ceiling than all of the minor league pitchers Dipoto has brought in so far. In a lot of ways, Gonzales reminds us of a left-handed Andrew Moore, albeit one who generates a ton of groundballs instead of flyballs: while he’s not the tallest guy and he won’t light up the radar gun, Gonzales displays exceptional command and pitchability, able to change speeds and hitters’ eye levels. He’s a quick worker who likes to dictate the tone of at-bats, throwing a ton of first-pitch strikes, and he’s not afraid to pitch inside. While the numbers may look underwhelming from a cursory glance, there’s a lot to like about Gonzales. It’s understandable that people are bummed about losing Tyler O’Neill, who was the very brightest offensive star in the Seattle prospect sky (the Kyle Lewis star being too distant to see as well). It probably also feels like an overpay, although one must consider: 1. The inflated value of starting pitching in the current market; 2. The Mariners’ relative wealth of outfielders and absolute dearth of starting pitching; 3. Not all trades involving pitchers and outfielders are the Bedard trade you guys stop. Gonzales is pitching that fits the system and may get even better as he continues to recover from a fairly disastrous—and not entirely his fault—introduction to baseball at the highest level. For a team that’s looking to compete in 2017-1018, and given Jerry’s avowed dislike of costly, elderly free agents, this was a painful, but necessary move.