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It’s too early to talk about Marco Gonzales but let’s do it anyway

It’s hard to say anything conclusive yet about the young lefty, so here are a few observations

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners
wait what the heck is this thing
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Some players let you tell a fairly cohesive story about them. Marco Gonzales is not that player. The 25-year-old has never pitched more than 70 innings at one level as a pro, thanks to injuries and a fairly unconventional developmental path in the Cardinals’ system that’s seen him jerked across levels for years. Mariners fans have been anxious to evaluate the O’Neill-Gonzales trade, which is understandable; O’Neill represented the Mariners’ shiniest trade chip, and people want to know if we got a fair return, insomuch as one can evaluate a prospect-for-prospect swap. But since Gonzales lost his entire 2016 season to TJ and a shoulder injury kept him from pitching extensively before that, and the Cardinals bounced him between levels like Q*Bert, we’re left with bits and pieces of a baseball career to try to puzzle together. It's tough to draw definitive conclusions from Marco's stat-lines, which are full of small-sample noise; there’s probably a fruitful analysis to be found by focusing instead on the overall product that we have seen and searching for patterns: what’s encouraging, what needs to be worked on, how he operates on the mound.

Starting out strong: Gonzales charges in to his starts, wanting to establish the strike zone early on. Sometimes that bites him, like when he allowed a second-inning home run to Jefry Marte in his August 11th start against the Angels (ew), or as we saw yesterday when Tim Beckham took the second pitch of the game yesterday, a 91 mph fastball on the outer part of the plate but left belt-high, and tapped it just over the right field wall for a leadoff home run. However, Gonzales battled back admirably after that early location mistake, and despite allowing a single to Jonathan Schoop, a grounder that just eluded Canó’s grasp, he fought back to limit the damage to just one run. Gonzales’s need to establish the edges of the strike zone early on may lead to him getting hit some in the early going, but as long as he can limit the damage and give his offense time to catch up, he should be okay. For the first four innings of each of his starts as a Mariner, that’s been that case. The fifth inning...well, we’ll get to that.

  • Pitchability: Pitchability is a hand-wavy scout term that’s hard to understand the meaning of unless you see it in action. Yesterday, Gonzales demonstrated it in multiple at-bats, but maybe none more so than this one to Machado in the third. There’s been a general reluctance on the part of MLB umps this year to call the low strike for non-god-tier pitchers, and that especially hurts a pitcher like Marco, who lives on his changeup and ability to pitch low in the zone. However, when he’s been squeezed, Gonzales, rather than collapsing and giving in by putting the ball over the plate more, has been able to move the ball around the edges of the plate to try to find strikes elsewhere.

This was Gonzales’s second time facing Machado in the game, having retired him earlier on a changeup Machado flew weakly into left field. After not getting the obvious strike at the bottom of the zone here, Gonzales tries to spot a breaking pitch in the top of the zone, but sails it. Undeterred, he goes back to the fastball, spotting it on the lower-outside corner where it should have been called a strike. It was not. 3-0.

At 3-0, a batter usually takes the next pitch, allowed the luxury of inspecting the pitch to decide whether it’s up to their standards. So much of an at-bat is a power negotiation, and the 3-0 pitch is the time when the batter is at peak power. You can swing, or you can not; more often than not, the outcome is still in your favor, whatever you choose to do. Foul a pitch off? Take a called strike? The batter is still in the driver’s seat. Certain batters have the green light on 3-0 counts no matter what, and you imagine Machado is one of them. But at 3-0 here, Gonzales, knowing he has two outs and facing a one-run deficit, refuses to send Machado a meatball, instead throwing a fastball that moves towards the outside edge, and Manny gets tangled up halfway between that big luscious green light and the voice in his head that tells him that pitch is moving outside. 3-1. When Gonzales comes back with his next pitch, a changeup on the outer edge of the zone, Machado looks like he’s already made his mind up to swing when the ball has barely left Gonzales’s hand, and he winds up having to reach across the plate and taps this grounder right to Segura:

Winning these kinds of battles, where you’re a soft-tossing lefty facing one of the league’s most feared hitters in a 3-0 count and not getting the low strike called—that’s part of pitchability. Remember that, for later.

  • The big inning bugaboo: Okay, so now we have to talk about the not so good part of the Gonzales starts. While he’s been limited in his action as a Mariner this year, Marco’s minor-league appearances have followed a similar pattern: after tossing four or five dynamite innings, suddenly things unravel, and unravel quickly. That’s what we saw yesterday, when after pitching four innings of one-run ball, Gonzales suddenly fell apart, giving up three runs and allowing Baltimore to take a 4-3 lead. BUT. There are reasons to be optimistic, even as Gonzales showed the same predilection for getting bit by the big-inning bug.

In Gonzales’s second (and final, for now) start as a Rainier on July 29th, he faced the OKC Dodgers. As it would be on Wednesday, the fifth inning proved to be a backbreaker for Gonzales, as he gave up all three of his earned runs (plus two more, thanks to an egregious fielding error by Taylor Motter) in that inning. However, Gonzales’s fifth inning in OKC bears very little relation to his fifth inning against the Orioles. In Oklahoma City, Gonzales had already had one inning where he struggled to throw strikes, walking the first two batters but getting a timely double play to get out of it. His problems compounded in the fifth, when he was only able to throw 17 of his 33 pitches for strikes. He walked two batters and hit one with a pitch, struggling with both command and execution of his pitches. He also allowed hard contact, giving up a two-run double.

As disastrous as Gonzales’s fifth inning was yesterday, the runs that scored against him weren’t due to an inability to locate his pitches, nor to an excess of hard contact. After beginning the inning with a strikeout of Chris Davis, Joey Rickard ended a six-pitch at-bat (during which Gonzales got squeezed badly on a changeup that would have evened the count; instead it ran to 3-1) with a sharply hit single to left field. Caleb Joseph then hit the dumbest of dumb hits, a soft looper off the end of the bat where he was just trying to stay alive in an 0-2 count that dropped into right field to put two on.

The real kill shot to Gonzales in this inning was the Craig Gentry triple, a sentence that pains me to type, almost as much as this: it just missed being a home run. The pitch to Gentry was a location miss, a fastball that ended up middle-middle, at the worst possible time. Tim Beckham, Annoying Human, then followed with a grounder that squeaked right past Not-Kyle-Seager at third. Machado then reached clear across the plate to stroke a changeup into right for the fifth consecutive hit of the inning—this time, no easy grounder to Segura—and Gonzales’s day was done.

As long as he stays away from giving free passes and is able to hit his spots, Gonzales can work around the contact he allows and avoid the big inning. In his start against OKC, Gonzales wasn’t able to find the strike zone and execute his pitches. He did a better job of that yesterday; he just ran into some bad BABIP luck, and also, Manny Machado. The pitches he absolutely has to avoid are the location mistakes to hitters like Gentry, who has no business hitting a triple at Safeco Field. However, if Gonzales can keep the ball low in the zone to induce ground balls at the rate he has been (and if he’s able to start getting some of those borderline pitches) and avoid the big inning, he’s a useful rotation piece for years to come.