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40 in 40: Marco Gonzales

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Marco Gonzales’ 2020 was no mirage

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, FanGraphs released the Mariners’ 2021 ZiPS projections. One thing that struck me while poring through the projections is that ZiPS doesn’t exactly find Marco Gonzales compelling. In 2018, ZiPS had Marco down for 1.0 WAR over 113 IP. He put up 3.4 WAR over 166.2 IP. In 2019, ZiPS considered him a 1.8 WAR pitcher. He posted 3.7 WAR. In 2020, he was earmarked for a 2.6 WAR season, and yet he nearly matched that in just 69.2 IP over the shortened season. So you can imagine that I’m not all that convinced that Marco will post just 2.6 WAR in 2021.

Now, I understand the nature of projections. It’s just that, while ZiPS remains skeptical that Marco has taken a legitimate step forward, for now, I think there’s evidence that he has. A lot of the buy-in required is via strikeout percentage and walk percentage. By strikeout percentage, ZiPS sees Marco dropping by about 5% from his 2020 numbers, and his walk percentage more than doubling from his 2.5% over the shortened season.

On the surface, this isn’t an unfair assessment. Marco had some good fortune in the way of wOBAcon and BABIP — with a .324 wOBAcon and .370 xwOBAcon, those numbers will surely regress. But that’s fine! His 3.10 ERA leaves him with plenty of wiggle room for regression.

Aside from this, in terms of process, not much has changed either. Marco continues to lose velocity, and he started throwing more sinkers, not less. There isn’t one singular answer for his growth, but I consider one factor preeminent, and it’s very simple.

Consider Marco’s release point over his past three years, by game:

Now, it sure seems like Marco has tightened up his release point. Over the course of the season, he was able to keep his release point steadier than in his previous two seasons. It’s easy to indulge in confirmation bias while eyeballing such graphics, so we’ll consider the standard deviation, or sd(Rel Pt), of Marco’s release point using Alex Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard. The lower number, the better.

  • 2018: 0.144
  • 2019: 0.108
  • 2020: 0.083

Clearly, Marco has tightened up his release point in successive years — and now he’s got one of the most repeatable release points of all starters. After Tommy John surgery in 2017, he pitched a partial season in 2017 and has been getting healthier over time, slowly but surely, which might be further evidenced by his pitch extension jumping from 6.0 feet in 2018 and 2019 to 6.6 feet in 2020. These factors alone are enough for me to at least partially buy into these improvements in repeating his release point, but if you weren’t convinced now, I have a table that might do it for you.

Marco’s sd(Rel Pt), by pitch type and year, sorted by sd(Rel Pt):

Gonzales’ sd(Rel Pt), by pitch type and year

Year Pitch sd(Rel Pt)
Year Pitch sd(Rel Pt)
2020 Sinker 0.078
2020 Changeup 0.080
2020 Cutter 0.084
2020 Curveball 0.087
2019 Curveball 0.100
2019 Sinker 0.104
2019 Cutter 0.105
2019 Changeup 0.110
2018 Changeup 0.131
2018 Curveball 0.138
2018 Cutter 0.142
2018 Sinker 0.145

Now, even given the results above by year, looking at Marco’s sd(Rel Pt) is pretty shocking. There’s a clear delineation between years, where all pitches in 2020 are more consistent than 2019 and so on, with no exception. The sample in 2020 is small enough that you could argue that Marco could have just had a strong 11-game stretch — after all, the more pitches thrown, the more opportunities to widen the sd(Rel Pt) — but when controlling for the number of pitches thrown, he still shows improvement over previous years.

Marco already had plus command, and he didn’t need necessarily need any more help in the way of increasing his command. I don’t have access to his Command+ numbers, but, again, I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that his improvements in strikeouts and walks are legitimate.

The first is that, on the whole, Marco’s pitched to safer, more favorable locations. Baseball Savant created what they call attack zones, and one of the zones is the “shadow” area. Marco has always been great at throwing to the shadow zone, which is good! As far as their zones go, this is how pitchers grade out by xwOBA:

  • Heart: .364
  • Shadow: .268
  • Chase: .295
  • Waste: .491

This makes sense! Pitches in the heart get hit hard, chase pitches go for balls regularly, and waste pitches are almost never offered at. The shadow zone strikes the balance of getting chases out of the zone and getting called strikes inside (and sometimes out of) the zone. Marco pitches to the shadow zone quite a bit! In fact, he pitches there just about more than anyone.

A bulleted list, just one more time! Here’s how Marco grades out by percentage of total pitches in the shadow zone, by percentile:

  • 2018: 94th
  • 2019: 97th
  • 2020: 99th

Marco’s always been strong in this regard, but now he’s better than just about anyone. Of all starting pitchers in the past three years with 1000 pitches or more, just one pitcher has had a season with a greater percentage of pitches in the shadow zone, and that’s Zac Gallen during his 2020 season.

The more you look into it, the more legitimate Marco’s season feels. His 2.5% walk percentage was the seventh-lowest in a season for a starter since 2010, and according to Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard, it looks like that could hold. By deserved walk percentage, his 3.3% isn’t far off from his actual 2.5% walk percentage. The stickiness year-to-year isn’t amazing — its R-squared is just 0.67 — but given all of the evidence above, I’m more of a believer than a nonbeliever, and it’s important to note that Marco could greatly benefit from the return of Tom Murphy, who’s a strong framer.

Now, I’ve outlined many of the reasons behind Marco’s newfound success, but it would be instructive to look at how Marco has improved as a strike-thrower in specific contexts. We’ll consider two-strike percentage (i.e., 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 counts), two-strike CSW (CSW in those counts), and non-two-strike percentage CSW (CSW in all counts aside from 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2):

Gonzales’ strike-throwing numbers

Year 2-Stk% 2-Stk CSW Non-2-Stk CSW
Year 2-Stk% 2-Stk CSW Non-2-Stk CSW
2018 78th 55th 72nd
2019 67th 16th 50th
2020 95th 47th 93rd

There a lot of numbers to pore over, but it can be simplified pretty easily. In 2018, Marco was great across the board; he did a great job of getting into two-strike counts, threw an average amount of strikes in two-strike counts, and was an above-average strike-thrower outside of two-strike counts. In 2019, he was ever so slightly worse on the whole, except he developed a massive issue in throwing strikes in two-strike counts, meaning he was unable to put hitters away via strikeout. In 2020, though, Marco has become an elite pitcher in getting himself into two-strike counts. He’s also throwing pitches for strikes at an elite rate outside of two-strike counts, and he’s positively regressed towards being an average strike-thrower in two-strike counts.

In other words, if Marco can find a strong out-pitch, he’ll be one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball at converting pitches into called strikes and swinging-strikes. Right now, he uses his curveball almost as a get-me-over type offering. If he folds in the ability to throw his curveball below the zone with two strikes to generate whiffs too, I think he’ll be able to do just that. Fading his cutter — his most contactable pitch — in two-strike counts would be a great start.

And so, there’s a lot to be excited about for Marco’s future. He’s inked through 2024 with a club option for 2025, and it looks like he somehow still has room for growth. There’s a possibility that losing Austin Nola and his other pitch receivers from 2020 has an adverse effect on his ability to get called strikes — that’s how he gets the bulk of his strikes — but, as mentioned, the return of Murphy should help to mitigate those concerns. Regardless, Marco has taken yet another step forward, and it looks like it’s due in part to being another year removed from Tommy John surgery. It seems that he may be set to triumph ZiPS for his fourth-straight year as a Mariner. He’s always been a strike-thrower, but never quite like this.