“Be kind, because you never know what someone else is going through.” That’s one of those maddeningly ubiquitous yet untraceable quotes people love to put on the ‘gram over a picture of like, a rainstorm or something. Generally they prompt an eye roll as you keep scrolling. But the sentiment at the core of that hand-lettered cursive bromide is one worth remembering, if you think about people like Hemingway’s iceberg theory for fiction: what is visible on the surface is just a sliver of what lies underneath.
Pitchers like Marco Gonzales, or Kyle Hendricks, or any other soft-tosser you want to name, always seem to live under a shadow: looking at their sub-par stuff, people wonder when the league is going to catch up with them. They can’t keep getting away with this, the stuff-lovers yell, as these gentle hurlers continue to do exactly that. Questions about how sustainable Marco’s results are have dogged him seemingly everywhere but in Seattle’s front office—where he earned the distinction of being branded “very boring” by disgraced former team president Kevin Mather. But in 2021, it looked like Marco was finally going to be apprehended by the league. His strikeouts were down; his walks were up. A shaky spring training led into a shaky April, which ended with the normally stalwart Gonzales headed to the IL with a forearm strain.
After those early-season struggles, it was concerning to see Marco hit the IL, especially with the always ominous-seeming “forearm strain.” Five years removed from his TJ surgery, Marco has been a durable, workhorse starter, going on the IL only one other time in his career as a Mariner—when he had a neck strain that kept him out for a couple weeks towards the end of the 2018 season. This time, the forearm strain sidelined him for the entire month of May, the longest he’d been out of baseball since his UCL surgery.
Working without a minor league rehab assignment, the Mariners limited Marco’s workload when he returned in June, a month where the team went 2-2 in his appearances thanks to a couple of the Mariners’ signature chaotic wins (a one-run victory over the Twins, and an extra-innings victory against the Rays). Things were shaky, though, with Marco still giving up his characteristic 1-3 runs per start, but doing so in significantly fewer innings: more fours and fives in the box score rather than sixes and sevens. His ERA ballooned into the 5s and 6s as the season wore on.
Marco has always been a master of control, getting his modest number of strikeouts not with big stuff but by outsmarting the hitter and coaxing batters into weak contact, but suddenly, he was getting barreled up more than ever before: 11.4%, bottom of the league, vs. a well below-league average 4.9% in 2019. He also faded out his signature cutter, a pitch he threw almost a quarter of the time in 2020, as batters were slugging .500 off it. All these things suggest that Marco wasn’t able to make his pitches do what he wanted them to do, what he’s always been able to get them to do. Maybe that forearm strain was more serious than it sounded. Or maybe this time, after all this time, the league finally had him dead to rights. Maybe it was time for Opening Day Marco to fade into Very Boring Marco, the back-of-the-rotation starter we’ve been told he is since he came over from St. Louis.
The name Marco derives from Mars, the Roman god of war. Maybe that’s where Marco gets his fiery personality from, the reason why he’s referred to mostly as “Marco” while other pitchers are “Flexen” or “Gilbert.” For someone whose stuff doesn’t speak loudly, Marco compensates with his warrior’s spirit, mound presence, and leadership in the clubhouse. In the midst of his struggles, Marco was open about his frustrations with his performance on the mound, not making excuses for any of it, but vowing to do better. And in August, by talent or luck or sheer force of will alone, he did, dragging his ERA back down with both hands, including a complete game, nine-strikeout performance against Texas where he surrendered just one run. Pitcher wins aren’t everything (or anything), but at the beginning of July, Marco was 1-5; at the beginning of September, he was 6-5; and at the beginning of October, he was 10-5.
It’s not in Marco’s nature to make excuses, but it’s impossible to look at Marco’s season not colored by a tragic loss suffered right as it was beginning. In February, right as spring training was starting up, he and his wife Monica suffered the loss of Monica’s mother to Multiple Systems Atrophy, or MSA. MSA is a rare but devastating disease that resembles ALS in its symptoms and prognosis; the typical life expectancy of a patient at diagnosis is seven to eight years. (Learn more about MSA and how to help spread awareness here.) Just four months later, Marco and his wife would welcome their first child, Grace Linda—Linda, after the grandmother she would never have the opportunity to meet.
So often, fans don’t see the sacrifices players make—the family members left behind while they go on lengthy road tripes, the milestones hastily marked or missed entirely. And while that’s part of what the job entails, it doesn’t make things like what the Gonzales family went through in 2021 any easier. Nor did the hateful comments left on Marco’s Instagram photos of his newborn daughter—again, part of the territory, but in a year marked by a death in the family, being publicly insulted by the team president, injury, and the stress of a new baby, maybe it shouldn’t be part of the territory? Maybe everyone could just, I dunno, be a f%$@ing human? I guess that’s not as catchy as “be kind” in a pretty font, but the sentiment endures either way.
“The human element” has become somewhat of a joke phrase as umpires blow high-stakes calls in these playoffs, but the human element is what fiery Marco brings: more than the sum of his parts. Analytics might hate him, and 2021 might not have been his best year, but the captain of the Mariners pitching staff was able to turn his season—and the team’s fortunes with it—around. How important is Marco Gonzales to the Mariners? The lone month of the 2021 season where the Mariners would be under .500 was May, the month Marco missed. FanGraphs awarded him a mere .6 fWAR on the season, and Baseball Prospectus hit him with a -.9 WARP; Baseball Reference was a little gentler, giving him 2.2 bWAR. But it’s the war fought under the surface that matters for Marco this year, and to Mariners fans who can be comforted in penciling him in for another year helming the rotation.