The Talented Mr. Rizzo
January 15, 2011
While the offseason is far from over - so I don't want to imply any
finality in appraising what the Nationals have done this winter in
preparation for the 2012 season and beyond - I would like to take a
close examination of their big move to date: trading four prospects for
Coming into this offseason, Gonzalez was rumored to be one of the
hottest properties because a) he's young and his salary is still under
control for a few more years, b) he's proven durable the past two
years, c) he's a lefty and d) he has a very good out-pitch, a highly
regarded curveball, meaning he is capable of getting himself out of
jams via the strikeout, which is one of the most valuable traits a
pitcher can have.
National's GM Mike Rizzo thought so highly of Gonzalez that he
away organizational lefty Tom Milone, surprise 2011 minor league phenom
Brad Peacock, highly regarded catching prospect Derek Norris and
right-handed future ace, AJ Cole. Since being drafted out of high
school, Cole has been viewed as a starting pitcher with a very high
ceiling. Last season was his first full season in the minors and
after some initial struggles, pitched down the stretch like the future
ace he's projected to become. Featuring a fastball that is
consistently in the high 90s and touches 98 mph, he allowed only one
home run over his final 13 starts and recorded a strikout rate of
almost 11 batters per nine innings against 2.43 walks per
9. That's exceptional ability as a 19-year old even against
A-ball competition. His secondary pitches are still a work in
progress, but his performance compares favorably to that of another
future ace the A's acquired in trade this winter, Jarrod Parker, when
he was in A-ball at age 19. In fact, Cole might be the best
prospect the A's got in all of their offseason trades.
As for the other three, Norris right now profiles as a low-average,
high on-base catcher with good power. It's probably too early to
offer realisitic major league comparables but the names that come to
mind are guys like Bobby Estellela with an upside of Mike Napoli.
You might laugh at the latter comparison, but Napoli was a career .257
hitter in the minors (Norris career average so far is .249) and Norris
better eye at the plate and is a year younger than Napoli was when he
hit AA. Peacock and Milone are probably back end of the rotation
pitchers but Peacock has a good enough fastball to make it as a
reliever if the starting gig doesn't pan out.
So who did the Nats' get in return?
Well, Mike Rizzo is convinced that he got a potential star from the
A's, so much so that he gave him a contract extension worth $42 million
that will take him through the 2016 season. Even beyond that he
signed him for two option years that could push the contract worth
north of $60 million. On the low end, that averages the annual
value to around $8 million a year. So again, who did the Nats'
get? Well, on the surface, they got a 30+ start pitcher who
finished Top 20 in ERA, strikeouts and K/9 in the majors over the last
two years. He also happened to lead the league in walks this past
season and was tied for third in the category the previous
So there are warts, but the package looks impressive, especially
considering he's still pretty young.
I ran a statistical comparison to see if there have ever been any
(under 26) lefty strikeout artists with control issues with his
durability (namely making 30 or so starts a year). Suffice it to
say it produced a very interesting list.
Wins SO/9 IP BB/9 IP Starts
9.42 4.46 225
Liriano 38 9.30
8 8.12 4.00
It's very encouraging to see names like Sandy Koufax, Clayton
Sid Fernandez, Jon Lester, Mark Langston, David Price and Randy Johnson
on this list. That's a lot of Cy Youngs and All-Star games to be
looking forward to. On the other hand, there are also some guys
like Oliver Perez and Shawn Estes who
never figured out how to reign in the walks and basically pitched
themselves out of baseball. Jonathan Sanchez and Manny Parra also
seem to be on the track now. A few of these guys like Mark Davis,
Arthur Rhodes and Dave Righetti burned out as starters but became
effective relievers. And then there are
the guys like Scott Kazmir, Francisco Liriano, Herb Score and Tony
Saunders whose careers have been/were derailed by injuries.
Not all these lefties are created equal. Some, like Randy Johnson
and Sandy Koufax, were among the hardest throwers in the history of the
game. Gonzalez has a good fastball, but it's not in that
class. Unfortunately, I don't have average velocities for many of
the older pitchers like Balor Moore or Tom Hall or Herb Score, although
by all accounts, Score was a flame-thrower. Still, I have no way
of comparing these pitchers' velocities to the current crop.
should try another factor: height. Pitchers like Kershaw,
Price and Johnson are tall left-handers, giving them greater leverage
to pitch down into the strikezone. Gonzalez is under six feet
tall and doesn't have that capability. How about if we only look
at pitchers under 6'? Adding in that one factor, our list
suddenly becomes Scott Kazmir, Juan Pizarro, Al Downing and Gio
Scott Kamir was one of the most impressive lefties in baseball
developed shoulder troubles at age 26. Juan Pizarro pitched in
the 1960s and was one of the most impressive pitchers in the game until
he started having trouble staying healthy at age 28. Al Downing
also pitched primarily in the 1960s and was one of the best pitchers in
the game until injuries curtailed his career at age 27. He
had one more good year in him (1971) but from 1968 until he retired in
1977 he was basically a journeyman starter. Gonzalez just turned
26 in September.
Here's something else to consider: Gonzalez has spent the last two
years pitching in the AL West. Sure, that meant he had to face
the Rangers a few times a season, but that also meant he got to face
the Seattle Mariners, one of the worst offenses of the last 50
years. How bad were they? Seattle's
wOBA, which stands for weighted on base percentage and is a failry
comprehensive measurement of a team's ability to score runs, over the
last two years was .285. The Angels, another team in the AL West,
were only slightly better at .311.
Even with the DH they were below the major league median which was
around .316. The best offenses (Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers)
were in the .340 range. To put this in further perspective, the
2003 Tigers, who lost a near major league record 119 games, posted a
wOBA of .294, almost ten points better than the Mariners have managed
over the last two years. The
1993 expansion Marlins had a wOBA of .298. One has to go back 30
years to the 1981 Blue Jays (.281) to find a single year in which
an offense was as bad as Seattle's over this two year span.
Anyway, Gonzalez faced the Mariners seven times during his stay in
Oakland, posting a 5-1 record with an ERA of 2.89. It has been
cited that Gonzalez fared very well against NL competition during
interleague play, but the team he faced most often (4 of his 10 career
NL starts) was the
not-quite-as-anemic-as-the-Mariners-but-still-pretty-weak San Francsico
Giants' offense. Last year's Giants were one of only four
National League teams in the last 10 years to score fewer than 600
runs. One of the other NL teams Gonzalez faced, the 2010
Pittsburgh Pirates, were another of those four teams. In short,
Gonzalez could not have planned a more favorable schedule.
Another factor to consider: Gonzalez has had incredible success keeping
flyballs from becoming home runs. Despite giving up 579 flyballs
the last two years, he's surrendered only 32 home runs. The
average pitcher gives up a homer about every 10 flyballs.
Gonzalez' former home park, the Oakland Coliseum, is one of the
toughest in the majors in which to hit a home run. It surpresses
home runs by more than 20%. His new home park, National's Park,
is pretty close to neutral, meaning a lot more flyballs that were
caught in Oakland will now be souveneirs. That is assuming the
Nationals figure out who will be playing center field this year.
If they don't find a sensible solution, even the balls that stay in the
park could be trouble.
Granted, Gonzalez has posted incredible ERAs the last two years despite
pitching in the American League and despite posting a high walk rate,
but I submit that his success in that regard has largely been driven by
the home park he pitched in and some luck. And if you look at his
career numbers pitching in much less friendly environs like:
Fenway Park (5.63 ERA, 1.88 WHIP, 3 homers in 16 innings),
Yankee Stadium (5.56 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 1 homer in 11 innings),
US Cellular (4.05 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 1 homer in 13 innings),
Rangers Ballpark (4.29 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 5 homers in 21 innings),
Rogers Center (5.09 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 1 homer in 17 innings),
Wrigley Field (10.80 ERA, 2.20 WHIP, 1 homer in 5 innings)
...it doesn't seem like moving to a neutral park with a big-time
hitter's park in the division (Philly), a pitcher's park moving in the
fences (New York) to become much more hitter friendly, an indoor
retractable roof park that will probably play much more hitter
friendly than it's outdoor predecessor (Miami) and two neutral parks
(Washington and Atlanta) are going
to continue to mask this susceptibility of his.
But wait, there's more. In interviews, Gonzalez has stated he's
not concerned about the high number of walks he gives up. His
view is that it's not his fault for throwing balls, it's the umps'
fault for not calling them strikes and the hitter's fault for not
swinging at them. So if the walk rate doesn't drop - which is the
big reason why guys like Koufax, Kershaw and Johnson all went from
being frustrating young hurlers to becoming great pitchers - all those
walks will be able to walk home because of the extra home
runs given up by the less forgiving ballparks.
Granted, Gonzlez will probably enjoy his first extended exposure to the
National League in 2012. Many left-handers coming over from the
American League have sensational debuts. I'm thinking of Al
Leiter in 1996 and more recently the incredible runs that CC Sabathia
had in Milwaukee and Cliff Lee has had in Philly, Johan Santana's first
year with the Mets and so on. But after the league gets used to
seeing him... well, unless he finds a way to cut down the walks,
maintain his magic with flyballs and escape the injury curse of young,
under-sized, lefty strikeout artists, then the Nationals will regret
committing so much money, contract years and prospect potential for one
guy with a somewhat dubious track record.