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 Gio Gonzalez.

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 traded 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 has a 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 season.  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 young (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.     

    Name              Wins   SO/9 IP    BB/9 IP  Starts
    Sam McDowell       89     9.42       4.46     225
    Clayton Kershaw    47     9.36       3.49     116
    Herb Score         49     9.35       5.77     100
    Jonathan Sanchez   21     9.34       4.66      66
    Francisco Liriano  38     9.30       3.18      89
    Sandy Koufax       68     9.29       4.44     164
    Oliver Perez       55     9.25       4.76     174
    Scott Kazmir       66     8.76       4.15     178
    Tom Hall           46     8.53       3.85      59
    Gio Gonzalez       37     8.53       4.45      88
    Sid Fernandez      69     8.47       3.69     163
    Balor Moore        16     8.46       4.89      61
    Jon Lester         61     8.37       3.37     123
    Mark Langston      55     8.17       4.65     128
    David Price        41     8.14       3.10      88
    Matt Beech          8     8.12       4.00      53
    Bruce Chen         20     7.94       3.85      61
    Tony Saunders      13     7.92       5.31      61
    Manny Parra        21     7.83       4.44      58
    Al Downing         62     7.78       3.94     148
    Randy Wolf         54     7.76       3.41     142
    Shawn Estes        40     7.73       4.72     103
    Randy Johnson      24     7.73       4.94      65
    Dave Righetti      50     7.64       3.78      76
    Arthur Rhodes      26     7.59       4.78      61
    Juan Pizarro       65     7.57       4.16     136
    Mark Davis         31     7.55       3.60      71

It's very encouraging to see names like Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, 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.

Maybe I 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 Gonzalez. 

Scott Kamir was one of the most impressive lefties in baseball until he 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) 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.