Gio Gonzalez thriving in D.C.
With a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve, Nats lefty has swing-and-miss stuff
In addition to throwing a mid-90s fastball and one of baseball's most overwhelming curves, Gio Gonzalez is a conversationalist extraordinaire. During a typical day at the ballpark, he'll chat up teammates, reporters, umpires, autograph seekers, vendors, bat boys and the stray Gatorade bucket.
When Gonzalez is alone on the mound and in need of inspiration, the dialogue turns inward. He learned the value of the self-directed pep talk from Dallas Braden, a fellow left-hander who served as something of a mentor during their time together in Oakland.
"Dallas used to yell at the ball," Gonzalez said. "He would say whatever he thought and go straight to the ball, and the ball would listen to him and do what he said. With me it's more third person. 'It's like, "Let's go, Gio. What are you doing? Get this guy out. Let's go.' I'll talk to myself and try to build that confidence."
Nine starts into his tenure with the Washington Nationals, Gonzalez isn't lacking for confidence, strikeouts or quality starts. He's an excellent pitcher, and an even better listener.
Five months after Washington GM Mike Rizzo raided the farm system to acquire him from Oakland, Gonzalez enters Sunday night's start against Atlanta's Brandon Beachy with an All-Star-worthy portfolio. He's 6-1 with a 1.98 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and a major league-best ratio of 11.36 strikeouts per nine innings.
Gonzalez, a relatively compact 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, is that rare left-handed pitcher with true swing-and-miss stuff. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranks 21st out of 119 qualified big league starters with a fastball velocity of 92.7 mph. He's fifth among lefty starters behind David Price (94.6 mph), Matt Moore (94.3), Derek Holland (93.1) and Clayton Kershaw (92.8).
Washington's staff has an interesting dynamic. While reliever Henry Rodriguez routinely hits 100 mph on the gun, most of the high-octane stuff can be found in the rotation, where Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson reflect Rizzo's fondness for power pitching.
"You sit in the bullpen and think, 'It must be nice to have the stuff these guys throw,'" said setup man Sean Burnett. "Our relievers throw slower than most of our starters. That's kind of backwards for most teams."
Gonzalez's trademark pitch is a classic 12-to-6 curveball that he began throwing as a high school freshman in South Florida. Since 2010, he has recorded a major league-high 235 strikeouts with the pitch. Last year his ratio of outs to hits with the curveball was 187-to-47. This year it's an astonishing 41-to-3.
It's a rarity when a left-hander's curveball can buckle the knees of both lefty and righty hitters, but Gonzalez's bender does not discriminate.
"Remember when you were a kid and you'd grip a Wiffle ball with all the holes on one side and throw it as hard as you could, and it would go straight down with a 'Whoosh!"' said Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo. "Well, this guy is doing that against big league hitters."
Gonzalez learned more than a breaking ball growing up in the Miami area. His father, Max, installed billboards for a living, and would routinely take Gio and his brother, Max Jr., to job sites. The kids were allowed to climb on the scaffold only when the billboards were low to the ground. But they lugged along the paint and the glue-packs, and got lessons from their dad in the value of a hard day's work.
"We used to cry and say, 'Dad, take us home,' and he would say, 'Just one more, we're almost done,'" Gonzalez said. "You could see all the sweat and blood that he put into it."
Gonzalez landed an $850,000 signing bonus from the Chicago White Sox as the 38th pick in the 2004 draft, and racked up some big strikeout totals in towns from Bristol to Kannapolis to Winston-Salem. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who had gone 2-for-4 against Gonzalez in high school in Florida, homered off him in Savannah, Ga., when they were competing in the South Atlantic League.
"I can't really count it because they had a 290-foot wall that was like two feet tall," Desmond said. "I got jammed and hit it out, so I'll give him a little bit of credit."
"Don't let him fool you. It was a bomb," he said.
As Gonzalez rose through the ranks, he learned to deal with the business side of baseball. In 2005, Chicago GM Kenny Williams sent him to Philadelphia in a multiplayer trade for Jim Thome. A year later, Gonzalez returned to Chicago with Gavin Floyd in a deal for Freddy Garcia. In 2008, the White Sox sent him to Oakland as part of a trade for Nick Swisher. And in December, the Nationals acquired Gonzalez for minor league pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris.
That's four trades by age 26 -- a head-spinning sequence of events that could have branded Gonzalez as a "problem child" or prompted him to wonder if he was doing something wrong. Instead, he took the sunny-side-up approach. After each trade, he told himself that the acquiring team really wanted him rather than lament that his former team wanted to get rid of him.
"I've never held a grudge against any of those organizations," Gonzalez said. "I've always been grateful for every single one of them. They never disrespected me or talked bad about me in any way."
That attitude is typical of Gonzalez, an inveterate smiler with a serious touch of the left-hander to him. He insists on getting his haircut every fifth day, because he says it makes him feel refreshed, "like a new pair of shoes and socks." He's also a rabid movie-goer, with a particular fondness for comedies and action films.
"Gio doesn't care about much," Desmond said. "Lefties are already happy-go-lucky. And he's good on top of that. And rich."
The Nationals took care of Gonzalez's financial future in January, when they signed him to a five-year, $42 million contract extension that will take him through 2016. If Washington exercises two option years, the total payout could reach $65.5 million. It's a mind-boggling windfall for a young athlete with a blue-collar pedigree.
"I remember when I was a kid and our car would break down and we had to push it in the middle of the street," Gonzalez said. "I had to save quarters for a haircut. My dad and mom didn't make that much, but somehow, some way they found time to take us to Disneyland and let us enjoy our childhood.
"If I'm going to use my money, I'm going to use it with my family. When it comes to anything they need or want, I'm going to take care of it. I'm huge on family stuff. If they ever struggle, I'm there for them."
The Nationals watch Gonzalez and see a pitcher with the competitiveness and ingenuity to hang around long after his velocity dips. Don't let the "flaky left-hander" stereotype fool you; Gonzalez has done a better job working his changeup into the mix this season, and he's found a way to minimize the damage when his control wanders and he loses the strike zone. He feeds off the support and emotions of his teammates, and has a knack for talking himself through the rough patches.
"Obviously he's a competitor, but at the same time he's not out there wracking his brain over anything," Desmond said. "He's kind of like Livan Hernandez, but a lefty and a little bit younger. I think when he's reached the end of his career, we'll see a Livan Hernandez out there in Gio Gonzalez."
The kitchen sink repertoire will have to wait another decade or so. Right now Gonzalez is too busy dealing.