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Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales has never been a hard-thrower, but his pitch velocity has steadily declined since late last season. Should this concern the Mariners and the team’s fan base?

Before going any further, let’s start by reviewing Gonzales’ pitch speed dating back to the beginning of last season to see what I’m talking about.

The following illustrates Gonzales’ average velocity on his “hard” pitches (fastballs, sinkers, and cutters).

Gonzales’ average velocity dropped slightly as the 2018 season unfolded, but fell significantly after a return from the injured list in September. The reason for the injury pause? A neck muscle strain in August – his worst statistical month.

Before we proceed further, please remember it’s only April. Some pitchers see their velocity tick upwards as the season progresses and the weather warms.

Still, Gonzales was averaging 89.3 mph with his hard stuff last April.

Peer Review

Okay, so Gonzales’ average hard-pitch velocity is down to 86.2 mph. Just how low is that when compared to his contemporaries?

Very low.

According to STATCAST data found at Baseball Savant, Gonzales’ velocity ranks 153rd of 157 pitchers who’ve faced 20+ batters this season. The following are the bottom-10.

Lowest Avg Hard Pitch Velo (2019)
Tm
Vel
xwOBA
Jeremy Hellickson WSN 88.1 .349
Nick Margevicius SDP 87.9 .306
Adam Wainwright STL 87.2 .299
Mike Leake SEA
87.0
.383
Marco Estrada OAK 86.7 .323
Marco Gonzales SEA
86.2
.293
Kyle Hendricks CHC 86.0 .359
Clay Buchholz TOR 85.8 .355
Jason Vargas NYM
85.3
.451
Wade LeBlanc SEA
84.6
.386
League AVG 91.9
.325

Included above is each pitcher’s expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). I’ll be referring to a plethora of stats during our conversation, but xwOBA will be my go-to metric throughout this piece.

For those not familiar with xwOBA, it’s a STATCAST product based on quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) and amount of contact (strikeouts and walks). The current MLB average for starting pitchers is .325.

In case you were wondering, the league-average for hard-pitch velocity for starting pitchers is 91.9 mph. The rotation with the highest average velocity belongs to the New York Mets, while Seattle ranks last.

Perhaps the fact only rotation-mate Wade LeBlanc (84.6 mph) throws slower on the soft-tossing Mariners than Gonzales best illustrates the 27-year-old’s stature when it comes to hard-pitch velo.

The Need For Speed

While there’s a lot more needed than just velocity to succeed on the mound, the majority of productive pitchers (based on xwOBA) averaged at least 92 mph on their hard stuff in 2018.

Last season, 54 pitchers faced 600+ hitters and recorded an xwOBA better than the .318 league- average. The following diagram groups the 54 by pitch velocity.

As you can see, the hard throwers greatly out-numbered the low-velo tossers. Only four pitchers under 89 mph made the list – Gonzales, LeBlanc, free agent Dallas Keuchel, and Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs.

You Can’t Argue With Results Or Can You?

Some of you may be unbothered by Gonzales’ decline in velocity. After all, his 2019 stats (including xwOBA) are good and better than his career norms.

Fair enough. But one metric on the following table opens the door to at least consider the possibility of potential problems for Gonzales.

Marco’s Early Returns
Stat 2019 Career
xwOBA .293 .323
ERA 3.32 4.31
FIP 3.51 3.89
ERA+ 128 94
WHIP 1.263 1.358
HR%
1.9
2.8
BB% 5.7
6.2
SO% 15.7
19.5

Although Gonzales has never relied heavily on the strikeout to achieve success, his strikeout rate is significantly down this season.

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That might not seem like a big deal, especially with his overall statistical success thus far. However, a closer look may heighten concerns for some of you.

It did for me.

Trouble Brewing?

The following illustrates various “plate discipline” metrics for hitters facing Gonzales. I’ve included his 2018 and 2019 values, plus the MLB average for this season.

Highlighted are areas that caught my eye. Could they be indicators of future problems?

Plate Discipline Stats Trending Wrong Way
2018
2019 MLB
Swing%
48.2
46.8
45.7
O-Swing%
35.9
30.4
29.8
SwStrk%
9.3
6.2
10.6
Contact% 80.7 86.6
76.9
Z-Contact% 85.7 92.9
83.1

Opponents are swinging slightly less often at Gonzales’ offerings, especially on pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing). Moreover, he’s inducing the fewest swinging strikes (SwStrk%) among MLB starters.

Furthermore, Gonzales’ contact rate jumped nearly six points to 86.6% in 2019 tying him for the highest contact rate among MLB starters with Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Similarly, Gonzales’ 92.9% strike zone contact (Z-Contact) is third highest in MLB behind Kansas City Royal Brad Keller (93.5%) and Tyson Ross (93%) of the Detroit Tigers.

Opponents putting bat to ball more often against Gonzales doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem. However, the lefty is producing fewer ground balls while his fly ball rate (FB%) has spiked since last season.

HR/FB% Could Be Trouble
2018
2019 MLB
GB%
45.3
42.4
45.7
FB% 21.1 27.2
21.7
HR/FB%
11.3
6.3
14.6
xFIP 3.49 4.91 4.32
FIP 3.43 3.54 4.32

One silver lining thus far – Gonzales’ home run/fly ball rate (HR/FB%) is well below his career norm and the MLB average. Then again, there’s a metric suggesting the potential for regression is moderately high.

Expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) is similar to FIP except it replaces the home run total used in FIP with a projected homer total based on based on a pitcher’s fly ball rate and the current league-average HR/FB%.

In Gonzales’ case, his 4.91 xFIP is much higher than his FIP because his HR/FB% is so far below the league rate. Perhaps he’ll avoid significant regression, but his fly ball and home run rates merit close scrutiny for now.

Back To The Velo

While we don’t know with certainty whether Gonzales’ increased contact and fly ball rates are byproducts of his dropping hard-pitch velocity, the fact these factors all coincide gave me reason to pause.

Can Marco succeed if his velo remains low-ish?

We’ve already looked at this year’s slow throwers, but the 2019 season is a small sample size. Let’s look at every starter averaging under 88 mph last year.

Highlighted are individuals with an xwOBA at or better than last year’s league-average. There weren’t many.

2018’s Slowest Throwers
Vel
xwOBA Notes
Sam Gaviglio 87.9 .335 Now an RP
Doug Fister 87.7 .356 Inactive
Bartolo Colon 87.3 .366 Inactive
Kyle Hendricks 86.8 .297
Brent Suter 86.6 .315 TJ surgery
Jason Vargas 86.4 .327
Josh Tomlin 86.4 .379
Blaine Hardy 85.3 .303 IL–arm
Wade LeBlanc 85.1 .318
League AVG 91.9
.318

Two pitchers listed above aren’t pitching this season and may never wear an MLB uniform again. Having said that, wouldn’t it be fun to see a 46-year-old Bartolo Colon back for a 21st season?

The Blue Jays moved former Mariner Sam Gaviglio from the rotation to the bullpen this year where he’s thriving this season with a stellar .222 xwOBA.

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Brewers starter Brent Suter went down last year and is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Blaine Hardy of the Tigers just went to the IL with a forearm strain with no timetable for a return.

The only good news stories from the preceding group were LeBlanc and Hendricks easily being the best of the two. With Hendricks, we may have a reasonable comp to Gonzales and a potential preview of what Marco could become.

Potential Prototype

While the vast majority of soft throwing pitchers discussed so far are 30-somethings, injured, or inactive, Hendricks is different and he’s an interesting statistical comp to Gonzales.

Like Marco, Hendricks experienced a drop in hard-pitch velocity while in his twenties. However, the right-hander remains a valuable contributor for the Cubs.

Hendricks is off to a rough start this year, but we’ve already noted the 2019 campaign is very young. With that in mind, let’s perform a broader comparison of the 29-year-old to Gonzales.

The following contrasts Hendricks and Gonzales since the beginning of last season. As you can see, there are many similarities between the two hurlers.

Comping Marco Gonzales and Kyle Hendricks
Metric Gonzales
Hendricks
Yrs 2018-19 2018-19
Ages 26-27 28-29
GS 35 37
IP 204.2 219.9
ERA 3.87 3.45
FIP 3.45 3.80
xFIP 3.84 3.89
xwOBA .310 .303
SO% 20.1 20.1
BB% 4.9 5.6
GB% 44.2 46.4
FB% 31.7 31.8
HR/FB% 10.1 12.2
O-Swing% 35.1 32.4
Contact% 81.7 79.3
Z-Contact% 87.1 85.6
SwStrk% 8.8 9.1
bWAR 3.5 3.3
fWAR 4.3 3.9

Not only does the preceding hint at what Gonzales could mean to the Mariners as they build towards 2021, it’s another timely reminder that the current season is still a small sample size.

The Elephant In The Room

Okay, it’s easy to connect the dots between Gonzales’ drop in velocity and his neck issue from late last season. In fact, that’s what I indirectly did with my first diagram.

Then again, injury is only one potential cause for declined pitch velocity. Shoulder weakness or a conscious decision by the pitcher and team could also be behind the changes appearing on the radar gun.

If there’s something wrong with Gonzales physically, we’ll know soon enough. If nothing is amiss, we’ll learn that through time.

Moving Forward

The combination of 2018-19 puts Gonzales’ numbers into better perspective – at least for me. Sure, his batted ball and plate discipline numbers could be red flags. But the prudent move is to let the season mature more before jumping to conclusions.

Is Gonzales’ dropping velocity a concern? Not in the short-term, unless there’s an underlying physical issue. As long as that’s not the case, Hendricks proves a soft-tosser can thrive in this high pitch velocity/home run happy era.

Despite Hendricks’ low velocity, the Cubs were comfortable with recently signing the Dartmouth product to a four-year/$54 million extension guaranteed through the 2023 campaign. Could something similar be in the works for Gonzales?

Considering Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has repeatedly emphasized Gonzales and teammate Mitch Haniger were pieces for his club’s future success, the answer may be yes.

While performance and physical attributes are primary considerations when evaluating a player, we shouldn’t overlook aspects of Gonzales’ personality, such as work ethic and character.

These intangibles can’t be measured, but matter and may eventually compel the Mariners to lock up Gonzales with a multi-year extension just as the Cubs did with Hendricks.

Those same intangibles also make it easy to root for the Gonzaga alum.

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