An Unprecedented Start(er)
Chi Chi Gonzalez’s start to his career is more than impressive. By conventional numbers, it’s unprecedented. Four starts and 30 innings pitched with an ERA under one; exactly one person has done that in history, and he’s a 23-year-old pitching in Arlington. He’s doing it with a decent match of luck and skill.
The skill first: In those 30 innings, he’s given up 18 hits, but of those, only three have been for extra bases. He’s averaged a decent ground ball to fly ball ratio (1.11) and his line drive percentage is also very palatable, at 22%. With all that, he’s managed to put up three quality starts, average more than seven innings a game, and in those, he’s averaging a very workable 107 pitches per start. Moreover, his second start skewed that number; he took 116 pitches to finish a complete-game shutout. That’s a very common and reasonable move by a player-focused manager, Jeff Banister. His per-inning pitch average is 14, that is below the MLB average of 16. That two-pitch difference matters quite a bit when you start getting into the sixth and seventh innings. It will reasonably get you into the deep part of your bullpen.
So on the areas he can control – pitches thrown, home runs/slugging percentage, strikeouts, and walks, he’s done a solid job. Overall, his Fielding-Independent pitching (FIP) – which adjusts ERA to just those areas above that he can control – is at 4.17. But with a 4.17 FIP versus a .90 ERA, he’s also getting a lot of help and even some luck.
What parts of Chi Chi’s start should be a red flag? Any time you see a walk to strikeout ratio of 12:10, that’s a worry. All it’s going to take is a few of those line-drive singles finding a gap or a fly ball over a wall and his ERA goes up fast. Also, he’s getting a solid four runs per game of run support, so we haven’t seen him pitch under a lot of pressure, although his start against the Dodgers on June 16th did show us he can hold up a 3-2 lead.
I’m concerned at his percentage of strikes looking to strikes swinging, which is basically 2.5:1. The big problem there is that it’s highly dependent on the umpire. With a few more close pitches called balls, we’re looking at an entirely different result even from those 15 singles, regardless of the more pitcher-dependent extra-base hits. His grounder to fly ball trend is moving in the wrong direction, as his first start was by far the best there and his last three starts have been a push between the two. For a guy not throwing 98 or 99 with movement, putting the ball in the air is a worry.
In watching Chi Chi, subjectively, what I have to say is he pitches about 10 years beyond his age. He truly looks like a 33-year-old veteran, pitching to spots, not afraid of the “right” walk, and knowing a one pitch to weak contact is more efficient than a strikeout that takes up five pitches. If we consider the scouting report on him, there’s a lot to hope on, because we haven’t seen the Chi Chi that was last year’s minor league pitcher of the year for this organization yet, even with his results. His strikeouts haven’t caught up to his potential, and even though he’s limited his runs, his walks are higher than history would suggest.
He’ll give up more homers, but he’s never been an extra-base hit machine on the mound. That’s a very good sign. Singles are luck; some get through or down, some get swallowed by great plays. What we need to watch, going into his next start and the rest of this season, are those fielding-independent factors. He can control strikeouts, walks, and extra-base hits far more than other stats. Even opponents’ batting average, if we’re seeing a lot of lucky hits, it’s a bad indicator.
If he improves his strikeout-to-walk ratio, keeps improving the grounder to fly ball percentage, and we see his FIP go down below 3.00, we’re seeing a guy who can make a legitimate case for a mid-to-top of rotation spot once this team is fighting for a pennant. He’s gotten the results so far, and with a few more trends in the right direction, he’ll be on a course to make a habit of it, day in and day out, regardless of “the breaks of the game”.