Going Five-Hole: Chi-Chi Gonzalez needs to Change Up
Typically, if you notice something that needs to be worked on, you work on it. Typically, Spring Training is the perfect time to do so – unless, of course, you’re Chi-Chi Gonzalez and you only have the four weeks to impress your coaching staff enough to let you start the season as the fifth starter.
Perhaps things would be different if this were a chance for him to make his Major League debut this season. He did that last season, moreso out of necessity than desire. If the Rangers’ front office could have had its way, I’m sure Gonzalez would have stayed in the minors at least another few months. Alas, injuries and such pushed the timetable up. Now, as the clock is ticking for one of the organizations top pitching hopefuls, it would behoove the Rangers to get the most out of their top pick from the 2013 draft.
That won’t happen if the 24-year old doesn’t start showing some semblance of progress in his repertoire.
Let’s recap. For his first campaign in the Majors, Gonzalez really didn’t do an awful job of doing what he was asked to do – hold the line until reinforcements arrived. As a starter, called up at the end of May, Gonzalez pitched in 10 games to a 3-5 record with a 4.03 ERA, averaging about six innings per start. Opponent’s batting average against was .211, and he had exactly one walk for every strikeout. Again, not terrible for his admittedly rushed first foray into MLB. The stuff was there.
Gonzalez profiles as a four-pitch pitcher with fly-ball tendencies despite some natural sink to his pitches and average velocity. Will he ever be a strikeout-heavy pitcher? Probably not, but with a consistently solid defense behind him, he doesn’t have to be.
Typically, every pitcher pitches around his fastball. One way or another, a fastball should be a pitcher’s go-to pitch, the reason a number “one” is offered by the catcher when going through pitch selections. Out pitches usually stem off of that. Whether through movement or velocity change, the idea is to get the hitter’s brain expecting one thing and reacting completely differently to induce weak-to-zero contact.
Velocity is where we find the problem with Chi-Chi Gonzalez. Typically, a Change-Up that registers an average of 87.71 MPH (month-to-month averages pulled from BrooksBaseball.net), would be decent – if your four-seam fastball registered around 95-97. Since a Change-Up is typically thrown with the same arm-action as your fastball, the change in velocity (and consequential movement) should be enough to cause the hitter to swing before the ball actually gets there, resulting in a swing and a miss, or at least some weak contact.
Gonzalez’ fastball registered at 93.09. That equates to right around a 5 MPH difference, and for a pitch that registers average movement, that sort of velocity difference turns baseballs into cannon fodder. The most prominent (and most recently painful) example for Rangers fans would be Gonzalez’ bullpen outing in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Toronto Blue Jays’ Troy Tulowitzki. For a nobody like me, five similar pitches, all within just 1.5 MPH of each other, would result in an out. For an average Major League hitter, the BABIP stat (basically a measure of luck) comes into play. For Superstar Troy Tulowitzki…
That was the fifth pitch of the at-bat, after seeing four pitches all within the range of 89.3-90.9 MPH. Looking for an explanation? Take a look at this quote from Gonzalez, as he spoke to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News at the Rangers Winter Caravan in Frisco.
“Everything was the same…When I was in the bullpen, I tended to try to throw everything hard, and that meant a lot of pitches looked exactly the same. When I started, I had better difference. I need to make my breaking ball slower.”
Except, as noted above, he didn’t really have much better of a difference. Sure, 5 MPH is better than 1.5 MPH, and a 5 MPH difference is where Gonzalez was most effective with his change-up, but as former Major League pitcher and current MLB Network Radio host C.J. Nitkowski points out, the truly great change-ups come in around 10 MPH slower than the four-seam fastball.
Without any of the data in front of him, just going off of me informing him that Gonzalez’ change was just 2-3 MPH different, Nitkowski said that the pitch in question could have been more of a split-finger change. Given the similar nature of the finger positioning, and Gonzalez’ own admittance of throwing everything hard, that would seem to make sense. Go back to that video though and slow down the already slowed-down replay in the first few seconds before Tulo swats the ball into the hands of friend-of-SDI, WFAA’s Levi Weaver. If you’re not feeling up to it, I did it for you.
It’s blurry, for sure, but Gonzalez’ index and thumb fingers are forming a circle on the side of the baseball, which means that this is a circle-change. Typically, because of the way the ball comes out of the hand with this grip, the ball should slow down considerably.
However, only the arm action and release point for a change-up are supposed to mimic the fastball, not the strength with which one throws it. Easier said than done, obviously, especially from my chair at home, but it stands to reason that Chi-Chi Gonzalez needs to not put every ounce of his 210 pounds behind every single one of his pitches, bullpen or not.
Besides backing off the throttle and intensity of his pitches a little, what else can Gonzalez do? Nitkowski listed off a number of different techniques that several of his former teammates had employed, everything from slamming down the drive foot as hard as possible on the follow-through to dragging the plant foot a little during the wind-up, all summed up by saying that it’s going to depend on the ability of the pitcher and that Gonzalez is going to have to find his own way, with the help of the coaches, to slow it down.
So why, if it just ends up being a matter of finding his own way to change his change, did I write 1,000+ words about this? Because, while he certainly could do wonders under the tutelage of Major League Pitching Coach Doug Brocail and Bullpen Coach Brad Holman, the Rangers really don’t have the luxury of giving Chi-Chi Gonzalez a month and a half to “work things out” with those two throughout his Major League starts.
The young starter has been told as much already this spring, as, according to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “He has been told to go out and compete rather than worry as much about working on his pitches.” That’s because in a tight American League West division, a strong, fast start is going to be essential to your Texas Rangers’ success this season.
While the pitcher that fills that number five-hole spot in the rotation is just going to be a stop-gap until Yu Darvish makes his return, the team certainly is not going to want to waste those starts every five days on a pitcher who is just tinkering with his mechanics while his change-up looks like a batting practice fastball. Gonzalez has been working on his other two off-speed pitches – a slider and curve, both of which come in at an appropriate speed with workable movement – in bullpen sessions. He hasn’t taken those pitches into meaningful competition yet and is truly just relying on his fastball for outs. Again, that might work for Cactus League games, facing batters once, maybe twice through. When the regular season comes into play, though, the Rangers will break camp with someone who has all of the tools necessary right now.
Besides, Chi-Chi Gonzalez had all off-season to make strides in adjusting his change-up. Even if you go by the standard that pitchers don’t start doing baseball activities until late December/early-January, that’s a lot of time that could have been invested into making sure that a pitch loses a couple of miles per hour. Gonzalez’ change-up, at least according to radio broadcasters, is still sitting only 2-3 MPH below his fastball. When you’ve already admitted that you have a problem, and you have five months to toy around and see what you can do, typically, you work on things.