Washington’s unexpected secret weapon

Quick, name the best pitcher on the Washington Nationals staff. Did you say Stephen Strasburg? Well, if you did, you’re probably right. Strasburg has been as good as advertised in 2012, not missing a step after having Tommy John surgery, and is putting up numbers that place him at or near the top of every meaningful pitching statistic.

But on Tuesday, Strasburg was knocked around at home by the San Diego Padres (a result that Nostradamus couldn’t even have predicted), and now the Nationals will have to turn to their next best pitcher to keep pace in the NL East, a division they led (either outright or tie) for 26 straight games before falling behind Atlanta thanks to that Strasburg loss.

It was then up to their other ace to put Washington back atop the division. Like Strasburg, this other pitcher is putting up salivatingly-good statistics. Like Strasburg, this pitcher wasn’t even with the team in 2011.

The Washington Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics in December of last year in a deal that just screamed “Moneyball.” Gonzalez had been more than a serviceable pitcher for the Athletics, but with arbitration about to hit and the market for a lefty starting pitcher reaching a high-point, the A’s decided to do what they always do; turn their strong starting pitching into prospects (the team also traded Trevor Cahill to Arizona in a similar winter move).

Given that Gonzalez himself was part of a deal like this that brought him to Oakland (with two other minor league players, traded from the White Sox for outfielder Nick Swisher in 2008), this trade was hardly a big surprise. 

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Expectations for Gonzalez in Washington were high from the start. The team was seemingly a couple of pieces away from truly competing in the NL East and Gonzalez is one of those pieces, sliding into the number two spot in the rotation behind Strasburg (at least as far as talent and the depth chart goes). Washington thought so highly of Gonzalez’s ability that they signed him to a five-year contract extension worth $42 million before he even threw a ball for the Nats. Gonzalez was going to be in a Washington uniform for a long time, and he was expected to be good. And oh boy, has he been good.

Through May 16th, Gonzalez is 5-1 with a 2.22 ERA (10th in the NL). He leads the league in K/9 (11.10, .60 ahead of second-place Strasburg), and second in opponents batting average (.169, .003 behind leader Matt Cain). His walk rate is a bit higher than league average, but is significantly lower than his personal average (3. 7 this season, 4.4 career). Outside from a shaky debut outing (four runs, seven hits in 3 2/3 innings), Gonzalez has been nearly perfect (he gave up the first long ball of his season just last night).

Gonzalez’s 2012 season has been highlighted with a record-setting performance. After a win against the Padres on April 24, Gonzalez became the first pitcher since 1918 to start three consecutive games while going at least six innings and not allowing more than two hits or allowing any runs. Think about that for a second. Only pitcher since 1918 to achieve that feat. Not Gibson, not Johnson, not Spahn, not Maddux, Clemens, Gooden, Ryan or any other pitcher in the last 94 years has done that. Just Gio freaking Gonzalez. During that run (where he also faced Houston and Cincinnati), Gonzalez pitched 20 innings, allowed six hits and struck out 21. Gio freaking Gonzalez.

Adding to this most fantastic of seasons are the numbers that accompany his HR/9 innings stat: 0.18. In eight starts, 48.2 innings pitched and 769 pitches thrown, Gonzalez has allowed just one ball to travel further than the fences would allow it. Granted, Gonzalez has pitched against San Diego, Chicago and Houston, all three of which fall in the bottom-five of home runs hit this season, and the teams he’s pitched against that may stereotypically have higher home run numbers (Dodgers, Phillies and Reds twice), are all also in the bottom-half of the league when it comes to home runs hit.

Gonzalez hasn’t pitched against the powerhouse Yankees, Rangers, Cardinals and Orioles (yes, you read that last one correctly), but he has gone up against noted power hitters Matt Kemp and Joey Votto, and has been able to keep them and all others inside the yard. (Note: Over the next month, Gonzalez and the Nats will play the Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees, Red Sox, Rockies and Braves, all Top-10 in home runs and much harder challenges for Gonzalez).

Obviously these sorts of numbers aren’t sustainable for an entire season, and Gonzalez will eventually start to lose a bit and his numbers will even out. But his performance over the first two months is not to be forgotten, and if the Nationals are contending late in the season, it’s close to a guarantee that Gonzalez will be one of the reasons why. Accompanied with Strasburg, the Nationals boast arguably the best 1-2 punch in the majors.

The Nationals expected big things from Gonzalez after trading top prospects to pry him out of the west coast, but not even the most optimistic of the Washington front office staff could have predicted this.

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