Gonzales 'constantly learning and growing,' ready for '24 with Bucs

February 18th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It’s safe to say is happy 2023 is in the rearview mirror. For years, he was one of the more reliable starters for a young Mariners team that elevated itself to being a contender, but last season, he had some bumps in the road.

A nerve injury in his left forearm lingered for months and limited him to just 10 starts. Those outings were not up to his usual standard either, recording a 5.22 ERA after averaging a sub-4.00 ERA over the previous five seasons. Things didn’t get much calmer in the offseason, as he was traded twice during the Winter Meetings in December, first to the Braves and then to the Pirates.

Fortunately for him, that’s all behind him now.

“I’m blessed, and I don’t take any big league opportunity for granted,” Gonzales said at his Pirate City locker Sunday. “I’m just gonna do what I can to stay healthy and compete.”

The Pirates went into the winter needing to acquire multiple starters, but their window of opportunity for Gonzales was rather short. He was traded on the first night of the Winter Meetings, but it was clear he was not going to be a Brave long. That meant the team needed to check to see if he was healthy after his August surgery and if he could rebound within a matter of days, but once they were satisfied with both answers, they took the gamble.

“You look back and see a left-handed pitcher who pitches with a style that’s been effective at PNC and anticipate [he will be in] better health going forward in 2024,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “We had off the charts reports about the person and character, too, which was the last piece of it.”

Before he went to Pittsburgh, though, he stayed back in Washington, where he dove deep into his routine and mechanics with Driveline. The frequent videos they posted on social media showed him with an extra tick on his fastball, but the real plus was some pitch refinement and guidance to hopefully stay healthy.

“That’s part of being at the highest level, you’re constantly learning and growing,” Gonzales said. “I’m not above that. I know there are things I don’t know about pitching and about baseball, so that was the goal.”

There was also one pitch in particular that he was trying to get back on track -- his cutter.

In Gonzales’ best seasons, that cutter was a reliable pitch that he went to often. In 2020, for example, he threw the cutter 24.2% of the time and hitters were held to a .188 batting average against. In 2022, his 83.9 mph average exit velocity allowed against the cutter was 84.4 mph, the third-lowest among pitchers with at least 100 batted balls allowed.

In 2023, it never felt right to him and he threw it less, dropping to 8.8% usage. The results also spoke for themselves, as hitters had a .389 batting average against it.

“I just wanted to get more horizontal movement,” Gonzales said. “It was kind of backing up on me a little bit, not doing exactly what I wanted it to do. I was able to locate it, but it wasn’t the efficient pitch that I know I have in the bag. It’s been there before, so I was just trying to go and make sure that pitch was moving the way I wanted it to this offseason.”

The Pirates need Gonzales to be a reliable hand in a rotation with several question marks. Even though he just turned 32 on Friday, he’s been viewed as a veteran for some time now because he played for such a young Mariners team.

There’s certainly one thing the young group of pitchers can learn from him -- that competitive edge to get out and play.

“I’ve been itching, man,” Gonzales said. “I’m one of those guys who can’t sit still if I’m not competing in something. It’s just in my blood. It's my passion and I’m obsessed with it. So that down time of not having a batter in the box or not being in a game was tough in that aspect. I wanted to get that chance to be healthy with Seattle to show I could pitch again, and not getting that chance and being shipped out has lit a fire. I’m ready to go out and show what I can do.”