Matthew Leach

Ahead with the curve: Gio elevates game

Ahead with the curve: Gio elevates game

On their way to becoming the first team to clinch a postseason berth in 2017, the Nationals have endured far more than their share of major injuries, from their lineup to their rotation to their bullpen. Some of the ways they've weathered the damage, you might have guessed: Max Scherzer's brilliance, Daniel Murphy's dependability and, before he also got hurt, Bryce Harper's excellence.

One you might not have seen coming? Rotation anchor Gio Gonzalez. Soon to turn 32 and coming off the worst full season of his big league career, Gonzalez seemed more likely to be a question than an answer in 2017.

It has been quite the contrary. Gonzalez has stemmed a tide of four straight seasons of rising ERA to pitch consistently and effectively for a team that has needed his contributions.

Gonzalez leads the Nats in starts and innings, and he ranks second in starter's ERA. He already has his highest innings total since 2013 and has an excellent chance at his first 200-inning season since '11, when he was still with the A's.

And Gonzalez has done it while transitioning from one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters around to much more of a finesse pitcher. He is one of the most interesting pitchers in the game this season.

Gonzalez is relying more heavily on his curveball than he has since his days with the A's, and he's not just using it as a chase or strikeout pitch. In fact, he is throwing it to get ahead.

Gonzalez K's Margot

Overall, Gonzalez's fastball percentage this year is down quite a bit. He threw 65.4 percent fastballs in 2015, 63.5 percent last year and 54.1 percent this year. That's quite a drop, and Gonzalez is throwing both his curve and his changeup more often in the interim. But on the first pitch, it's far more pronounced.

In 2015 and '16, Gonzalez threw fastballs more than 70 percent of the time on the first pitch. In '17, that's plummeted to 52.6 percent. Instead, it's the curveball, up from 14.7 percent of first pitches last year to 29 percent this year.

Gonzalez whiffs Stanton

On top of that, Gonzalez is better able to throw his curve for strikes this year. Last year, 31.7 percent of his curveballs were in the strike zone. This year, it's up to 40.8 percent. That adds up to an unconventional but effective way to get ahead of hitters. When Gonzalez has thrown a first-pitch curve, he's gotten a called strike 36.8 percent of the time.

Obviously, that in itself is valuable. As the old adage goes, the best pitch in baseball is strike one. But there seems to be another effect as well: It gets hitters off balance.

Gonzalez is actually throwing his fastball slightly more often with two strikes, typically a time when you'd throw a chase pitch like a curveball. He's gotten unpredictable, throwing curves when he used to throw fastballs, and fastballs when most pitchers would throw breaking balls.

And what do you know? Hitters aren't hitting the ball as hard against Gonzalez. Across the board, he is allowing lower average exit velocity this year. Against the fastball, it's down from 88.7 and 89 mph the past two years to 86.2 this year. Same story against the curve, down from 86.2 and 87.0 to 82.6

That's happened while Gonzalez's fastball velocity and curveball spin rate have both dropped. So maybe, just maybe, that unpredictability has made it harder for hitters to make solid contact. And that seems to be helping Gonzalez have his best year in quite a while.

Matthew Leach is an executive editor for Follow him on Twitter and read his columns. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.