When the Rangers made the trade for Cole Hamels last season, the prevailing sentiment throughout baseball was that Texas was building for the future. Of course, the team ended up winning the AL West largely in part to the contributions of Hamels, but that doesn't change the future outlook as it concerns the trade.
Heading into this season, the Rangers will have Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation. At some point -- presumably mid-May or early June -- Yu Darvish will also return to the fold. Until then, the Rangers will roll with a rotation of Hamels, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and a yet-to-be-named 5th starter. That's where Chi Chi Gonzalez comes in.
Gonzalez, a 1st-round pick of the Rangers in 2013, pitched in 13 games for the Rangers in 2015 -- 10 starts -- with mixed results. Early on, the results seemed to indicate that the Rangers had found a stud to man the top of the rotation. Gonzalez came out in his first start and took a no-hitter into the 6th inning against Boston.
Of course, it was what was hidden in the stat line that told entire story. Gonzalez also walked 5 batters in that outing. And so it was that over his first four starts, Gonzalez went 23 innings while giving up only 3 runs.
His ERA of 0.90 in those starts was vastly different than his xFIP of 5.14. For starters, a BABIP of .183 is never going to hold up. Even Clayton Kershaw had a BABIP of .281 in 2015 while posting up an xFIP of 2.09 -- to virtually match an ERA of 2.13 -- and fWAR of 8.6. So, regression for Gonzalez was always a given.
In his next three starts prior to being optioned back to Triple-A Round Rock, Gonzalez gave up 15 earned runs in 13.1 innings for an ERA of 10.13 and an xFIP of 5.40. Gonzalez came back up in August, struggled through two starts, was optioned again, and made one more decent start in September before being relegated to bullpen duty due to Derek Holland's return to the rotation.
At the current time, Gonzalez is considered by many to be the favorite to win the 5th starter job out of camp. He's virtually neck and neck with Nick Martinez, but many view Gonzalez as the pitcher with higher upside. So what does he need to do to make his transition into a Major League rotation permanent? It's simple: He needs to increase his strikeouts and reduce his walks.
If that seems very simplistic, that's because it is. Gonzalez posted up K/9 and BB/9 figures of 4.03 and 4.30, respectively. As a pitcher, you don't want those rates being close to one another, first off. Secondly, you certainly don't need your BB/9 rate to be higher than your K/9. The more batters you strike out, the more you can usually afford to walk. Take Yu Darvish as an example. Darvish's career BB/9 is 3.60, which would generally be considered below average or even poor. However, having a K/9 of 11.22 more than makes up for it in excellence.
No one, of course, expects Chi Chi Gonzalez to morph in Yu Darvish. The point is simply that he needs to move perhaps closer to matching his numbers from Double-A Frisco in 2014. In 15 appearances -- 14 starts -- Gonzalez put up a K/9 of 7.85 and a BB/9 of 3.07. That would give you peripherals that would put him much more in the mold of an average to above-average starting pitcher, which would be exactly where past scouting reports have slotted his value.
It is of course worth mentioning that 67 innings pitched at the Major League level is a fairly small sample size for a starting pitcher. Just by the nature of baseball, we can likely expect Gonzalez's peripherals to improve. However, in order to stick and be something more than a placeholder until Yu Darvish returns, Chi Chi Gonzalez will need to improve even more.
Chi Chi takes the mound later in today's game against the Reds.