When the Brewers signed Mike Gonzalez on January 7, general manager Doug Melvin was lauded for the move.
Gone was the often turbulent left-hander Manny Parra, who jettisoned to the Cincinnati Reds, and in his place was Gonzalez, a veteran with a proven track record as a successful LOOGy. As did a lot in the 2013 season, that series of transactions worked out well for the Reds, while the Brewers didn’t enjoy the same successes.
Gonzalez was utilized often by manager Ron Roenicke (70 appearances), and often those appearances didn’t turn out favorably for Milwaukee, to say the least. Appearing in 75 games, Gonzalez held a record of 0-3 with a 4.68 earned run average, WHIP of 1.660, and a scary-high HR/FB of 16.9 percent, eighth among all Major League relievers with at least 50 innings pitched.
For a team that finished among baseball’s best in bullpen ERA, the Brewers managed to have three relievers (four, if you decide to count Michael Fiers in that mix) with a WAR of -0.6 or lower, including Gonzalez. So you could say that’s one of the few things the Brewers were really good at this year.
However, looking further at the issue that was Michael Gonzalez, was it more so a problem of Gonzalez himself or how and when Gonzalez was used.
To open the season, Gonzalez was, based upon past history, placed in the role of LOOGy–or, simply put, his job was to come in and get left-handed hitters out. Some horses were born to race, but that doesn’t mean that all horses are necessarily good at racing. The same goes with left-handed pitchers; just because Gonzalez is a lefty shouldn’t automatically put him in the position of getting left-handed hitters out.
From early on in the season, though, it was evident that this specialized role wasn’t for Gonzalez. His primary role was coming in during the middle of an inning to face a series of lefties. Left handers hit him to the slash line of .274/.336/.443. That, in itself, should be evidence enough that Gonzalez was not a LOOGy (Lefties, meanwhile, only batted .167/.237/.238 off Parra).
Now that we’ve realized Gonzalez was not meant to be a lefty specialist in 2013–though, somehow, he was still put in to face Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in a game as late as September 14–the question arises of what situations he was best suited for. And the answer to that is “None of them, really.” At best, Gonzalez was a middle-inning reliever with potential to be the mop-up man. In high leverage situation, as defined by Fangraphs, his FIP shot up to 7.74, as compared to a respectable 3.91 in low leverage situations.
As it will with any pitcher, walks and home runs killed Gonzalez in 2013. He walked over 10 percent of batters he faced, and allowed 1.80 HR/9. The low point in his season came on June 5 against the Astros when he surrendered a three-run, walk-off home run to Carlos Peña. I repeat: A walk-off homer. TO CARLOS PEÑA.
Gonzalez over the course of the season steadily struck out batters, coming in second on the team to Jim Henderson with 10.80 K/9 IP. This came as no surprise, as, for his career, he’s a 10.30 K/9 pitcher. The primary difference was found in balls that were put in play.
Through the first ten seasons of his career, Gonzalez induced 394 ground balls and 377 fly balls; in 2013 those totals flipped to 46 and 59, respectively, and his previously mentioned HR/FB was a career high. Less ground balls resulting from a career-worst slider (7.6 runs below average with that pitch alone) mixed with a career-low velocity and poor location were detrimental for Gonzalez.
While the Brewers tried their best to cancel out their dreaded month of May and, in the process, ruin their season-long quest for a protected draft pick, Gonzalez did his best to continue the pattern set forth in that horrid month. Over the final two months, he posted a 7.88 ERA, surrendering 39 base runners and striking out only 14.
For this, we could laud him and base his grade off his desire to help the team in the long run. Or simply point at his 4.68 ERA and countless headaches and moments of frustration he induced.
I’m going with the latter.
Final Grade: D
PS: Did we ever figure out whether to call him ‘Mike’ or ‘Michael’? There was a period of time at the beginning of the year when Mike performed well, while Michael was much more, um, generous, to batters. Then that period faded and they were both pretty bad.