At the moment, the Yankees’ starting rotation consists of Gerrit Cole and a small army of question marks. Just two years ago, with a similar army of question marks fighting for merely the fifth spot in the rotation, Brian Cashman turned to Gio González on a minor league deal for short-term depth. González still isn’t the glitziest name on the market in 2021, but the Yankees’ desperation for starting pitching has only worsened. Could a can-you-really-call-this-a-reunion be in store?
In late April 2019, the Brewers picked González up off the scrap heap after the veteran opted out of his brief Yankees stint in Triple-A Scranton. He rewarded Milwaukee with a solid season in which he posted a 3.50 ERA (4.04 FIP) in 19 games (17 starts), enough to attract the offseason attention of the Chicago White Sox, who signed him to a one-year, $5 million contract with a 2021 team option.
The union did not go according to plan for either side. González spent most of the season working out of the bullpen (only four starts in 18 games), and although his 4.83 ERA might look semi-respectable as a fifth starter and innings-eater at the back of the rotation, the further you read into his metrics, the worse he looks: 5.50 FIP, a 5.54 xERA, and a 1.71 HR/9, to start. González also spent time on the IL with a right groin strain and was ultimately left off the Wild Card Series roster after departing his last outing with shoulder soreness.
That does not mean there are no reasons for optimism, however. Between 2019 and 2020, González’s HR/FB rate almost doubled, from 11.7 percent to 20.7 percent. Most of the advanced metrics suggest that this was simply a string of bad luck. His exit velocity against actually shrunk from 87.4 to 86.3 MPH, his FanGraphs hard-hit rate dropped from 32.3 percent to 27.8 percent, and his soft-contact rate increased from 14.3 percent to 19.6 percent. González was by no means great in 2020, but he was not necessarily as bad as the numbers might make it appear.
Furthermore, some adjustments on the mound might allow González to reinvent himself just a bit. The past two seasons, he has thrown two pitches — a four-seam fastball and a changeup — roughly 60 percent of the time. Both have been thrown in roughly equal amounts, and in 2020, both were thrown exactly 203 times each. While relying so much on the fastball in 2018 worked just fine — it was worth -12 RV (Run Value) that season, with a .215 xBA and .368 xSLG — that’s just not feasible anymore. In 2019 and 2020, González’s fastball has been distinctly below-average, and in fact was on track to post a 28 RV in 2020 had he thrown the same number of pitches as he had in 2018.
González’s best two pitches last year were his changeup and curveball, combining for -7 RV, generating whiffs 41.5 percent and 45.2 percent of the time, respectively. His best outing of the year came on August 17th against the Tigers, when he fanned 10 batters. All of those strikeouts came against those two pitches:
Ditching the fastball and rebuilding his repertoire around these two pitches might just allow González to become at least a serviceable big league arm in 2021 and possibly beyond.
Between his lackluster 2020 and the extremely slow offseason, González will almost certainly not be a hot commodity on the free agent market, and may even be forced to accept an incentive-based minor league contract with an invite to free agency. At that price, there’s no reason that the Yankees shouldn’t bring him in for a look in February.