More than any other Orioles player, Miguel Gonzalez represents the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era of success. Signed off the scrap heap, unheralded, he succeeded and continues to succeed in spite of the fact that supposedly reliable numbers project otherwise. He is the exception. Though Gonzalez is not ever going to be one of baseball's marquee names, he gets the job done in the only way that ultimately matters. That is, keeping the runs scored by the other team to a minimum.
The 2014 season was another one in this vein for Gonzalez. On the one hand, there is Gonzalez's ERA, which tells us what actually happened while he was on the mound. On the other hand, there is Fielding Independent Pitching, which speculates what "should" have happened based on a pitcher's strikeout, walk, and home run rates.
This season, Gonzalez pitched to a 3.23 ERA over 159 innings. His FIP was a much higher 4.89, which, as an ERA at the same number would be, is awful. To the outside observer, this sort of performance is dismissed as luck, an aberration of a small sample size that will correct itself over time. This is a fine theory to advance in general, but it has yet to apply to Gonzalez in his MLB career. Over his three big league seasons, Gonzalez now has a 3.45 ERA against a 4.49 FIP in his 435.2 innings pitched. So far with Gonzalez, predictions are irrelevant. Results matter.
What is the explanation for Gonzalez out-pitching these peripheral numbers? One explanation might lie in the way he has performed with men in scoring position (.676 OPS allowed) compared to how he pitches with the bases empty (.783 OPS). Significantly, while Gonzalez gave up 25 home runs this season, resulting in a poor HR/9 of 1.42, 21 of those home runs were solo shots.
This could be good fortune, sure. It could also be the residue of design, with Gonzalez approaching a plate appearance differently as the situation warrants. Not even the best of pitchers can achieve better outcomes with RISP by sheer force of will, but the ability to keep one's composure in the midst of a pressure situation is one that is important. As Yogi Berra says, 90% of baseball is half-mental.
Gonzalez almost had two different seasons in 2014. He struggled in the season's opening months, with a 5.19 April ERA and a 6.14 in June, but from July on he started 13 games, threw 86 innings, and had a 2.09 ERA. Gonzalez isn't the only reason that the Orioles went from one game back in the division on July 1 to 12 games up at season's end. He was a reason, though. Maybe he didn't start out great. He got there in the end.
It's not hard to see why, when Gonzalez struggles, he really struggles. When your fastball averages 91mph as a right-handed pitcher, the room for error is a lot smaller. He makes his hay with his slider, but when the fastball isn't hitting, it's hard to do much with the slider. Not that he or anyone with the Orioles needs me to tell them that. Knowing what to do and doing it are two different things. On balance, you can't complain about Gonzalez with the O's. He has his bad days, as all of us do, but he gets the job done most of the time.
Despite those first half struggles, Gonzalez still ended up recording a quality start (6+ IP, 3 ER or fewer) in 15 of his 26 starts. That's not exactly Cy Young territory; a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw ended up with 24 of 27 quality starts. The Orioles don't need Cy Young, although if Gonzalez wants to pitch well enough to earn such an award, he's welcome to do so.
When you pitch on a team with an offense like the O's, with a back end of the bullpen like the O's had by season's end, all you really have to do is give them a chance to win. You don't have to be perfect unless you are pitching in the ALCS against a team when the baseball gods have a thumb on the scales against you. Sorry, I'm still bitter.
I'm not actually sorry.
Almost as significant as his performance is the fact that Gonzalez was doing all of this for near the MLB minimum salary. He made $529,000 for his base pay. For a team like the Orioles, who are not among the poorest teams but not among the richest either, that kind of thing matters. If they have to buy their wins on the free agent market, they won't be able to keep up for long.
Gonzalez will get his first bite at the arbitration apple next season. He's deserving of the raise. As a first year arbitration player, he still won't represent a significant part of the O's payroll. They have control of him through the 2017 season, giving us another three seasons to look forward to O's radio broadcaster Joe Angel calling him Miguelito every chance he gets.
If Gonzalez keeps pitching the way that he has been, he'll still be starting for the Orioles in every one of those years. With what we've seen of him so far, that sounds just fine to me.