Miguel Gonzalez's journey to baseball is one of the more crazy miracles in recent history.
The now 30-year-old righty happened to be pitching in an exhibition game in Mazatlàn, Mexico in the Mexican Winter League in 2011, when scout Fred Ferreira managed to stumble upon Gonzalez. In one inning of work, Gonzalez threw nine pitches that resulted in three strikeouts. As Orioles' MLB.com reporter Britt Ghiroli wrote, Ferreira was highly impressed with Gonzalez's fastball movement, his diving splitter and simple delivery, though nothing seemed to be imminent for the easy-going Gonzalez.
Fate intervened for Gonzalez however, and in 2012, Ferreira was hired by Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette as the team's executive director of international recruiting. In what would become a key moment in Orioles' history, Duquette called a meeting in late January to discuss his organization's lack of pitching depth. Ferreira, in a phrase that would give any wearer of the orange and black chills, told Duquette, "I just saw a guy that can help us".
Fast forward three years, and Gonzalez is doing more than just helping the Orioles' cause. He's become a stabilizer in the starting rotation.
In his past two and a half seasons with the Orioles, Gonzalez really has been as consistent a pitcher as any in baseball. Before the start of this season, Gonzalez had compiled a solid 3.42 ERA to go with a 1.24 WHIP and from 2013-14, Gonzalez averaged just above 165 IP. Since his arrival in Baltimore, his BB/9 has hovered just around the league average, though his FIP, HR/9 and K/9 numbers have tended to be more disappointing to the analytics crowd. That's okay, because Gonzalez isn't the kind of pitcher that's going to strikeout a ton of batters (his one game career-high is 10).
What makes MiGo so fun to watch is that he actually pitches. When I say he "pitches", I mean he doesn't just throw pitches just to try to keep guys off-balance, he throws certain pitches with the thought of setting up batters for what's to come later. He'll start a guy with an inside fastball in order to throw the slider down and away. That slider can then set up his two-seamer on the outside paint. The outside running fastball becomes a disguise for a diving split-finger. When you lack the awe-inspiring arsenal you see from Matt Harvey or Felix Hernandez, you have to find a way to turn contact into your favor.
MiGo's avoidance of the barrel of the bat is the key to his success, and that ability has continued into 2015. With a career batting average against of .244, that in itself signifies that batters have a hard time finding open real estate in the field of play. Even more so, a career BABIP of .264 shows when guys get a hit off of Gonzalez, they earn it. He makes it hard on batters, and he does it even more so with runners on base.
Last season's astounding 85.5 LOB% was a mind-boggling 12.5% higher than the league average, but Gonzalez has been killing rallies for the past three years, as his career LOB% is a rare 80.1%. You might get on base, but that doesn't mean you're going to cash in.
The baffling of hitters and stranding of runners is encapsulated with Gonzalez's ever-commanding presence on the mound. He isn't animated like Bud Norris, nor does he have the "ace" label that's been tagged on Chris Tillman. He just takes care of business. He's the kind of pitcher that you know is going to keep the Orioles in the striking distance every time he takes the ball, and that ease of mind is undoubtedly worth the $3.3M salary.
So, how has Gonzalez fared so far in 2015? Well, it's been pretty spot-on with what O's fans have come to expect from the Mexican league gem.
In 43.0 IP, Gonzalez has collected a lowly 2.93 ERA coupled with an extremely low .237 BABIP while stranding nearly 80% of runners on base. He's still making hitters earn their way on base, as opponents are hitting a mere .206 against MiGo. Even with a mini-spike in his walk-rate, Gonzalez has what would be a career-low 1.14 WHIP.
To go with Gonzalez's subtle awesomeness has been his massive importance as an early plug in the wake of the Orioles' recent woes.
In three of Gonzalez's six starts, he's been the winning pitcher following an Orioles' loss, and in two of the other three starts he didn't win, he combined for only five earned runs in 11.2 innings. He's been a key in preventing the O's from turning a loss into a streak, which is essential for any winning ball club.
Take last night for example. A night after the Orioles were slobberknocked by Edwin Encarnacion and errors, Gonzalez pitched his best game of the season against the best offense in all of baseball, going 7.2 innings allowing only one unearned run on three singles. At one point Gonzalez even retired 14-consecutive Blue Jays. Even more important was his maneuvering of a 3rd inning jam, with runners on the corners and no outs. A groundball from Josh Donaldson gave Manny Machado the chance to make a Manny-like play, tagging out Ezequiel Carrera at third base. One batter later, Gonzalez induced yet another ground ball to Machado, which kicked off an inning-ending, rally-killing double play.
Though most fans wouldn't be so optimistic about a start in which a pitcher saw his defense make a handful of spectacular plays, but that again, is okay. Gonzalez's democracy with the baseball allows the defenders behind him to be more lively. The J.J. Hardy's and the Manny Machado's know that when Gonzalez is on the mound, they're going to be active, which keeps the focus in the field more consistent.
He defies FIPS, he says s*** on live television, and he's been the Orioles' go-to guy on the mound early in 2015. Don't let his lack of emotion fool you.
Miguel Gonzalez is a gamer.