Written by: Danny Hacker
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Marco Gonzales was on pace to do something in 2020 that very few pitchers in MLB history have ever done in a single season. Gonzales’ BB/9 was under 1 (0.9 BB/9) and he showed no signs of giving it up. That number, along with the rest of his season, immediately made me think of Cliff Lee during his prime. It got me thinking, are there any similarities between the two of them? Both are lefties. That’s a good start. As I looked deeper, I found that not only does Marco Gonzales share some of Cliff Lee’s qualities, he shares a lot of similarities to Cliff Lee during his peak and I now believe, quite a bit, that Gonzales’ 2020 was the beginning of his version of that very familiar phenomenal peak of Cliff Lee’s.
First off, as I mentioned above, both are left-handed. Next, as Gonzales’ reputation has preceded him of recent, he is a pinpoint control wizard much as Cliff Lee was during his peak. However he wasn’t always that way and neither was Cliff Lee, the pitcher well known for his absurd control/command and his brilliant stretch at the top of the baseball world from 29 to 35 years old. They both were traded by their original teams (Lee in the Colon trade and Gonzales in the Tyler O’Neil trade) and struggled quite a bit in their first tastes of the majors for prolonged periods. Both were sent up and down quite a few times in the process. Yes, this kind of career happens to so many Major League Baseball players but the two share a similar career path early on which is only the beginning.
The comparison begins with a dive into their pitching arsenals. First let’s look at Marco Gonzales’ 2020 pitch mix which was his Sinker (45.2%), Cutter (24.4%), Curveball (16.1%), and Changeup (14.3%). Does that look familiar to you? Most likely it won’t unless you have Cliff Lee pitch mixes in the back of your mind all the time. However, the results are very similar to Lee’s pitch mix as he hit the height of his peak (2011).
|Pitcher:||Sinker||Cutter||Curveball||Changeup||4 Seam FB|
The pitch mixes are basically copycats of each other. They both rely very heavily on their Sinker/Cutter combinations while using their Curveball and Changeup more than enough to keep hitters off their combo while not using the 4 Seam Fastball much, or in Gonzales’ case not, at all. The only real difference between the two in regards to pitch mix or the progression of their mixes is that if you look back with Lee, he still used his 4 Seam Fastball primarily until right before he started peaking in 2008 and drastically cut it out over a 3-year stretch to where it is here. Gonzales has always loved his Sinker while Lee grew into his to primarily use it every season of his prime but both grew to use it more and more. Here is a 3-year progression of their pitch mixes to get to where we are discussing:
Now that we have established their progressions, now we want to look at the results. how did each of them fare with the same pitch mix? Let’s look below:
Both had very good success with that pitch mix and while Lee’s ERA/FIP was much lower, everything else was right in line when comparing Gonzales to him indicating that that similar pitch mix worked well for both of them.
Despite the fact there is about, on average, a 4 mph difference on their Sinkers (Lee’s a 92 mph average and Gonzales’ a 88 mph average), given the results and ratios above, I can conclude that the mph difference of the two Sinkers ultimately will not make a difference at all. The velocity of both pitcher’s other pitches used is right in line with each other so there isn’t too much of a true difference here enough to note. They both also had very similar HR/FB ratios (9.0% for Lee, 9.6% for Gonzales) and allowed basically the same BAA (Batting Average Against) which was .226 for Lee and .222 for Gonzales. That helps argue against the notion that the Sinker velocity matters because the results were basically identical. Even accounting for the bounce-y ball (as I like to call it), Gonzales still was in a Lee range in that category with room to get better.
With Gonzales mirroring a peak Cliff Lee in regards to pitch mix and having success with it, it is the first step to seeing the comparison. However, pitchers have similar pitch mixes all the time but don’t share the same results/streaks. So what is the next step?
Digging deeper, you will find that Gonzales’ improvement in BB% over a four-season transition also mirrors Cliff Lee’s rise from meh to great, so much so that it even dips to his insane mind-blowing historic levels.
|Pitcher:||Season 1:||Season 2:||Season 3:||Season 4:|
Down, Down, Up, Down. The pattern of which they progressed from bad/mediocre to rising into stardom is also identical. Gonzales’s control/command of his stuff is excellent and as a result, is in the 99th percentile of BB% according to MLB Savant. Even though Lee didn’t have Savant in his day, he also would have been in that same percentile of BB%. The two know how to pitch to contact without getting burned and they both know how to throw strikes. In Lee’s peak sample used here (2011), Lee threw 69.3% of his pitches for strikes. Marco Gonzales’ 2020? 69.1% of his pitches for strikes. First Pitch Strike Percentage? Lee’s 2011 was 64.9% while Gonzales’ 2020 was 64.3%. Swing Percentage? Lee’s 2011 was 47.2% while Gonzales’ 2020 was 47.6%. Both are identical in the way they pound the zone effectively and efficiently.
The progressions of their command/control are very similar and Gonzales’ 2020 is right in line with the peak Cliff Lee BB%. However, even with pitch mix and becoming similar masters at locating all their pitches, this still could be merely a coincidence to some.
To that, we bring up K%. Looking at the same sample 4 season period, their K% are also paralleled over that 4 season period like their BB%
|Pitcher:||Season 1:||Season 2:||Season 3:||Season 4:|
They have enough swing and miss stuff to keep their hitters at bay but neither Lee nor Gonzales have always been major strikeout artists in the majors to this point and Lee never really was even during his peak. I don’t see Gonzales breaking out of that mold really as his stuff doesn’t translate into that. That’s not a bad thing at all, it just only further pulls the two other. Lee’s Swinging Strike Percentage was 9.4% while Gonzales’ was 8.4%. However, it is worth noting that in every other season of Lee’s prime, his Swinging Strike Percentage was around 8.5% which Gonzales mirrored in 2020.
As a result of both having near-identical K% and BB%, it also means the two had near-identical K-BB%. For Lee, it was 21.3% and for Gonzales, it was 20.6%. With Gonzales, it was the first time in his career his K-BB% was higher than 16.5%, much like when Lee started breaking out, he went from 14-15% to 20-21% as the arsenal became more Sinker/Cutter led mixed with the others like Gonzales’ 2020 was. Both made jumps in that regard as the arsenals became more Sinker/Cutter focused but keeping the Change and Curveball used enough to be significant.
In 2011, Cliff Lee’s fWAR was 7.1 while Gonzales’ COVID shortened 2020 was 2.0. While it’s very hard to predict how fWAR would stretch out, if we use the fact he had 2.0 fWAR in 11 starts, we can reasonably conclude that if he had made 30 starts, it was projected to be a 6.0 fWAR season which is also right near Lee’s peak fWAR.
What this all shows is that Gonzales used basically the identical pitch mix, has very similar stuff with nearly identical similar control/command, and as a result, produced the exact same results as prime Cliff Lee. Starting to see the full picture here?
Marco Gonzales is like a mirror of Cliff Lee and is just about to hit the explosion part of Lee’s career. He is about to pitch in his age 29 season and coming off a great, albeit short, 2020, the numbers suggest that Gonzales is about breakout in an even bigger way in 2021. He has made comments in recent days that have made many people think he wants to be traded from the Mariners and if that’s the case, a team will definitely have to pay a lot for him. He is very cost-controlled (4 years, $29 Million with a $15 Million Club Option for a 5th Season remaining on his extension) and is still young.
With the Mariners on the rise rather quickly, I would not doubt they hold onto him and let him become the ace of the staff. However, if it is true that he wants out and would like to be traded (which would also be a really ironic similarity as both would have been traded to and from the Mariners), there will no doubt be suitors at the door of Jerry Dipoto for the pitcher who is about to become this decade’s Cliff Lee.