“What did I tell you?”
It was less of a question than an expression of joy, of mutual appreciation for a plan well-thought and well-executed, celebrated by one of a thousand hugs in a night of jubilation in the clubhouse, on the field, and again in the clubhouse as the Nationals clinched their first-ever National League East title. The words were spoken by Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo to Max Gonzalez, father to Gio, the left-handed ace of the staff who, immediately after coming to Washington in a late-December trade, signed a five-year extension with his new ballclub, lending a mutual security to both parties for the foreseeable future.
It was a contract Rizzo was happy to finalize, locking up a proven, All-Star southpaw to complement righties Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann in the Washington rotation. But even Rizzo was probably taken off-guard by just how good Gonzalez has been in his debut season in the Nation’s Capital.
The first pitcher in baseball to 20 wins, he finished the year 21-8, surpassing his previous career-best mark by five victories. He did so by pairing his mid-90’s fastball with one of the best curveballs in the game, occasionally mixing in his changeup to keep hitters off-balance. In so doing, he limited opponents to a .206 batting average, the lowest in either league among qualifying starters. He also struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings, the highest rate in the league of anyone who completed as many innings as Gonzalez (199.1). However, he has some competition in the NL for the rank of top arm and the Cy Young Award that comes with it, namely Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Dickey’s is a great story, and he has turned in a remarkable season for any pitcher, much less one who has undergone the trials and tribulations that have led up to this point in his life. But he is not the best pitcher on the best team, nor is he the most unhittable. Those titles belong to Gonzalez, whose left arm accounted directly for 21 of his team’s Major League-leading 98 victories. The Nationals went 3-0 in the only games that Gonzalez started and did not receive a decision, finishing 24-8 overall in his outings.
Gonzalez also allowed a meager nine home runs all season long, three fewer than the next closest pitcher who surpassed the 170-inning mark. Dickey, meanwhile, surrendered 24 longballs, nearly two-and-a-half times the rate at which Gonzalez allowed them.
Gio also finished strong, going 8-2 with an even 2.00 ERA (15 ER/67.1 IP) over his final 10 starts to lead his club into the playoffs as the top seed. Dickey, meanwhile, was solid but unspectacular over his last five outings (2-2, 3.28 ERA) and was beaten by Gonzalez head-to-head in New York on September 11.
Sometimes overlooked, thanks to the collective dominance of the staff – owners of the lowest ERA in the National League – Gonzalez has become the leader of the rotation and has more than earned his spot as Washington’s Game One starter for the NLDS. While the lefty is always happy to deflect the credit to his catcher, his offense, and his defense behind him – and while the Nationals have bigger goals in front of them – the Cy Young Award would be an appropriate honor for the breakout season of the league’s best pitcher.