The Future Is Unwritten: Severino Gonzalez
You, like me, probably became aware of Severino Gonzalez last year when he tore up the Florida State League to the tune of a 2.02 ERA between the bullpen and rotation before being brought up to Reading. It’s the kind of performance that makes you sit up in your chair and pay attention and also the sort of thing I’ve warned about countless times on this site: Do not get married to opinions based on minor league numbers, especially when those numbers were put up at the lower levels. Regardless of how little minor league numbers indicate future performance, they can make players worth going out of your way to see. Such was the case with Gonzalez, who I saw several times before departing to Arizona. Let’s start by getting a big aspect of Gonzalez’s evaluation out of the way and start by discussing his size.
I’ve looked at the heights and weights of hundreds of pitching prospects drafted over the weekend and of this year’s drafted players, only three pitchers have builds about as slender as Severino Gonzalez’s listed build of 6’1”, 153lbs. Oakland’s 11th round pick Joel Seddon (6’1”, 165), Angels pick Austin Robichaux (6’5”, 170lbs) and new Twins lefty draftee Cameron Avila-Leeper (5’11”, 150lbs). Questions about whether or not pitchers of this size have a body that can handle a 200 inning workload will be asked, as they’re being asked of Gonzalez. But a pitcher’s size, on its own, cannot answer this question. We are seeing more and more small and/or skinny (yes, they’re different things) pitchers beginning to break that stereotype every day, whether it’s Sonny Gray (short) or Jesse Chavez (skinny). So let’s break down those two adjectives and talk about whether or not they matter and why.
Skinny- The concern over thin pitchers is that they don’t possess the physicality to handle the intense workload that comes with pitching a full season in the big leagues. I think that, if the arm works well, it doesn’t matter. Severino Gonzalez is listed at 153lbs and I’d be willing to bet that he weighs at least 10 pounds more than that. His arm works well, it’s nice and loose, and he has a thick ass and thigh region to help drive his body home. There’s nothing about his mechanics that indicates to me that’s he’s going to get hurt. Even if there was, pitching injuries are among the hardest things in baseball to predict. I wouldn’t hang my hat on it anyway. I don’t worry about how thin Gonzalez is.
Short- Short pitchers get knocked because physics are working against them in a number of ways. First, it’s harder to generate velocity as a shorter person. I may have used this example before but it’s a good one so I’m going to do it again. Put your elbow on the desk in front of you (or onto something flat) with your hand perpendicular to the desk or flat thing. Now just keep your elbow in that spot and bring your hand down to the desk. Your forearm comes with it and every part of your arm hits the desk at basically the same time. Since your hand traveled a greater distance (it was farther from the desk) than the point in, say, the middle of your forearm in the same amount of time, your hand was moving at a faster speed than the middle of your forearm. This property of physics gives taller pitchers an advantage. All else being equal, a taller guy will throw harder than a shorter guy. Take Jon Rauch and scale him down to 6’3” and he’s probably not a big leaguer. Scale Yordano Ventura up to 6’5” and you have maybe the hardest throwing pitcher of all time but he’d probably never be able to throw enough strikes to be anything more than a reliever (taller pitchers need to be able to repeat their deliveries better than shorter guys because little variations in the mechanics are magnified for the big guys).
The concern with smaller pitchers is that the ones who throw hard enough to compete with their taller peers are doing so because they are pitching with so much effort that their health is potentially unsustainable over a long period of time. If you’re going to throw hard enough to play in the big leagues as a 5’10” guy, your arm is going to have to accelerate like crazy and you’re a greater risk to break. Smaller pitchers also often lack the downhill plane on their pitches that scouts desire. The average MLB pitcher is 6’3”. Gonzalez is 6’1” which is small but not so far left tail that it’s fatal. Again, there are things that pitchers can do to mitigate their lack of height. Is the delivery athletic and does the arm work fine? In Sevy’s case, yes. Is the lower half used efficiently? Yes. Is the arm angle such that it does not compound the issue of shortness? Namely, is the arm angle 3/4s or better so the pitcher is still getting on top of the ball in a way keeps it from coming in flat? This is where Gonzalez runs into some serious issues. His arm slot varies from pitch to pitch, sometimes dropping so low that it’s near sidearm and you can see his hand underneath the ball during release. It’s hard to get on top of the baseball when your hand is literally underneath the baseball.
As a result, Gonzalez’ fastballs come in really flat and, when they’re left up, are begging to be pounded into orbit. If Gonzalez had enough velocity to blow some of these cookies past some guys I’d be a little more forgiving, but Gonzalez’s fastball sits 87-91mph. It’s average velocity and the pitch plays there (down because of how flat is it, back up because of how well he commands it). The secondary stuff is middling, as Gonzalez has a lot of tools that he can use to induce weak contact but nothing he can use to really miss bats. His best secondary pitch is his cutter, which sits in the 84-86mph range and has late movement. I have a 55 grade on it. He’ll work with a slower breaking ball in the 79-82mph range that has more vertical depth. It’s a fringe average pitch and I don’t project any future improvement because of Gonzalez’s arm slot is not conducive of generating downward spin. Even if he changed his slot just for this pitch, he’d then be tipping it and counteract any extra movement he might be getting by making the curveball easy to diagnose out of his hand. His changeup has been below average when I’ve seen him but his loose arm allows for optimism in its growth to fringe-average.
With stuff like this, Gonzalez will have to be truly plus with his control and command. Right now I have the control (purely an ability to throw strikes) graded at 55 with a 60 future. The command (an ability to throw strikes where you want to) is a half grade behind on both accounts. Too often does he leave pitches up in the zone that will be punished in the big leagues. The overall projection here is that of a backend starter (though a #6 or swingman is more realistic) who would benefit greatly from pitching in a ballpark that is more forgiving for flyball pitchers. It’s a fantastic outcome for a guy who was signed out of Panama for just $14,000.
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