Severino Gonzalez, Flamethrower
In a somewhat problematic admission as it relates to my baseball writing career, I’m still fairly new to the sport. I didn’t actually start following along until the end of my freshman year of college, and as I’m oft to mention, the first game I watched from start to finish was Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. As someone from South-Eastern Pennsylvania, that’s not an ideal first memory.
However, I caught on, and as a result of this late start, I’ve always had a fascination with likely-fungible-relief-arm Severino Gonzalez. A great story (a $14,000 signing as an undersized 18-year old in Panama), he was putting up video game numbers in the waning Venezuelan Summer League in 2012, and the low minors in 2013, as I was gaining an understanding of the Minor Leagues and the prospect industry. I didn’t *really* have an appreciation of the relationship between advanced command and low-minors video game numbers, so despite his size and lack of inherent stuff, he always seemed like an overlooked and underrated prospect.
However, competition predictably caught up with him, and since debuting at double-A Reading in 2014, has had a rockier road to the Majors. After exhausting opportunities to be a back-end starting pitcher, the Phillies converted him to relief in 2016, where something interesting has happened. He made his Major League season debut Friday night, and shocked even the announcers with his stuff – including a strike three fastball to the Diamondbacks’ Nick Ahmed that hit a reported 96.5 MPH.
This is interesting, instructional story for anyone interested in baseball player development. Given what he started with, there’s reason to believe he may have added over 12 miles per hour on his four seam fastball, and added multiple Major League average pitches, in the time between when the Phillies signed him, and he made his season debut on Friday night. Let’s look at the timeline.
When the Phillies signed Severino Gonzalez for $14,000 out of Panama in April 2011, he didn’t have much working for him in his profile other than the abstract “pitchability.” Baseball America’s Ben Badler reported that the 18 year old Gonzalez featured a “mid-80s fastball and a good feel for pitching.” This was also at least a year before he weighed in at the rail-thin 6′ 2″, 155 lbs that’s still his listed weight to this day (it is WAY out of date). I don’t know if a comparable draft-eligible high school pitcher gets drafted with that profile.
The same report from Badler indicated that over the next two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, his fastball hit as high as 89 mph in 2012, which lead to his promotion state-side. Over those two seasons, he walked only nine batters across 135.1 innings pitched.
His state-side debut led to explosion of information about Gonzalez as his insane numbers translated to the Clearwater bullpen. He stuck in the rotation after being given the opportunity to make a spot start in Lakewood, and reports began coming in – the fastball sat 88-91 and hit 92, he featured a good breaking ball, and was tinkering with a changeup and a cutter. He commanded the fastball well, and threw all four pitches for strikes. At best, it was still a #4/5 starter profile with durability concerns, but the advanced feel for sequencing and command allowed his pitches to play up.
Here he is featuring that 91 mph fastball and an average-to-above-average breaking ball against the vaunted 2013 Hickory Crawdads – a Rangers’ low-A lineup featuring Nick Williams, Nomar Mazara, Lewis Brinson, Jorge Alfaro, Joey Gallo, Ronald Guzman, and Ryan Rua.
Matt Winkelman noted that Gonzalez threw with a low-3/4 arm slot, and his lower-half was mostly filled out, but that there was room for growth in his top-half, and that contributed to some lost velocity in later innings. However, he dominated across three levels, with a 23.9 percent K-BB rate over 103.2 innings. He would win the Paul Owens Award for the best pitcher in the Phillies organization at the end of the 2013 season. Out of the bullpen, he could reportedly hit as high as 94 mph with the fastball.
He spent the entirety of the 2014 season with the double-A Reading Phillies, and the 21-year old struggled for the first time in his young career. In a June 2014 scouting report, Eric Longenhagen reported clean mechanics and a loose arm from Gonzalez, who he estimated was now “at least 10 pounds more than [153 pounds].” He also reported an inconsistent arm slot, a 87-91 mph fastball, and now, an above-average cutter.
During this time, the Phillies now desired for Severino to improve his changeup, and per Baseball America ($), took away his cutter to force him to focus on the pitch. By the end of the year, they labelled the offspeed pitch as “average”, but the loss of strikeouts and increase in home runs meant his stat line suffered as a result. His breaking pitch was not referenced in any of the scouting reports I could find during this season.
Gonzalez was promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to begin 2015, and after three starts, was promoted to the Majors. At this point, Baseball America referenced a low-90s fastball with cutting action, an average change-up, and a breaking pitch. Upon reaching the Majors, Gonzalez was what could only be described as “shellacked”, and subsequently demoted, after allowing 5 home runs, 44 hits, and 27 runs in only 30.2 innings pitched.
However, we were now armed with PitchFX data. In his seven start audition, he relied heavily on an 89.9 mph fourseam fastball, with his changeup as the primary secondary pitch. He did throw 66.2 percent of his pitches for strikes, but basically everything he threw in the zone was hit hard. Following his demotion, he struggled for the remainder of the Triple-A season.
With the start of the 2016 season, Gonzalez was converted to relief, a transition he was reportedly comfortable with. It makes sense that he might have more success in that role – it eliminates the lost velocity in later innings, and it’s been previously reported that his stuff plays up in shorter stints. In the Minors, Gonzalez recovered some of his strikeouts and saw an increase in groundballs out of the bullpen, and was recalled on Friday following the demotion of Colton Murray.
He debuted that night in relief of Adam Morgan, and even though he had clearly added even more weight to his frame, surprised everyone with the velocity he displayed. It is only one outing, but Friday night, he averaged 94 mph with his fastball. He used his breaking ball as his main secondary offering, generated a whiff with that pitch, and got two strikeouts in his 1.2 inning appearance.
Aside from the velocity, his seemingly raised, uniform arm slot will be something to monitor moving forward. The home announcers repeatedly mentioned the increase in velocity throughout his first two batters, as two of his fastballs hit 95, and on a shocking strike three, 96.5 mph.
He’s come a long way in the five years since his signing – what was once an undersized, mid-80s tossing 18 year old is now 23 year old big leaguer hitting 96 mph on the corner. Let’s take a look at his progression below (note: different sources vary wildly on whether he throws a slider or a curveball, and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just refer to it as a breaking pitch).
|Year||Velocity||Main Secondary (Grade)||Other (Grade)|
|2011||Mid 80s||?? (??)||–|
|2012||89 mph||Breaking (50)||–|
|2013||86-91 mph; t92 mph (t94 mph in relief)||Breaking (50)||Changeup (40)|
|2014||88-91 mph; t92 mph||Changeup (40)/Cutter (55)||Breaking (50)|
|2015||88-91 mph; t93.5 mph||Changeup (50)||Breaking (50)|
|2016 (Single outing)||93-95 mph; t96.5 mph||Breaking (50)||Changeup (??)|
He’s probably going to keep being used in a multiple inning capacity, but if he can keep reaching similar velocity in shorter stints, there might actually be some higher-leverage situations in his future. That’s pretty good for a old, mid-80s sitting, $14,000 signing out of Panama. And it’s a fascinating study in player development.