How Gio Gonzalez became the 'Houdini' the Nationals rotation needed

Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez is a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate, one whose numbers in 2017 are much better than they were a year ago, even though his peripherals (strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed) are about the same, or even worse.

The sabermetrician might scream "It's luck!" -- especially when you show them Gonzalez's numbers with runners in scoring position.

In 2016, opponents hit .333 with runners in scoring position, the highest batting average against ERA title qualifiers in the major leagues. This season, they're hitting .150, which is the second lowest such batting average in baseball.

Gonzalez's manager, Dusty Baker, referred to Gonzalez's escapes as "Houdini" in nature. But there's method to the magic.

Dig in on Gonzalez's numbers in those situations the past two seasons, and you'll notice a cause-and-effect relationship that has helped considerably.

The cause: He's pitching a little differently with runners in scoring position, especially to right-handed hitters, jamming them more often and coming in tighter than he previously had.

"It's a little bit by design," said Nationals catcher Matt Wieters. "That watching from the outside is something I thought he could do a little bit more of. He has such great command. Any time a hitter has to cheat to get to an inside pitch, that opens up the offspeed pitch for him. He has the ability to make hitters guess, which is what you want to do as a pitcher."

The effect: He's inducing more ground balls in these situations to the left side of the infield, patrolled by Anthony Rendon at third base and Trea Turner at shortstop.

When Turner was hurt, cannon-armed rookie Wilmer Difo filled in. Whatever the combo, it offers considerably more range than second baseman Daniel Murphy (who ranks last at that position in defensive runs saved) and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Gonzalez had gotten hurt multiple times last season by plays not made on balls hit to the right side. This year, that hasn't been an issue because not much has been hit there.

How big is the gap between the Nationals' left side and right side? The left side of the infield has combined for 25 defensive runs saved. The right side ranks last in the majors among such combos at -29 runs (although the offensive numbers of Murphy and Zimmerman certainly make up for their defensive issues) .

Simply put, it behooves a Nationals pitcher to get ground balls to shortstop and third base, especially when there are runners on base. And Gonzalez has. Just look at the charts on the right.

"[My runners in scoring position numbers] are a credit to our defense," Gonzalez said. "Rendon is one of the best in the game. [Center fielder] Michael Taylor would be another [Gold Glove candidate.] They're not talked about as much as everyone, but they deserve it."

The other big difference is that Gonzalez has definitely been sharper this season. His percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or faster has dropped from 34 percent in 2016 to 28 percent in 2017, per Statcast.

And the number of batted balls categorized by Statcast as "weak contact" (covering most balls hit with a 60 MPH exit velocity or slower) has jumped from 23 to 40.

All three of Gonzalez's pitches -- fastball, changeup and curveball -- have been on point this season.

Gonzalez has sacrificed fastball velocity (he used to throw 92 to 93, but now throws 90 to 91) and usage (he's cut back on how often he throws it), but still gotten great results.

Gonzalez's changeup has also been outstanding. It's the fourth-most effective in terms of volume of positive outcomes compared to negative outcomes, per Fangraphs Run Value stat.

And when Gonzalez has the best version of his curveball, historically his signature pitch, he's dominant. In the nine starts in which he threw his curveball in the strike zone at the highest rates, he's 7-0 with a 1.60 ERA.

The key is not just in the usage of the pitches, but in the location. Pitching coach Mike Maddux explained the idea of committing to pitches as "Are we going to throw a fastball? Or are we going to throw a fastball here [points up]. Are we going to throw a curveball, or are we going to throw a curveball here [points down]."

"His consistency has been fantastic," said Maddux. "He's consistent in his delivery and in his mindset. He's making his pitches to both sides of the plate, pitching up and down. [The difference] is the commitment to each pitch. It's higher than it was last year."

You may have seen highlights of Gonzalez jumping up and down in the dugout during his last start against the Braves, as the Nationals tied and then took the lead, turning a potential Gonzalez loss into another win. Gonzalez seems to be highly relaxed (he and his wife celebrated the birth of their second child last month) as his season has been so successful.

"He's the most laid-back guy, on his start day, on this team, in that you can carry on conversations with him," Wieters said.

"[I'm most impressed with] his ability not to let the game get to him, his composure out there on the mound," said fellow rotation member Tanner Roark.

The Nationals are fully committed to Gonzalez in a rotation that has high-profile aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Gonzalez has pitched like one, too. He took a no-hit bid into the ninth inning against the Marlins earlier this season. He had a 1.71 ERA over a two-month run from June 30 to Aug. 28 (Difo was filling in at shortstop then). He has a chance to have his best ERA and best WHIP (1.13) of his career. If he can continue his consistency, the Nationals will be in prime position to match up with anyone this postseason.

"We just want the same," Baker said, then added with a laugh. "We'll take a little better, but we'll take the same Gio."