Is Marco Gonzales The Seattle Mariners’ Ace?

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Last week, the Seattle Mariners announced a four-year contract extension for their best pitcher, Marco Gonzales. The new $30 million contract begins in 2021 and will see him play for the Mariners through at least the 2024 season.

In the 2019 season, Gonzales started 34 ballgames and earned 16 wins, which ties him for 1st in starts and 8th in wins, placing him nicely alongside other top throwers in the league in those statistics.

Gonzales, who was traded to the Mariners in 2017 by the St. Louis Cardinals for Tyler O’Neill, has become the most consistent and effective arm in the M’s dugout. Compared to other Mariners pitchers last year, Gonzales was the only one to throw more than 200 innings and hold a sub-.400 ERA.

THE “ACE” DEBATE

A year ago, I was debating a coworker about whether or not Gonzales was the team’s ace. Back then, I felt that as the team’s best starting pitcher, he deserved the designation. My coworker said that even though he may be the team’s best, he still wasn’t good enough for the honor.

Essentially, the status of ace could either refer to the best pitcher on each team or an elite tier of accomplished pitchers across the league, with some teams possessing one (or maybe even two!) and most other teams not.

If you believe it’s the former, and we should call the best starting pitcher on each team the ace (likely the pitcher with the honor of being named the opening day starter), then Marco Gonzales is unequivocally the Mariners’ ace.

However, if you think it’s the latter, and any pitcher could be an ace if they have the merits, then some assessment must be made. But since there’s no clear or defined metric by which an “ace” can be measured, it’s not so simple.

What feats does an ace need to accomplish to qualify? Strikeouts? ERA? Or maybe it’s something more conceptual, like a pitcher’s dominance on the diamond.

MEASURING MARCO

I suppose the first way to answer this question is to look at where Gonzales lands on the end-of-season rankings. According to online statistical rankings, these were the top pitchers in four critical categories, with Gonzales’ rank and stats below for context:

STRIKEOUTS

1.          Cole                      HOU    326

2.          Verlander          HOU    300

3.          Bieber                  CLE      259

61.       Gonzales            SEA      147

WINS

1.          Verlander          HOU    21

2.          Cole                      HOU    20

3.          Rodriguez          BOS     19

8.          Gonzales            SEA      16

ERA (Earned Run Average)

1.          Ryu                        LAD     2.32

2.          deGrom              NYM    2.43

3.          Cole                      HOU    2.50

37.       Gonzales            SEA      3.99

WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

1.          Verlander          HOU    7.8

2.          Minor                  TEX      7.8

3.          Lynn                     TEX      7.6

34.       Gonzales            SEA      3.2

It’s not hard to see that outside of wins, Gonzales fails to even come close to measuring up to the league’s top arms on some of the top teams. But as we all know, different pitchers work and succeed in different ways—over-powering fastballs vs deceptive off-speed sliders—and Gonzales’ game has always been built more on pitch-speed changes and soft-contact than strikeouts. So, while these stats might make it hard to give him the rank of ace outright, there may be more to consider.

For example, the defensive quality of the other eight ballplayers on the field with the pitcher could dramatically affect how many batters who make contact actually reach first base or beyond. Moreover, a pitcher like Gonzales, whose team is in the middle of a full-scale rebuild, may be more affected than others in this regard.

To that end, another way to evaluate Gonzales against other pitchers is to look at those on the worst teams, rather than the best.

At the bottom of the MLB, the Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, and the Detroit Tigers all failed to clear 60 wins (Mariners had 68) in the 2019 season. And by those same key metrics, their top-ranked pitchers (again with Gonzales’ rank and stats below for context) were:

STRIKEOUTS

11.       Boyd                     DET      238

37.       Smith                   MIA     168

40.       Junis                     KC        164

43.       Bundy                  BAL      162

61.       Gonzales            SEA      147

ERA (Earned Run Average)

23.       Means                  BAL      3.60

29.       Alcantara           MIA     3.88

42.       Keller                   KC        4.19

54.       Boyd                     DET      4.56

37.       Gonzales            SEA      3.99

WINS

41.       Means                  BAL      12

66.       Smith                   MIA     10

76.       Boyd                     DET      9

79.       Junis                     KC        9

8.          Gonzales            SEA      16

WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

19.       Means                  BAL      4.5

27.       Boyd                     DET      3.5

36.       Alcantara           MIA     3.1

49.       Keller                   KC        2.6

34.       Gonzales            SEA      3.2

So, more of a mixed bag in terms of where Gonzales ranks against these starters than the first group, but again, only in the WINS category does he truly standout. While members of the Every-Team-Gets-An-Ace camp would, by definition, say that Gonzales warrants the title, based on these rough assessments, if you think it’s a more merit-based honor, he’s almost certainly not.

Now, taking a moment to consider a pitcher’s dominance as the determining factor—which is obviously more difficult to evaluate—to me, a dominating pitcher is one that opposing batters dread to face.  While that’s certainly subjective, no matter which way you try to measure dominance; complete games, WHIP, K/9, etc., Gonzales comes up short (N/A, 41st, 58th). In fact, outside of total wins or starts, it’s hard to make the ace case in earnest.

But what if it’s more about the eyeball test, and you just know it when you see it? I don’t know if he’s there either.

In the 2018 season, I attended James Paxton’s first game back after from some time away with an injury. Facing the fearsome Colorado Rockies lineup and on a limited pitch count, Big Maple pounded the strike zone all night with upper-90’s speed. If memory serves, it was multiple innings into the game before he even threw a ball. It was impressive, imposing, and without question, dominant.

By comparison to that, even if you squint your eyes and whisper “ace” over and over again, it’s hard to say Gonzales is eligible. Looks like my coworker was right.

ACE OFF THE FIELD

The Mariners are currently rebuilding their team from top to bottom and, to me, it looks like Gonzales isn’t being asked to be an ace, even if he could. Instead, the four-year contract from the M’s rewards and retains his other winning attributes. These thoughts from the Mariners’ leadership clearly communicate that they see far more in Gonzales than just a talented arm.

“Since joining the Mariners, Marco has been a model of consistency, quietly ranking among the most productive starting pitchers in the AL.” Jerry Dipoto, Mariners general manager then added, “His presence, competitiveness, preparation and leadership make him a key part of our future.”

“He’s doing everything you’d want him to do when he takes the ball.” Scott Servais, team manager went on to say, “But, even sometimes more important with this group, on the four other days when he’s not on the mound, he’s doing the right thing.” He then added, “Marco understands where we’re at. He’s been reaching out to the guys. He knows there’s going to be a young staff, and he’s ready to lead it.”

As this team undergoes their rebuild, constructing a competitive roster of hitters and pitchers to ultimately push for the AL West in 2021 or 2022, Gonzales’ value is twofold. First, in his consistency and winning spirit on the mound, and second, in his leadership and presence in the clubhouse.

While he may not be an ace yet, or ever, he may be the perfect foundational pitcher for a team in transition to build upon. The Mariners are a roster composed of young ballplayers who are all in need of compelling examples of leadership if they’re going to find any level of success. And Gonzales embodies that through and through.

Considering the recent coordinated team cheating by the Houston Astros, seeing the Mariners prioritize players who exemplify not just a winning culture but a positive team culture is a very smart decision. By rewarding players who personify the characteristics you desire, you incentivize other players to model those same qualities within themselves.

And that’s important, maybe even more important in the quest for a World Series Championship than who is the team’s ace. And for Mariners fans like me, who want to see our team develop into a real contender, I think Marco Gonzales is an ideal pitcher to secure and build upon in pursuit of that goal.

Go Mariners!

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About Author

Jon Aiken

Born and raised in Seattle, Jon developed a deep love for the Mariners and Seahawks and continues to watch, analyze, and discuss them on a daily basis. As a professional advertising copywriter, the blending of these two loves (sports/words) seemed like a natural creative evolution. He recently moved south to Tacoma, fully embracing his new hometeam, the Rainers.

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