Solving Stephen Gonsalves
Image courtesy of Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY SportsIn his final three appearances for the Twins in 2018 – all coming in relief of an "opener" – Gonsalves threw 12 1/3 innings, faced 50 batters, and allowed four hits. All singles. That's a .098 batting average and a .098 slugging percentage. While it was a small sample, and more than offset by the .414 AVG and .621 SLG he allowed in his first four starts, this unhittable stretch was still noteworthy.
It's noteworthy because it mirrors the formula that brought Gonsalves immense success at every level of the minors. The left-hander has a fairly rare strength working in his favor, and it was on display during an otherwise rough MLB debut: He is very, very hard to square up. And while other aspects of his game may need a lot of work, that's not a bad foundation.
It's important to keep this in mind: Gonsalves has lots of development ahead of him yet. What we saw in 2018 was (hopefully) not the finished product. He's still only 24 and has two options remaining, so through next year, the Twins can shuttle him to Triple-A as needed to work with Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn on the flaws that are holding back his game.
In many ways, Gonsalves is the prototype for a pitcher who takes extra time to reach his potential – tall, long and gangly, with inconsistent mechanics that require extensive refinement. I'm not saying that means he will reach his potential, only that he has those makings.
Control has been an issue for Gonsalves all along, and his wildness came to roost in Minnesota, where he issued 22 walks in 24 2/3 innings of work. In Triple-A his 13.4% BB-rate was the highest out of 35 pitchers to throw 100+ innings. When Gonsalves is outside of the zone, he doesn't really get people to chase, and when he's in the zone he doesn't really get people to miss.
Gonsalves allows quite a bit of contact. But he doesn't allow much loud contact. In 23 outings between Double-A and Triple-A before his call-up in 2018, he held opponents to a .184 average and .283 slugging percentage. He had a six-start stretch from June to July in Rochester where he didn't allow a single extra-base hit. Despite being a heavy fly ball pitcher, he has the same minuscule HR/9 rate in the minors as ground ball specialist extraordinaire Kohl Stewart.
Even though he got knocked around in his first exposure to the majors, yielding a 6.57 ERA and 2.03 WHIP in seven total appearances, Gonsalves allowed just two homers and seven total XBHs while facing 122 total batters. His track record tells us there's nothing fluky about that.
At present, the Twins have an open vacancy in their rotation behind Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda. There are a number of candidates to fill it, and Gonsalves isn't at the front of the line. He's not as good as Fernando Romero and he doesn't have Adalberto Mejia's out-of-options impetus. So, barring injuries, I'd say Gonsalves' chances of winning a job out of camp are very low, even if the Twins don't sign another starter.
But that's just fine. The Twins' mission for the next two seasons – between Wes Johnson, Jeremy Hefner, Cliburn, Mike McCarthy, and the rest of the pitching braintrust – is to iron out the kinks in Gonsalves' game and turning him into a quality option for the back half of the rotation.
The southpaw's weaknesses are evident, but don't sleep on the strengths that carried him to a 2.46 ERA and 6.4 H/9 rate in 600 minor-league innings – as well as a stunningly strong finish in his first big-league season.
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