Marco Gonzales got to the big leagues in a hurry. Drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals out of Gonzaga University in 2013, he was in St. Louis 12 months later. And he more than held his own. Pitching for a division winner, the crafty southpaw appeared in 10 games and went 4-2 with a 4.15 ERA. Thanks in part to a mesmerizing changeup that many had considered to be one of the best in the minors, his future looked bright.
Then it dimmed. Shoulder issues hampered Gonzales in 2015, and then things got worse. Burdened by a barking elbow, the Fort Collins, Colorado, product succumbed to Tommy John surgery in April 2016. Fate had thrown a monkey wrench into what had started off as a shooting-star career.
Smoothing out the kinks has taken some time. Gonzales returned to the mound last summer, and while his minor-league numbers were solid, he logged a 6.08 ERA in 11 big-league outings covering 40 innings. The bulk of those frames came with a new team. In July, the Cardinals traded the now-26-year-old offspeed specialist to Seattle in exchange for Tyler O’Neill.
Gonzales discussed his signature pitch, and his return to health, last week at the Mariners spring training complex in Peoria.
Gonzales on returning to health: “The obvious speed bump in the road was Tommy John, almost two years ago. Coming back from that, I’m finally getting my repertoire to where I want it to be. I feel a lot more confident in my arm now. It feels as if I’ve gotten a breath of fresh air and a second attack to my career.
“My command is easier this spring. I don’t have to fight to locate, which I did a little bit last year. It’s funny. Last year, I thought I was about 85% back, but looking at it from where I am now, it was closer to 60-70%. Now I think I’m 90-95%. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
“The strides have been both [mental and physical]. Physically, finding a more natural groove in my arm slot, and just building strength, is a huge factor. Mentally, having a healthy season under my belt, plus a restful offseason, helps give me confidence going forward.”
On regaining the feel for his curveball and changeup: “My curveball was probably hurt the most by the layoff. I still had good spin, but being able to command it where I wanted to was out of the question. That was from the lack of repetitions. You come back through the process and build up your arm strength, and you just don’t get enough time to throw it in games. It feels a lot better now than it did a year ago at this time.
“The changeup is something I’ve always been confident in. This offseason, for sure. Building more confidence in my arm in general has allowed me to be more aggressive with my changeup. It’s gotten better, and I think it will continue to get better. It’s the same with all my pitches. The more I throw them, the more comfortable I’m going to be with them.”
On learning and developing his signature pitch: “My dad taught me a changeup when I was eight years old, and I’ve been throwing it ever since. I didn’t throw a curveball growing up. I grew up in Colorado. It’s kind of hard to throw curveballs in that altitude, so I didn’t really learn one until college. But the changeup is something I’ve had my whole life.
“It has changed a little bit over the years. I’ve messed with different grips. I started throwing a circle in high school. Before that, I threw a three-finger changeup. Arm-speed wise, this is something I’ve had to develop over a long period of time.”
On his changeup grip: “It’s a circle changeup. I kind of throw it with my fingertips. My hand is off the ball a little bit, and I throw it as hard as I can. The grip really takes the speed off. I don’t go across the seams. I go right on the face. My thumb and my [index] finger meet on the side of the ball, and then my middle, ring, and pinky finger kind of sit off to the side.
“It’s the most pronated pitch I have, for sure. My thumb and my index finger are one point of pressure, and again, the other three fingers kind of rest. They’re really soft on the ball. That allows me to throw it hard and also take velocity off.”
On speed differential: “I like the [velocity differential] to be about 10 mph, although sometimes it’s been 12. I’d say that’s a good gap for me. It’s kind of the industry goal as far as changeup differentials of speed. At the same time, it really depends on what you’re trying to do and how much it moves. I’ve been known to throw them slower. I’ve been known to throw them harder in the zone. It kind of depends on the moment, honestly.
“I feel I have a lot of control over the speeds on my changeup. More than I did last year, for sure. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot. Being able to throw three different kinds of changeups, speed-wise, is something that’s going help me be more unpredictable. How I change the speed is all about the grips and pressure. The way I throw it, the less pressure you put on the ball, the slower it’s going to go.”
On movement and usage: “I get sink and a little bit of arm-side run with my change. I want more sink than run, because that’s more impactful for getting ground balls, getting quick outs, and getting guys in swing mode faster. That’s kind of my goal with it. More run usually means that I’m not getting on top of the ball. If it’s running sideways more than it’s dropping, I’m going to try to change that.
“How often I want to throw it depends on the situation, and on the hitter. But I’d like to throw it as much as I can. It’s definitely one of my better pitches. With the help of my curveball, and fastball location… I feel that I have a lot of weapons. So while I’d like to throw it a bunch, I’m not going to rely on it to get all of my outs.”
On optimizing his repertoire: “I throw both two- and four-seam fastballs, and I’d say I use them pretty equally. I try to mix them up. The velocity is about the same. I’ve occasionally thrown my two-seam softer so that it drops more, but I generally throw them equally hard. It sinks a little and has a little bit of run. My four-seam is pretty straight with maybe a little bit of run at the end.
“Your best pitch becomes better when you have other pitches around it to make it better. The pitches that set up your changeup are really important. The more that I can locate my fastball and my curveball, the better my changeup will be. Now that I’m getting closer to 100%, I’m confident that I can do that going forward.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.