FRISCO, Texas—When Alex "Chi Chi" Gonzalez made his Double-A debut for Frisco on June 10 against Midland, RoughRiders pitching coach Jeff Andrews said that Gonzalez, the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft who was in his first full year of pro ball, was on a limit of five innings or 75 pitches, whichever came first.
That night against the Rockhounds at Dr Pepper Ballpark, Gonzalez went five innings, allowing just one hit while striking out six to win his Texas League debut. His final pitch total was 61, including 38 strikes.
The 6-2, 195-pound righthander has made seven more starts for the ‘Riders since then and overall is 3-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 35 1/3 innings of work with 28 strikeouts and just nine walks. He has hit the 73-pitch mark twice but that is the closest he has come to 75.
Gonzalez’s most recent start came on Friday against Corpus Christi, when he again went five innings, allowing three hits while walking two and striking out four Hooks to earn a no decision. He threw 64 pitches in that outing, 39 for strikes.
And even though he continues to operate under those same limits established when he first arrived in Frisco about six weeks ago, he feels everything has gone well thus far.
"Good, I’m happy with it. I’m getting my innings in and doing whatever I can to help the team out," Gonzalez said.
Part of the thinking in limiting his innings is that the former Oral Roberts standout had already racked up 65 1/3 innings of work with High Single-A Myrtle Beach, where he was 5-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 11 starts before arriving in Frisco.
And should Gonzalez pitch five innings in each of his starts from this point through the end of the regular season, which would mean he makes eight or nine more starts, then he could finish the regular season with somewhere in the area of 75 or 80 innings of work for Frisco, which would make his total for the year between 140 and 145 innings of work before Frisco starts the Texas League Playoffs in September.
Thus far, Gonzalez has pitched longer than five innings only once for Frisco and that came on July 7 when he went 5 1/3 at Northwest Arkansas. He admits there hasn’t been much if any discussion about him pitching deeper into games, so he just continues going about his business and figures if Andrews wants him to go longer, then he will tell him.
"Yeah, early on there was, just me being young and wanting to go out there. There was a discussion early on. He just kept to his guns and kept telling me to just pitch and whenever I’m done, they’ll tell me I’m done," Gonzalez said. "So just have a mindset that I’m going all nine at all times."
But this young starter has no idea of when he is getting close to either limit because there is no advanced notice from Andrews that his pitch count is getting close to 75 or that he is nearing his ceiling of five innings.
Instead, Gonzalez usually finds out he’s reached that limit when Andrews visits the mound to take him out of the game.
"Yeah, he just comes out and says you’re done. When I first got here, he told me this is my limit, this and that. But after that, I just never asked him. I’ve never asked him from there and he’s never told me, so I just go out there, pitch until I get the handshake saying I’m done," Gonzalez said.
But there is of course a bigger picture to consider here, something past the idea of pitch count and having a managed workload for this young starter. And that is the fact that Andrews has been quite pleased with how well Gonzalez has pitched thus far and likes what he has brought to Frisco’s rotation.
In fact, Andrews said his current group of hurlers represents the best collection of pure strike-throwers he’s seen, a group Gonzalez is most definitely a big part of.
"Yeah, his delivery is simple. His arm stroke is simple. He’s going to throw it over. I’m not concerned about him being erratic or wild," Andrews said. "When he won’t throw it over, it’s because he’s trying too hard or he’s thinking too much and his mind won’t let him throw it over."
One thing many pitchers or position players for that matter have to learn in their first full year of pro ball is that they have to do some extra things to continue honing their game as they move up in an organization.
Gonzalez has been no different, but Andrews continues to be impressed with the strides he has already made in several areas they have focused on.
"He’s done really good," Andrews said. "He needs to add to what he does. He needs to get the other side of the plate, the arm side of the plate. He needs to draw hitters out and pull them out front with curveballs and change-ups and he needs his fastball on his arm side more consistent and better. He’s doing a really nice job of compartmentalizing what he needs to do on that certain day."
And it’s not like Gonzalez didn’t realize that making the jump from the Carolina League to the Texas League would carry with it plenty of adjustments. The young Florida native says his biggest ones involve making a more concerted effort to keep the ball down because Double-A hitters will definitely make him pay much more frequently for any mistakes left up in the zone than the hitters he faced in either Myrtle Beach or Spokane.
He’s also realized just how much more patient Double-A hitters are compared to their counterparts in High-A. And a nice byproduct of realizing this difference is that Gonzalez has gotten comfortable throwing all of his pitches for strikes, including his changeup, a pitch that he has become so comfortable throwing this year that it might even be close to his slider as his true secondary pitch behind his fastball.
"Yeah, it’s getting close," Andrews said. "I think he saw what that changeup can do for him. I think his slider’s still going to maybe be his secondary pitch. His curveball’s coming along well. He’s kind of turning himself from a one side of the plate guy with the fastball, cutter, slider to opening up more train of thought to see if he can expand to the other side of the plate. We all thought he could and he’s taken to it very well, it’s just the idea and concept of pitching. Rather than just throwing the ball in one spot, as a starting pitcher and a prospect he’s got to be able to do more than that."
Of course, if Gonzalez had his choice or his way, he’d rather be pitching deeper into games. But with Frisco winning the first half title in the South Division, a trip to the postseason is assured and if this young starter is fresh and ready to roll for the playoffs, then that’s clearly something he’s looking forward to experiencing for a second straight year and having him fresh for the postseason could also be a huge asset for a ‘Riders team that is seeking their first Texas League championship in a decade.
"It’s going to be a fun experience. I did it in Myrtle (Beach) last year. I went from Spokane to Myrtle Beach when they were in the playoffs. That’s when it starts all over again. Stats don’t matter anymore. It’s just all about winning. But yeah, it’s going to be great, having this whole team play together in the playoffs and me being part of it, I’m going to be excited," Gonzalez said.