There are so many cases of pitchers throwing perfect games or no-hitters at the major league level only to watch their careers come apart just a short time later. After they had reached the pinnacle, it’s understandable that they would have an overinflated sense of their talent and begin to get complacent, and considering how hard it is to be a major league pitcher to begin with, that overconfidence could very well be a pitcher’s downfall. When a no-hitter happens in the minor leagues, though, the events that follow are even more critical for the pitcher in question. They may have achieved greatness for one start, but it came in the minors and have a long way to go before fulfilling their dream of pitching in the big leagues. Roberto Gomez had an unbelievable start on Wednesday, not tossing a no-hitter but going 9 innings allowing just one hit, striking out 6 while walking 2. It was his first complete game and shutout as a professional, and what a game it was. However, it means nothing if it’s the best we will ever see Gomez pitch. For Gomez, it can’t be the peak of his performance, but instead only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how well he pitch.
In 2012, Roberto Gomez had an excellent season, going 9-3 with a 2.48 ERA, second best in the Low-A Midwest League, in 22 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 120 innings pitched. Even after a season like that, though, many people dismissed it as simple luck and he wasn’t considered a great pitching prospect. After signing out of the Dominican Republic as a 20 year old in 2010, Gomez was not young for Low-A at 22 years old in 2013, and more alarmingly, his peripheral statistics were not nearly as impressive as his gaudy ERA. He struck out just 5.9 batters per 9 innings while walking 3.2 per 9, failing to register a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. And while he had allowed only 0.2 home runs per 9 innings, tied for the second-best mark among Midwest League starters, it wasn’t because he was forcing a ton of groundballs (his 44.2% groundball rate according to Minor League Central was exactly league average) and was instead because just 2.6% of the outfield flyballs he allowed went for home runs, less than a third of the league average of 8.2% and a fluke that seemed unlikely to persist. The numbers just didn’t portray Gomez as a top prospect. And for those who believed in the numbers, this 2013 season could be viewed as a gratification.
Even after his complete-game one-hitter, Gomez’s numbers are still mediocre in his 15 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 83 innings pitched for the Rays’ High-A Charlotte affiliate. He has gone just 4-7 with a 5.10 ERA, seeing his strikeout rate dip to just 4.7 batters per 9 innings while his BB/9 and HR/9 have stood at 3.0 and 0.5 respectively. His groundball rate has slipped to 31.5% as he has become an extreme flyball pitcher, and the question as to whether his homer rate will eventually spike only makes his numbers look worse. But here’s the thing about Gomez: his stuff wouldn’t make you dismiss him as the fringe-prospect that his numbers say he is. Gomez is 6’5″, 178, a lean frame but as projectable as you would think considering he has been at around that height and weight since he signed. But his fastball touches 93 MPH with late life, his slider features sharp late break, and his changeup shows flashes.
When Charlotte manager Brady Williams talked about Gomez following the one-hitter, he praised him not for having overpowering stuff, but instead for commanding all three of his pitches. That’s where Gomez is at right now as a pitcher. He’s not striking out many hitters and winning or losing games based on whether the contact he allows ends up in fielders’ gloves because his pure stuff comes and goes. His fastball will touch 92-93 MPH, but it will dip into the high-80′s at times. His slider can be a strikeout offering, but it also gets slurvy too often. And his changeup flashes some downward movement, but he hasn’t yet harnessed it on a consistent basis. Because of the state of his three offerings, Gomez hasn’t only struggled to strike out batters but has also had his issues with right-handed batters despite being a right-handed pitching, allowing a .279/.349/.461 line against them in 2013 compared to .243/.306/.369 by lefties. He was noticeably better against lefties as well even in his breakout 2012. Gomez isn’t comfortable throwing either of his secondary pitches to right-handed batters at this point, leaving him to only his fastball as a reliable pitch and resulting in just a 29.1% groundball rate. Just one pitcher in the Florida State League has a lower groundball rate against righties, and it’s unsurprising that 7 of the 10 lowest are left-handed.
This one-hitter doesn’t change even remotely the fact that Roberto Gomez has a long way to go in his development as a pitcher. He has to bulk up to help him sustain his fastball velocity, and he has to vastly improve both of his secondary pitches. There’s a reason that the numbers make him look like barely a prospect, and if he doesn’t start improving he will end up going nowhere. But this one great game has the ability to be the moment that changes everything, that flash of greatness that makes Gomez realize just how he can be and how much he needs to work to get there. If he can throw a one-hitter with mediocre stuff, imagine how good he can be with all of his pitches blowing away hitters? That’s the dream. Let’s see if this start can be what makes Gomez finally begin to work towards there.