Like the Orioles' top high school picks before him, Brian Gonzalez earned aggressive placement into the full-season South Atlantic League with the Delmarva Shorebirds.
Unlike predecessors Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy, who also followed that path in their first full seasons out of high school, Gonzalez doesn't possess the kind of overpowering fastball that lets them dominate that level.
He seems to like it that way.
"I wasn't a guy that would throw 95, 96 [mph] like all these other guys, so when you throw that hard, you can miss a couple times and get away with it," Gonzalez said. "When I'm out there, I can't miss that much. I throw low 90s — reasonable — but I'm not going to blow it by guys consistently, so I knew my main focus was commanding my fastball. … I understood that at a young age."
Gonzalez isn't a soft thrower — his fastball sits 88-92 mph — and can locate a changeup and curveball. But the Orioles sacrificed two of their first three draft picks in 2014 to sign pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and outfielder Nelson Cruz, and sent the third to the Houston Astros to acquire pitcher Bud Norris. So the high-upside type of player who typically leads a draft class wasn't available at No. 90.
What the Orioles got instead was something just as valuable — a mature pitcher with the same strike-throwing approach the organization likes in its system. Gonzalez learned that at one of the best baseball schools in Florida.
Gonzalez served as the closer at Archbishop McCarthy as a sophomore, supporting a pitching staff that had three players drafted that year, including Cincinnati Reds first-round pick Nick Travieso. When he entered the rotation the next year, coach Rick Bielski said Gonzalez, who they still call "Big B," was already drilled in the art of pitching, not throwing.
"Some of our tremendous arms that have a lot of strikeouts, they throw a lot more pitches," Bielski said. "Big B, he was a combination of both. He learned to pitch before he could start really blowing people away, and really honing in on his accuracy of his pitches and his control. He really had the best of both worlds."
After games, the coaching staff would bang pitchers over the head with the peripheral numbers behind their last appearance to drive the point home.
"Our charting system is extremely detailed," Bielski said. "The next day [after starts], we're hitting these kids with all the data — how many first-pitch strikes, how many off-speed were strikes, strike percentage for curveball, changeup, fastball. A lot of times, we pitch to contact. We don't want that strikeout."
So as Gonzalez helped his team put together two more deep state playoff runs, he did so not with the pervasive "showcase" mindset for young pitchers, who aim to throw as hard and blow hitters away for strikes, but with a confidence to attack the strike zone instilled in him by assistant coach Alex Fernandez.
"My junior year, I first started starting, I got it to click because I wasn't throwing 94-95 like them," Gonzalez said. "That's when I really started thinking, 'Let me locate, that's when I'll work my way up.'"
He did just that, impressing the bevy of scouts in all of his starts with his fastball-changeup-curveball arsenal and a 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame that appears to already be that of a major leaguer.
He overmatched hitters in the Gulf Coast League after he was drafted last year, allowing just a single unearned run in 24 2/3 innings over eight starts before allowing five runs in nine innings over two starts for short-season Class-A Aberdeen.
Through four starts for Class-A Delmarva this year, Gonzalez is 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA. He struck out a career-high eight batters on April 26 over five shutout innings. Earlier that week at Hagerstown, Gonzalez battled through five innings in a start he said betrayed his strike-throwing philosophy at times.
Gonzalez walked two in a two-run first inning before he began to exhibit the union of his own fastball-command approach and the Orioles' organization-wide mandate to work low in the strike zone with his fastball.
"They love my ability to locate my fastball," he said. "When it's down in the zone, you can ask any pitcher that when your fastball is down in the zone, you get ground balls and then all the other pitches work. It's not just me personally, it's pitching in general."
Shorebirds manager Ryan Minor said working that philosophy successfully will allow for the 19-year-old left-hander to succeed in a league that features older, more mature hitters than Gonzalez.
"He's not a power pitcher, so he's going to have to make sure he's good with his secondary stuff and his changeup is working, and he's pitching off his fastball to be able to compete at higher levels," Minor said.
"He's had some innings where he's kind of lost feel for his breaking ball, but that happens to every kid at his age. He's locating his fastball, and you don't have to be as sharp with your secondary stuff. But for him to be successful, he's going to have to make sure that every night he goes out and he pitches off his fastball and uses his secondary stuff to get those hitters off his fastball.
"Again, he's not a mid-to-upper 90s guy, so he's going to have to make sure he's pitching to the part of his plate that he's looking to hit, and he's not leaving balls over the plate consistently."