Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez smiles as he tells the story of his mom meeting Jose Contreras this past spring training.
Gonzalez is a first-generation American. His parents defected from Cuba in their younger years, but his mom remembers what a big-time baseball star Contreras was in her native country.
“He was huge in the era when my mom grew up, and they knew a couple of the same families,” Gonzalez said. “She couldn’t believe it was him.”
The 42-year-old Contreras was at Rangers camp trying to extend his career, but was cut midway through the spring. Gonzalez is at the other end of it, 20 years younger than Contreras and in the early stages of what appears to be a promising career.
Gonzalez has reached the Double A level in only a year after the Rangers took him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft. It hasn’t taken him long to show why scouts were so high on him coming out of Oral Roberts last year.
The 6-foot-3 right-hander threw five scoreless innings of one-hit ball in his Double A debut at Frisco on Tuesday, and he is scheduled to make his second start Sunday in Corpus Christi.
“It catches me off-guard to get to this level already, but it’s awesome,” Gonzalez said. “It means all the hard work I’m putting in is paying off.”
Gonzalez entered the organization after an impressive college career. He was named the Southland Conference pitcher of the year in 2013, going 9-5 with a 1.83 ERA as a senior. He also had the second-most strikeouts in the country with 126.
Gonzalez has been able to translate that success into his pro career. He’s a combined 6-2 with a 2.43 ERA over 12 starts this season between High A Myrtle Beach and Frisco, and has 55 strikeouts to 16 walks over 70 1/3 innings.
“Pro ball has been everything I’ve ever heard of,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been fun. I feel like it’s a college team again all over. There’s a good clubhouse bond and just having fun all the time.”
Pitching well makes it easier to enjoy, of course.
Gonzalez has a legitimate four-pitch mix with a fastball that sits in the mid-90 mph range, along with a curveball, slider and changeup. The changeup has made the biggest difference.
It’s no secret that a changeup is almost a necessity for most pitchers in the big leagues to keep hitters off-balance, and the Rangers stressed that to Gonzalez from Day 1.
Gonzalez didn’t throw a changeup in college, and it wasn’t an easy pitch to learn. It took time and countless repetitions to find a grip, release point and feel for it. But he’s seen firsthand what an impact it can make.
“When they first told me I had to throw a changeup, I was in shock,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t throw it at all in college — at all. They instilled in me that I had to throw it, and I’ve gotten a lot more confident with it. Now, I throw it whenever I want.
“I’m happy that they forced me to do it, and I’m doing it now.”
That’s part of the reason the organization felt it was time to push Gonzalez up another level and see how he handles it.
“He has a chance to get guys out in a variety of ways,” said Mike Daly, the senior director of minor-league operations. “We think he has the stuff, he has the command and he has the feel. When you have all those, you have a chance to be a very good pitcher and felt he was ready for this challenge at Frisco.”