The Braves entered the 2018 season with a plethora of rotation options at or close to the major league level, with one of those being left-hander Luiz Gohara. The 21-year-old debuted in Atlanta last season, and impressed with a lethal fastball-slider combination that helped him rack up 31 strikeouts in 29.1 innings and post a 2.75 FIP. Heading into the offseason, it was easy to see how Gohara could have been considered a lock to break camp as a member of the major league rotation, but in the midst of preparing for that next step, the Brazil and his family were met with a tragic loss when Luiz’ father unexpectedly passed away in December. Thus began a series of unfortunate events that led to Gohara being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday, but the move may signal that the Braves finally have a concrete plan for their prized young arm moving forward.
After dealing with the loss of his father, Gohara reported to Spring Training in February, only to be sidelined with a sprained ankle that kept him out for the entirety of the Grapefruit League schedule and the first month of the regular season. The Braves put Gohara through a mock Spring Training that culminated with his return for multiple rehab starts in Gwinnett before joining the Atlanta bullpen in early May. Gohara appeared in four games, starting one, before being placed on the bereavement list on May 25 when his mother underwent heart surgery in Brazil. On June 3, Gohara was reinstated onto the major league roster, where he has solely been utilized a reliever. Since his return, Gohara has allowed nine earned runs on nine hits in 4.2 innings of work.
With Gohara showing poorly as a reliever in his limited time with the major league club this season, the necessity for the Braves to make a change prompted the demotion of the left-hander on Sunday. Pitching in Gwinnett will allow Gohara to both rehabilitate his confidence and increase his pitching stamina in the coming weeks, which could facilitate a mid-season call-up if this venture proves successful. Gohara has shown himself to be a capable major league starter, and a return to the rotation could be very beneficial, both for a Braves team in the midst of a pennant race and for a recovering young pitcher with star potential.
Though his limitless potential is enticing, a very disturbing trend for Gohara has formed, (aside from his general ineffectiveness since joining the major league team earlier this season) as he has seen a fairly severe drop in fastball velocity around each different stint of inactivity. Braves beat writer Mark Bowman broke down the changes in velocity for Gohara from last season to this season, then divided his 2018 velocities between pre-bereavement and post-bereavement:
Gohara's 4-seam fastball average velocity— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) June 17, 2018
2017: 96.4 mph
2018: 94.1 mph
This year before his bereavement leave: 94.4 mph
Since returning: 93.3 mph
The issues Gohara has dealt with off the field could certainly have some effect on his demeanor and overall focus on pitching, but the decline in velocity from a season ago would seem inexplicable. The most puzzling aspect of his steep decline is that most pitchers see an uptick in velocity when they are moved to the bullpen to pitch in shorter spurts, allowing them to exert more effort into each pitch. In this case, Gohara may be changing his mechanics in some way, or he could still be dealing with an injury related to the sprained ankle that sidelined him during Spring Training. Whatever the issue, a move to Gwinnett and a fresh start would seem to be the best possible outcome for Gohara in the short-term as the Braves attempt to re-introduce him to the role he thrived in a season ago.
There is no way of knowing how long Gohara may need in Gwinnett to prepare as a starting pitcher, but recent struggles have amplified the necessity for him to be utilized correctly in the future. A demotion is rarely a sign of good things to come, but in this case, it could be exactly what is necessary for the Braves to add a dangerous weapon at mid-season, and to give one of their most-prized assets a necessary reboot. After such a traumatizing few months, Luiz Gohara has become one of the easiest players in baseball to root for this season, and while it may be some time before he rejoins the big club, he will be a name worth monitoring in the coming weeks.