Kevin Gausman’s Long Ball Struggles
Kevin Gausman was a bit of an enigma last season. The top prospect started the season in Double-A Bowie, but spent more time in the major leagues than at any other level. In AA Gasuman put up a 3.11 ERA over 46.1 IP, more than earning his promotion to Triple-A. There he struggled a little against more experienced hitters, putting up a 4.04 ERA over 35.2 IP. Gausman then made his MLB debut on May 23rd, giving up 4 runs over 5 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. It wasn’t exactly the performance many hoped he’d put up, but he showed flashes of the dominance he’s capable of.
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Gausman though only made 5 starts at the MLB level, and spent some time bouncing around between the majors and the minors. All in all he threw 47.2 IP over 20 appearances, 5 of them starts. He ended the year with a 5.66 ERA which left many fans disappointed, hoping he wasn’t another vaunted pitching prospect that couldn’t deliver in the majors.
That ERA is misleading though, and there are a couple of reasons why. The first hint of this is that Gausman’s FIP (3.99) and xFIP (3.04) suggest that he was much better than that. These factors primarily focus on factors the pitcher can control, suggesting that Gausman’s inflated ERA was at least partially driven up by bad luck.
There seems to be a little something to this, as Gausman’s BABIP was .328, certainly higher than we’d expect for a player with his kind of stuff. The leaguve average BABIP was just .294 in 2013, so you can see that Gausman’s BABIP was much higher than the league. That said, we should not expect him to post a BABIP at the league average next year, pitcher BABIP tends to be more stable than a hitter’s BABIP, but we should expect that number to move closer to .300 simply because it was so high last year.
Gausman also gave up a home run on nearly 20% of fly balls last year, which also is very high. Gausman’s HR/FB% of 18.6% was 8.1% higher than the league average of just 10.5%. For some perspective, it’s worth noting that only 9 pitchers posted HR rates higher than Kevin Gausman last year.
The first question is, why did Gausman give up so many home runs last year. The easy answer is that he pitched up in the zone a lot, resulting in a lot of flyballs and home runs. We have seen with Chris Tillman that pitching down in the zone more can help reduce home run rates, so this makes sense intuitively. Gausman however, does not really have a problem with pitching up in the zone too much. In fact, he pitches down in the zone on a very regular basis, as you can see below.
The only pitches that are up in the zone in any quantity are pitches high and inside to right-handed hitters (the top left boxes) which are likely not going for home runs. So if Gausman is keeping the ball down pretty effectively, what else could be a culprit?
The next suspicion is that Gausman has a flat fastball, which means that hitters are squaring him up very easily. The easiest way to see if that’s an issue is to look at the movement he gets on his fastball and sinker, to see if the pitch doesn’t move much. Below I’ve done just that, with Gausman’s 4-seam fastball and sinker plotted by horizontal and vertical movement.
For context, below is a graph of the same data for Doug Fister, renowned groundball pitcher, and owner of a HR/FB% in the single digits. You can clearly see that overall the two pitchers look awfully similar.
Fister gets a bit more drop on his fastball and sinker than Gausman does, but Gausman actually has more significant horizontal movement than Fister. Gausman’s pitch drops less than Fister’s because it has more backspin, which reduces drop but increases the likelihood for a swing and miss. The disparity here isn’t tiny, but Fister is a very GB prone pitcher, while Gausman is quite the opposite. Gausman will always have higher flyball rates, but he makes up for it with strikeouts (Gausman strikes out 2.5 more batters per 9 innings than Fister).
The next best step is to look at where the home runs are coming from. A chart of the strikezone highlighting the isolated power for batters gives us an idea of why Gausman might be struggling.
You can see a bright stripe of red right down the middle of the zone, and a couple of bright spots on the left hand side of the zone. Those two zones are likely poor luck for the most part. The red zone below the middle of the strikezone is also likely inflated due to poor luck. The zones down the middle of the strikezone though, those are an issue.
Keith Law mentions this in his profile of Gausman prior to last season, stating:
There are a handful of things to clear for him to project as a No. 1 starter, notably keeping the fastball out of the middle of the plate in hitters’ counts, but I could safely project him as a No. 2 guy who’s among the top 25 or so starters in his league.
Bolded above is the portion in question. It seems likely that Gausman will become a better MLB pitcher with just two changes next season. The first is a reversal of some of the poor luck that plagued him last year. Many times Gausman would make good pitches that just got hit hard. The second is that Gausman needs to work on not leaving balls in the middle of the plate.
Last season Kevin Gausman had a K/9 of 9.25 and a BB/9 of 2.45. That gives him a K/BB ratio of 3.77 which compares very favorably to the league average of 2.51. This may sound counter-intuitive, but my recommendation to Kevin Gausman would actually be to walk more batters. Well, not exactly. Rather than challenging hitters and fearing walks, Gausman should pitch to the edges more so that batters don’t get as many pitches down the middle. This will lead to more walks, but it will also lead to fewer home runs.
The league average pitcher gives up slightly more ground balls than Gausman (44.5% for the league, 42% for Gausman), but walks more batters (3.01 BB/9 for the league, compared to 2.45 for Gausman), and strikes out fewer batters (7.57 K/9 for the league, 9.25 for Gausman). If Kevin Gausman can pitch to the edges more, he’ll see those home run numbers drop, maybe significantly. Even if he allows an extra walk every other start, the trade off would be worth it, because his strikeout ability neutralizes the extra baserunners.
Kevin Gausman’s debut was somewhat disappointing compared to the ridiculous precedent set by guys like Matt Harvey and Joe Fernandez. He’s still going to be a very good pitcher, and he doesn’t even have to improve that much to get there.