A Tale of Two Gausmans
By now Baltimore Orioles fans know this to be the truth: There are two Kevin Gausmans.
There is the Dr. Jekyll Kevin Gausman with the lights-out stuff and pin-point control. This Kevin Gausman is the man with as much ace potential as any under-30 pitcher in the bigs. He’s a 27-year-old already making $5.6 million who could earn even bigger money in arbitration over the next two seasons.
But there is also the Mr. Hyde Kevin Gausman who falls in love with his fastball and can’t throw much at all for strikes unless it’s down the middle in a hitter’s count, who wilts under the heat of pressure situations.
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Orioles fans know the two Gausmans all too well, having witnessed it painfully over the last two seasons. He’ll start the season slowly as he adjusts to a new pitch repertoire, figure things out sometime around the All-Star break, then tease everyone with a strong second half, prompting visions of optimism for the following year.
The first two starts of Gausman’s 2018 season played out just like this in microcosm.
It was Mr. Hyde who showed up on April 1 against the Minnesota Twins. Brian Dozier took him deep on the game’s first pitch, Joe Mauer followed with a walk and the nightmare continued from there. After the first inning he handed the Orioles offense a 4-0 hole. He would leave after four innings, surrendering six runs on seven hits, including three bombs. He walked only two, but the control was hardly ideal. Of the 22 batters he faced, 12 started off with a 1-0 count. There were also two wild pitches, one of which scored a run.
On April 6, enter Dr. Jekyll. Gausman’s second start began with a similar feel but progressed much differently. A four-pitch walk to Brett Gardner leading off the game did not bode well, nor did the ensuing plunking of Aaron Judge. But things turned from there. Giancarlo Stanton blooped a jam-shot single in to right field to score a run, then Gausman coaxed three harmless grounders to limit the damage.
The Yankees got another run in the third, this one on another blooper muscled over the infield by Judge, but that was it. Gausman maintained poise – not to mention control over a frightening Yankees lineup – in his five innings, striking out three, walking one and keeping the ball in the yard. Of his 18 outs, 12 came on the ground, no small thing against a lineup possessing such power.
Of course there are rhythms to every season and every pitcher has his ups and downs, but the difference between the two starts is stunning even by Gausman standards. It really illustrates his strengths and weaknesses and could also show signs of a potentially evolving style.
One notable difference between the two starts is the pitch selection. Here are his numbers against the Twins, per Brooks Baseball, with batting average against in parentheses:
Fastball: 66% (.357)
Slider: 16% (.000)
Split: 18% (.400)
Now look at his numbers against the Yankees:
Fastball: 51% (.500)
Slider: 18% (.000)
Split: 31% (.111)
As you can see the slider stayed about the same and remained effective. But it appears that by increasing the split usage at the expense of fastballs actually made the split better and increased his overall effectiveness.
“I just had a really good feel for my off-speed pitches,” Gausman said. “I kind of knew they would be a little wound up. I think every team I face, the book is out on me. Guys know I’m going to throw a lot of fastballs, and usually going to throw a high percentage. Caleb (Joseph) and I talked before the game and knew there were certain guys we were going to have to slow down before we speed them up, but we did a really good job of mixing pitches and making quality pitches in big situations.”
Perhaps this is simply because the Yankees love fastballs and struggled to distinguish between that and the split, but it does seem to suggest a more balanced mix is the way to go. Gausman said the game was “something to build on,” and that could be exactly right.
When looking at the two starts, however, you can’t help but notice another pretty significant difference – location. In particular the location of his fastballs and splitters.
First, the fastball. Here is how it looked on April 1.
As you can see, he stayed mostly down and in to lefties, down and away to righties. You’ll also note that not only are a fair number of pitches outside the strike zone, but they’re not even close. In other words, pitches that batters won’t even be tempted to swing at. You’ll also note that a fair number of pitches catch the middle of the zone, not an area you want to be if you can help it.
Now, let’s look at the fastball chart from April 6.
Isn’t that better? You can see Gausman is targeting the same general region as his first start, only with more success. The wild ones way out of the zone are mostly gone. And while he’s still getting a bit too much of the middle (the Yankees did hit .500 against this pitch) he is generally closer to the corner. This might help explain why he kept the Yankees in the park.
Now for the splitter on April 1:
Gausman only threw 13 splits in this game and it looks like he threw almost all of them for balls well below the zone. Not too tempting is it? The thing is, when he did creep toward the strike zone, the Twins hammered it for a double and a home run, probably because – like his fastball – he’s staying mostly near the middle of the plate.
Now look how differently he threw the split on April 6:
A couple of things to note. First of all, Gausman threw a lot more splits against the Yankees than he did the Twins. He also threw the pitch differently to lefties than he did to righties. Basically, he threw the split away for strikes to left-handed batters and away and down for balls to right-handers. Now you’re keeping hitters guessing not only between split-fastball by throwing the split more frequently, you’re also keeping hitters guessing on location.
Of course there are variables to every game and you can’t read too much into two starts. Sometimes a pitcher simply has a better feel for a certain pitch on a certain day. That happens. But it certainly would make sense that Gausman would find better success by not only mixing his pitches better but also harnessing his command. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the heat maps.
One other thing to note about Gausman so far this season: His velocity is down. In 2016-17, his fastball averaged between 95-96 mph. His split was about 85 mph and his slider 83. In two starts this season, his fastball is 92.7, the split at 82.7 and the slider at 81.3. These are not insignificant drops and appear to be by design, as Gausman is not known to be dealing with any health issues.
The hope here is that it’s an effort to improve his command. He certainly showed that he didn’t need to throw 97 to keep the Yankees off balance. As we know, velocity is nice, but command is where true success lies.
Is this a sign of good things to come? It’s way too early to tell with Gausman being, as he has been, a dual-personality pitcher. But as one scout told my colleague John Perrotto this spring, “I think he’s finally on his way.”