Will Gausman break out in 2017?
The best time of the year is upon us. March Madness has been in full swing, the weather is starting to get warmer and baseball season is less than a week away. The Orioles kick off their 2017 season next Monday against the rival Toronto Blue Jays. Starting for the Orioles in that game and making his first Opening Day start is Kevin Gausman. Gausman may not have had the honor of starting on Opening Day had Chris Tillman been healthy. That being said, whether Tillman is healthy or not, I think the Orioles best pitcher and most reliable pitcher will be taking the mound next Monday. The question isn’t, should Gausman start on Opening Day. The question is, how good will he be this year?
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To answer that, let’s start to look back on his 2016 campaign and see what he did right and what he needs to improve on. Last year, Gausman set career highs in wins, IP, ERA and K/BB ratio. He had his best K rate since his first stint in 2013 (only 47 IP) and essentially matched the low walk rate of 2015. He continued, as he has done for most of his time in the majors, to throw strikes at a well above average rate and he is missing bats at an incredibly high rate compared to most starters. The average starter is going to miss bats around 13-15% of the time. Gausman is over 19%. (For reference purposes, I am using the BR stat of missing bats vs. FG) Amongst all the starters who qualified for the ERA title, Gausman was 28th in all of baseball in ERA and top 15 in the AL.
Those stats are all exciting but what can really get you excited about him entering this season is the improvement you saw from the first to the second half last year. In the first half of the season, Gausman started 15 games and threw 86.2 innings. That was roughly 5.8 IP per start. In the second half, he also started 15 games but he threw 93 innings. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, however he essentially got 1-2 outs more per game, which was certainly important for a team that has a bullpen that gets used a lot. His ERA went down over a run from one half to the other. His BABIP dropped some but not a lot and it wasn’t at a point where you would consider him lucky either. In other words, it wasn’t a fluky drop in ERA in the second half.
However, things weren’t all great for Gausman last year. He has had a big problem the last few seasons in terms of his HR rate. In 2015, that rate was 1.36. Last year, it was 1.40. He did see an improvement from the first to the second half. In the first half, he had a HR rate of 1.55. In the second half, it was 1.25. 1.25 is still a lot but its better. Over the amount of innings he threw last year that would have been a difference of 3-4 less homers allowed. The long ball wasn’t an issue for Gausman early in his career. In the minors, his HR rate was below .9 and in his first 2 stints up here in 2013 and 2014, his HR rate was .83. Now, some of that was spent in the bullpen, so he wasn’t seeing hitters multiple times every game, so I am sure that had something to do with it. Still, he showed the ability to keep the homers down and he needs to get back to that.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the HR rate, is how well righties tend to hit him. Last year, righties had a slash line of 284/345/467 and they had a 349 wOBA against him. Compare that to the lefty line of 231/272.387 and a 284 w OBA. 2015 was more of the same thing. His slash line was 275/317/526 and a 358 wOBA. Righties have hit 29 of the 45 homers he has allowed the last 2 seasons and that has been in comparable IP vs. each side of the plate.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, its pretty simple folks. Right now, you have a guy who is a good #2 or an excellent #3 starter. (You can debate how high you want to put him; I would probably call him a low 2 right now.) That pitcher will NOT get any better than that until he figures out how to get righties out on a more consistent basis and keep the ball in the ballpark. Since he gives up such a huge percentage of his homers to righties, those 2 things will obviously go hand in hand. If he figures out a way to limit those righties, he is likely a 2.8-3.2 ERA level pitcher. The walk rate, K rate, missing bats, etc. all of that is on the level of a #1 starter but #1, elite level starters will fair better against both sides of the plate.
According to Brooks Baseball, Gausman threw mainly 4 seam fastballs, his splitter and a curveball that he started to throw more of last year since is slider was a poor pitch. Brooks also mentions the occasional changeup he would throw and that he used a sinker some last year. The pitch I want to focus on is the curveball. He started throwing it in 2015 and last year, we saw some improvement in it, although it is/was still a work in progress. That pitch is likely going to be the pitch that could take him to that next level. He had mixed results on it last year. He had good success with it in April and August. In those months, hitters hit .111 and .200 against it. They had a slugging of 222 and 250. The pitch did poorly in the other months. In 2015, he threw 180 curveballs and missed 12 bats with that pitch. That was less than 7%. In 2016, he threw 415 curveballs and had a 13.2% whiff rate. That is a nice jump up for sure. However, as I alluded to, the overall BA and slugging against that pitch increased. Hitters have routinely shown they can’t do much with his fastball and split but when it comes time for the breaking pitch, they have traditionally teed off on him. Gausman has also recently discussed that he has brought his slider back and that he likes the way the pitch is going so far this spring. We will see. That has been an awful pitch for him in the past but he has been working on it. Either way, whether it’s the slider, the curve or its some kind of a slurve pitch, he needs that third pitch to become more consistent.
A few years ago, on our old podcast, we interviewed Nick Faleris. Nick talked about how Gausman doesn’t need a strikeout pitch. He already has 2 of those. What Gausman needs is a pitch that he can use to stay off the sweet spot of the bat and induce weak contact. That makes a lot of sense to me. This is a guy with homer issues and if he can keep the ball off of the barrel of the bat on a more consistent basis, he should be in good shape.
Gausman turned 26 in January. He has thrown 453 innings thus far and enters his second ML season knowing he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder to see if he is getting sent down to the minors or to the bullpen. Now is the time for him to take that next step and start to assert himself as one of the games’ best starters. Can he do it? So far, the spring results have been good but you have to take them with a grain of salt. However, you like what you are hearing about him and coming from him this spring. He sounds confident and he knows he is coming off a solid season and he knows what he has to improve on. His ability to improve on that may be the difference between this team being a legit contender or a team fighting to be relevant in September.