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Kevin Gausman’s very bad week

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Is it a fluke, or a sign of something worse?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles starter Kevin Gausman made two starts last week, and neither went particularly well. Okay, that’s probably an understatement. They went very poorly. Just a couple of garbage outings, to be honest.

Coming into the year, if the Orioles had a number one starter*, it was probably Gausman. Baltimore’s rotation was generally nothing to write home about, and hasn’t been for several years now, but Gausman was legitimately good in the second half of 2016 (3.10 ERA, 3.95 FIP). As a former top five pick, that had people drooling over the possibility that he was beginning to fulfill the immense potential he showed as an amateur.

*Ron Howard voiceover: they didn’t

His start to 2017 has pumped the breaks on those resurgent expectations, however. His ERA is halfway between 7 and 8, his FIP is an only marginally better 5.69, and his DRA is a laughable 10.53. It’s early, sure, but his strikeout and walk rates, 14.2 and 12.5 percent respectively, don’t inspire much confidence either. If you’re looking for signs that Gausman is an unlucky version of the pitcher we saw down the stretch last season, at least bring a flashlight or something.

The first three starts of his season were not great, but things really took a turn for the worse in his two most recent trips to the hill. In starts on April 18 and 23, Gausman posted the following numbers:

Gausman 4/18-4/23

IP K% BB% ERA FIP HR/9
IP K% BB% ERA FIP HR/9
8 12.8% 12.8% 14.63 10.54 4.5

So, with the necessary small sample size caveat included, that is obviously terrible. Gausman can at least take some solace in the fact that these two outings were against the Reds — a better offense than you’d think — and the Red Sox. But he does pitch in the AL East; there are no easy matchups in that division, even though the Rays and Blue Jays have apparently swapped bodies. Regardless, those numbers are unacceptable against anyone.

But is it just a two-game slump? Or is it something we should really be worried about? Let’s find out.

If you want to start the panic alarms, you should point out that in his most recent start, Gausman’s velocity was down about one mile per hour on his fastball, and about a half a mile-per-hour on his splitter. Gausman only throws three pitches (those two, plus a slider), really, and pitchers with more shallow arsenals are probably less able to withstand a small decline in velocity than guys who can throw a bunch of junk in any count.

That is not to say that Gausman’s elbow is shredded or anything like that, but we only have so many numbers to go on early in the season, and that is our most recent data point for his velocity. It’s a small concern until proven otherwise, and a big concern if it persists.

Perhaps more troubling than that small decline in velocity is Gausman’s current lack of command. He’s been wild all month, but especially in these past two starts. Over the past week, he’s issued six walks and four home runs in just eight innings. To illustrate the point, look at how badly he misses his spot on this home run surrendered to Mookie Betts:

Pitchers make mistakes, and Betts is more equipped than most hitters to take advantage of those types of mistakes, but Gausman has been making an awful lot of them lately. Here’s what happened on the very next pitch he threw after giving up that Betts homer:

There is a lot of meat in that meatball.

Gausman is talented enough to bounce back from this rough week, of course. Despite the putrid overall results, some of his underlying peripherals are still encouraging. His splitter still has huge movement and is getting a ton of whiffs per swing. Outside of the recent velocity drop, his fastball remains one of the hardest among starters. Despite this recent swoon, his slider has shown some promising early signs.

Kevin Gausman will probably be just fine, is what I’m trying to say. I’m not going to guarantee that he’ll become a star, or that he’ll even be able to replicate his second half of 2016 over a full season. But he’s better than this, to be certain. It’s early, and we’re probably better served by keeping those red flags in the drawer for now, rather than taking them out and waving them around, even after a week as bad as this last one.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.