It’s hard to believe, but FanGraphs has Orioles starter Kevin Gausman’s 2017 season pegged as worth nearly a win. To anyone who’s had the misfortune of watching him over the past two-plus months, that number seems astronomically high.
In short, Gausman has been putrid. I wrote about how bad he had been way back in April. Between then and now, things didn’t get all that much better. For the season, Gausman’s ERA has hovered well above five, and while his FIP and xFIP are lower than that figure, they weren’t exactly saying that Gausman was getting unlucky. He really was terrible, even if he was also getting a bit unlucky.
But here we are, about to hit the All-Star break, and Gausman is coming off his two best starts of the season: 12 1⁄3 shutout innings in which he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and generally looked like the pitcher we thought he would be when the season began.
It’s only two starts, though, and how much can we learn from two starts? Well, to go back to that April article I mentioned earlier, I talked a lot about how Gausman had been (very) bad in only a couple of starts, but that it was probably too early to sound the alarms. That caution didn’t serve me very well, but it’s still the right approach after all — weird things happen in small sample sizes.
So is Gausman’s recent turnaround a sign of real progress? Or is this the small sample fluke that I thought the beginning of his slump was? I think it’s the former, and here’s why:
What should stand out immediately — and it’s certainly what jumped out to me — is the fact that Gausman has basically stopped throwing a breaking ball in these last two starts. It makes sense that this would be his solution, given his history. The knock on Gausman was that while he had a great fastball, he didn’t have much feel for a breaking ball, which might make him predictable at the big league level.
And while that concern may still be legitimate, it certainly can’t be worse than the pitcher Gausman has been since late April. Instead, he’s come to rely on his two best pitches and risk that hitters won’t figure him out. At this point, why not?
As it always has been, the fastball remains Gausman’s go-to pitch. It’s one of the hardest four-seamers for any starter, and although it doesn’t get an extraordinary amount of swings-and-misses, it’s deceptive enough and gets some groundballs too. In these past two starts, he’s done an excellent job of keeping the pitch down and out of hitters’ wheelhouses:
What’s really exciting, however, is the fact that he’s replaced those breaking balls with more splitters. Splitter almost doesn’t seem the right term for the pitch — its velocity (85-87 mph) and movement would have you guessing changeup first. But however you want to classify it, the pitch is great:
The main thing that stands out is the incredible fade he gets. In fact, no starter who’s thrown at least 50 splitters in 2017 gets more horizontal movement than Gausman, with the exception of Charlie Morton. The thing gets swings-and-misses (47 percent Whiff/Swing) and grounders (55 percent GB/BIP) — exactly what you want out of a splitter. If Gausman really is committed to throwing the thing more, as he should be, then why can’t he turn things around?
Obviously, this is only a couple of starts, and Gausman isn’t going to maintain a scoreless streak forever. But he’s already made a big adjustment, and it’s one that looks to be smart. While he may well become more predictable, Mariano Rivera is a Hall of Famer despite really throwing only one pitch — you can be both predictable and effective. Gausman isn’t Rivera, but he’s better than he’s shown in 2017. Perhaps these last two starts are what finally turns his season around.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.