It’s been an interesting, up-and-down year for Kevin Gausman, the Baltimore Orioles‘ ace-in-training. He’s been a reliever, dealt with a shoulder injury, made spot starts, pitched in the minor leagues, and finally, after the banishment of Bud Norris, has been given a full-time slot in the starting rotation. That’s a lot for a young pitcher to handle, especially one who is still only 24, has never spent a full season in Triple-A, and has not developed full confidence in his slider and changeup. In nine starts this season, Gausman has a 1-5 record with a 4.47 ERA. To reach that pedestrian ERA, Gausman has turned in some sterling starts and some real clunkers. His 6.1 shutout inning performance against the Texas Rangers on July 2 was followed by a 3.2 inning, seven-run dud against the Minnesota Twins.
Having to contend with a constant shuffling of roles and trips to the minors is bad enough for a young, developing pitcher, but there is another factor that is playing into the inconsistent nature of Gausman’s performance this season. The Orioles are dealing with a unique situation at the catcher’s position. Matt Wieters, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is still not catching much more than every other day. When Wieters needs to rest his surgically-repaired elbow, Caleb Joseph spells him. The injury also kept Wieters out last year when Gausman was thriving and pitching to a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts with the big club.
Gausman has thrown 35.2 innings this year with Joseph behind the dish and 29.1 with Wieters. When Joseph calls the pitches, Gausman has a 4.04 ERA and has allowed a .215 BAA. When Wieters catches, those numbers balloon to 4.91 and .271, respectively. Last year, Joseph caught 15 of Gausman’s 20 starts, with the 2012 first-round draft pick posting a 3.62 ERA in 82.0 innings. In 2013, Wieters caught Gausman for 39.0 innings. The rookie posted a 6.69 ERA in those innings.
On the surface, it appears Wieters and Gausman are just not on the same page when it comes to pitching, and the fact that Wieters did not catch Gausman in 2014 could be playing a major factor in the way he handles him. Gausman’s arsenal is still very much a work in progress, and he needs to develop confidence in more than his fastball. In four starts with Joseph catching, Gausman has a 3.96 ERA, but in five starts with Wieters, Gausman has a much higher 5.20 ERA. Gausman walks more batters, strikes out fewer, and allows more hits with Wieters behind the plate.
With both catchers behind the plate, Gausman relies heavily on his fastball. There’s nothing wrong with that, as his 96.4 mph average fastball velocity ranks him near the top of the league’s starting pitchers. With Joseph behind the plate, Gausman has thrown his fastball 72.7 percent of the time. With Wieters, it rises just slightly to 73.4 percent. From there, Wieters and Joseph begin to diverge slightly when calling pitches for Gausman. Pitch f/x has recorded both a slider and curveball for Gausman, although that should be taken with a grain of salt. Pitch f/x only recorded Gausman throwing sliders last season, but has called most of his breaking pitches curveballs this year. For the purposes of evaluating the pitches called by the catchers, curveballs and sliders will be lumped together as breaking balls. With Joseph catching, Gausman has thrown a breaking ball on 8.4 percent of his pitches. Wieters has called for breaking ball 10.0 percent of the time. Wieters and Joseph both love Gausman’s splitter, as it is his second best pitch behind the fastball. The primary difference between how Wieters and Joseph handle Gausman is when it comes to his changeup. Wieters has called only six changeups in five starts, while Joseph has called 12 in only four starts.[table "” not found /]
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Now, maybe this is more of a Gausman problem than a Wieters-Joseph problem. Gausman still has plenty of developing to do. Witness the grooved fastball that Chris Iannetta, a .180 hitter, smoked for a two-run double to give the Angels a lead on August 7 (although, to be fair to Gausman, a better left-fielder than Nolan Reimold probably catches the ball). I’m not saying a lack of a changeup is the only thing that has hurt Gausman with Wieters behind the plate. Gausman has had two of his best starts with Wieters catching, but also two of his worst.
The real problem seems to be the fact that Wieters goes to Gausman’s breaking pitches more frequently. Gausman cannot throw these pitches for strikes, and it holds him back. On the year, over 55 percent of his breaking pitches have been balls. He has gotten only one strikeout using a curve or slider, and has given up hits at a .400 clip when those pitches are put in play.
In Gausman’s most recent start, when he threw the most breaking pitches he has thrown all year, only four of 14 found the plate. The New York Mets showed very little respect for the breaking ball, and were essentially sitting fastball the entire night. Through it all, Wieters kept calling for the breaking ball, and Gausman kept bouncing it. The Orioles’ starter did have a good splitter working against the Mets, but without the real threat of another pitch, New York hitters were able to extend at-bats. On the night, 24 fastballs were fouled off. The Mets had multiple at-bats that approached 10 pitches, and as has been a problem his entire career, Gausman saw his pitch count rise toward 100 pitches before the sixth inning.
Sure, Gausman threw the pitch to Iannetta 98 mph, but it was right down the middle of the plate. Gausman actually struggles more when throwing his fastball down in the zone. He has also thrown plenty of grooved pitches this year. Despite his excellent velocity, most big leaguers can catch up to a 96-mph fastball when they know not much else is coming. Gausman’s fastball has good rise to it, and it is nearly unhittable when he elevates it. The fastball comes in relatively flat when he tries to locate it in the lower half of the zone, a recipe for disaster.
At the end of the day, some of the onus for Gausman’s struggles this year falls squarely on his shoulders. He’s made some bad pitches and has relied to heavily on one pitch. Though it’s a good one, his catchers need to begin bringing him out of his comfort zone, and that starts with the changeup. Joseph has trusted it more than Wieters has this season, while Wieters has called for the more ineffective breaking ball. As evidenced by the Mets’ approach on Tuesday night, the breaking ball is not much more than a show-me pitch at this point. The changeup, however, complements Gausman’s fastball and split-finger more effectively. Being able to change speeds against an aggressive Tigers team no doubt helped Gausman turn in a sterling start with Joseph behind the plate.
There are plenty of reasons that Gausman has been ineffective at times this year, and that includes the constant shuffling of catchers. There is an intangible value to the relationship between a pitcher and catcher, and Gausman and Joseph appear more comfortable together. Baseball has tried to quantify every aspect of the game with sabermetrics, but there remain grey areas like the relationships pitchers develop with their backstops. With the way Joseph has been hitting of late, there is no reason he should not serve as Gausman’s personal catcher for the remainder of the season. Gausman got hot late last year, closing the season strong. This year can be the same with just a few minor tweaks, starting with the guy calling the pitches.