One of the more interesting decisions made by the Orioles management team this Spring was the one to start the season with former fourth overall pick Kevin Gausman in the bullpen. Gausman made his full season debut in the Orioles’ starting rotation in 2014, and went 7-7 with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts. His walk rate of 3.00 BB/9 was respectable, but the young right-hander struggled to pitch efficiently and was often out of the game before the sixth inning rolled around.
Gausman was electric at times as a starter last season, but was never more electric than during his star turn as a reliever during the Orioles’ playoff run. In 8.0 postseason innings, Gausman posted a sparkling 1.13 ERA and struck out seven. His fastball tickled triple digits at times. With this type of ability, he clearly has the potential to have an impact on the Orioles’ pitching staff be it in the starting rotation or as a setup man.
Thus far in 2015, however, the Orioles have not seen the impact performance out of the bullpen that many came to expect from Gausman following his stellar postseason. The triple digit velocity is still there — he touched 101 mph on Opening Day in Tampa Bay, but Gausman has given up a run each time he has taken the mound for the Orioles this season.
Through 4.1 innings, he has allowed four runs, five hits, and walked four. That comes out to an 8.31 ERA and a 2.08 WHIP, which will not cut it for a late inning reliever. After the loss of Andrew Miller to the Yankees, the Orioles are clearly looking for another bridge to closer Zach Britton, but in his current state, Gausman is not to be trusted with a late game lead. He entered last night’s game against the Yankees staked to a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning and promptly surrendered two hits and two runs, prompting manager Buck Showalter to call on Britton for a four-out save.
There does not appear to be anything physically wrong with Gausman when watching him pitch. His fastball velocity out of the bullpen has increased to 95.5 mph. His delivery and mechanics appear sound. The problem with Gausman this season has been his location and pitch selection. Gausman is basically a two-trick pony right now, throwing a fastball or splitter on 88.7% of his pitches this season according to the PITCHf/x data. As you can see, the fastball (FF) and splitter (FO) make up quite a large portion of the pie chart.
This is not a perfect data set by any means, but based on the pitch classifications, it is obvious that there are really only two pitches coming out of Kevin Gausman’s hand. Brooks Baseball has counted nine curveballs, but he has thrown less than half of them for strikes. Gausman has also thrown nearly 40% of his fastballs and splitters out of the zone. For a relief pitcher, with a very limited arsenal, fastball velocity is not enough to get with, especially when such a high percentage of those fastballs are not going for strikes.
Gausman has also been hurt by his location. The pitch heatmap provided by Baseball Savant shows that Gausman has pitched up in the strike zone in 2015, and his results have suffered due to an inability to keep the ball down in the zone.
That nice cluster of pitches up in the zone have been hit hard this season. Even his pitches missing the strike zone have been elevated. More than the over-reliance on the fastball, it has been the location of those fastballs that has led to the early season struggles for Kevin Gausman. Many of the game’s best relief pitchers have made a career throwing only one or two pitches, but that does not work for every pitcher. Mariano Rivera threw one of the best cutters of all-time. Trevor Hoffman threw one of the best changeups the game has ever seen. Being a one or two-pitch guy works, but only if your pitches are so good that it does not matter if hitters know what is coming.
Kevin Gausman is good. That cannot be denied, but he does not throw one of the top-five splitters in the history of baseball. His fastball does not have a ton of late movement to complement the velocity. He can get by on velocity only so far before big league hitters begin timing his fastball as they have so far this season. The elevated location in the zone can be corrected, most likely with a slight mechanical adjustment. Gausman may also be overthrowing slightly as he adjusts to the short burst nature of relief pitching. As he grows more comfortable with the role, both of these things should iron themselves out.
The fact that Gausman does not appear comfortable throwing anything but a fastball or splitter out of the bullpen is more troubling, especially if his long-term future with the Orioles is to lie in the starting rotation. Gausman did throw the slider more frequently in 2014 when he was in the starting rotation, but only got two strikeouts with it. His changeup was also used in 2014, but still very infrequently.
Gausman recently spoke with Steve Melewski of MASN, and discussed a return to throwing a curveball, something he has not done in a game since his college days at LSU. “I just think it’s a different look. I think it is a little bit tighter spin than my slider. It definitely changes eye levels,” said Gausman. The curveball may not be significantly different in velocity from Gausman’s slider, which may explain why a curveball does not show up in the PITCHf/x data.
Gausman is still a work in progress. He needs to get more comfortable throwing his slider, curveball, and changeup. Another reason he was not able to pitch deeply into games last season was the high foul ball rate he gave up. Major League hitters can foul off fastballs and splitters more easily than offspeed and breaking pitches, effectively driving up pitch counts in the process. To last as a starting pitcher, Gausman needs to work on developing a true swing-and-miss pitch like a slider or changeup. If he can work through those issues while in the Orioles bullpen, a full season of facing big league hitters in pressure situations will serve his development just fine. However, if Gausman does not show signs of progress with his other pitches, the best option for the Orioles may be to send him to Triple-A to work in the starting rotation where he can have the freedom to develop the rest of his pitching repertoire with no consequences to the Orioles’ playoff hopes.