For the past three years, Kevin Gausman has been tantalizingly close to emerging as a true frontline starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. After being drafted in the first round in 2012, Gausman was rushed to the big leagues with less than a full minor-league season under his belt because, well, 2013 was a year in which the Orioles gave 10 starts to 36-year-old Freddy Garcia, gave up on Jake Arrieta, and traded for Scott Feldman. In his rookie year, Gausman clearly was not ready, and his starts were rocky before spending most of his time in the bullpen.
At the time of his debut, Gausman was hardly a finished product, and barely threw more than his fastball for strikes. That works in the minor leagues. A good pitcher with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and a decent splitter can get outs in Double- and Triple-A. With only a rudimentary grasp on how to throw his changeup or breaking ball for strikes, Gausman struggled to a 5.66 ERA in his debut season. Calling Gausman up to make five poor starts and four worthless relief appearances in June and July before going back down when he could have been further developing in Triple-A hurt Gausman’s progress toward becoming a complete pitcher more than it helped. The Orioles, however, were grasping at straws with their own starting rotation, and Gausman got the call despite the fact that he had appeared in only 13 minor-league games.
Gausman’s rookie season was not a total bust. He did come back as a relief pitcher down the stretch in September and strike out 21 batters in 13.1 innings. That could have set the stage for 2014, but instead, the Orioles went out and signed Ubaldo Jimenez coming off his first good year since 2010. Back to the minors for you, Kevin. That move may have stuck, but, as many expected, Jimenez was a complete disaster. He pitched terribly and then got injured. With a spot open in the rotation, the Orioles went back to Gausman once more. By now, Gausman had pitched in 30 minor-league games, but still had yet to be given a full year to sit tight in one place and grow as a pitcher. The five starts he made in the short-season leagues after being drafted are not worth much in terms of development.
Regardless of the fact that Gausman has still not fully grasped throwing a slider or curveball with any consistency, he’s back in Baltimore for the duration of the 2014 season starting in late May. Not surprisingly, when given 20 starts, Gausman shows he actually might be pretty good at this whole pitching thing. His average fastball touches 96 and his splitter is devastating. Without a third or fourth pitch, however, Gausman struggles to put hitters away. His pitch count often tickles 100 by the middle of the sixth inning. All in all, Gausman appeared to get stronger as the season went on. September was his best month. The former number-four pick completed his first full season with a 3.57 ERA, but finished only 113.1 innings in 20 starts. Overall, Gausman limited walks and home runs.
Those 20 starts should have set Gausman up nicely to enter the rotation on a full-time basis in 2015. Unfortunately, the team was still on the hook for close to $40 million for three more years of Jimenez, so he automatically gets another chance. Gausman showed an ability to dominate out of the bullpen in the playoffs, so it was decided that he would be a middle reliever for the 2015 season until the wheels fell off one of the other starters. Going to the bullpen, Gausman became a two-pitch pitcher. Really, he reverted back to being a raw thrower. He tried to throw every pitch 101 miles per hour and came down with a minor injury. Bud Norris turned into Dud Norris, and after recovering from his injury, Gausman was back in the rotation.
Because Gausman was shunted off to the bullpen after spring training, he had to stretch his arm back out to handle the rigors of starting. More unnecessary time in the minors was coming. Gausman started his first game of the 2015 season on June 20 and battled his way through five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, throwing 91 pitches in the process. Then it was straight back down to the minors until July 2. Inexplicably, Norris got a few more starts. Gausman came back and dominated the Texas Rangers, throwing 6.1 innings of scoreless ball while striking out 7. His splitter made Josh Hamilton look silly repeatedly.
Following that dominant outing against the Rangers, Gausman was lit up by the Minnesota Twins for eight runs in just 3.2 innings. The Twins were all over Gausman early in the game, something that would become a trend in his poor starts all year. With the All-Star break approaching, Gausman went back down to the minor leagues until making a start on July 22. Bud Norris was still on the roster, but fortunately no longer starting games. Facing the New York Yankees after a two-week break from big-league action, Gausman was smoked for three runs in the first inning. He gave up four hits in the first inning, but settled down to complete six innings, allowing only two more hits in the process.
Gausman was with the Orioles for the rest of the year, and was mostly consistent. He finished with a 4.25 ERA in 112.1 total innings. His 17 starts show a tale of two pitchers. In Gausman’s 10 best starts of the year, he had a 1.93 ERA. His seven worst starts of the year yielded an 8.40 ERA. When Kevin Gausman was good in 2015, he was very, very good. The other side of the coin was very, very bad.
In the first inning last year, Gausman had a 6.35 ERA. That number is on par with the pitching staffs of the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies. The first batter he faced in a game batted .320 with a .600 slugging percentage. That speaks to a pitcher not being ready to take the ball — too much adrenaline. Not because Kevin Gausman is not capable of pitching at this level, but because almost every start is still a new experience.
The Orioles have not developed Kevin Gausman with any sort of consistency, and it is painfully evident at times. His breaking ball flashes “out-pitch” potential at times, while at others, hitters can essentially ignore it as it breaks nowhere near the plate, barely enticing them to swing. That breaking ball, however, is coming around. Hitters batted .350 against Gausman’s breaking pitch (labeled a slider in 2014), but only .261 in 2015 (now labeled a curveball). The split remains nasty, especially when he changes speeds with it.
Kevin Gausman is still transitioning away from the pitcher who could reach back and fire his fastball past everyone. That growth must continue into 2016 if he is to take the next step. Even Chris Iannetta can square up a 98-mph heater if it is thrown right down the pipe with no movement.
Gausman began putting together dominant starts last year, finally showing an ability to pitch deep into games. Far too many times, however, he fell into the trap of becoming overly dependent on his fastball. His heat is unhittable when run up and in on a hitter’s hands. Combined with a plus-splitter and a developing curveball and changeup, and you get sub-2.00 pitching. The rough edges for Kevin Gausman have still not been fully smoothed out, but entering the beginning of a season firmly entrenched in the starting rotation should keep the process moving in the right direction. Not since college has Kevin Gausman played out an entire season without multiple moves, role changes, and general confusion.
Over the past 25 years, the Baltimore Orioles have failed to harness the potential of nearly every top pitching prospect in their farm system — Daniel Cabrera, Radhames Liz, Adam Loewen, Hayden Penn, Brad Bergesen. The list goes on and on. Even Brian Matusz and Zach Britton had to be moved to the bullpen to find success. Kevin Gausman’s handling has not been perfect, but he will finally have a consistent season in 2016. No more shuttling back and forth to the minors. No more being jerked in and out of the rotation. No more bullpen. If Kevin Gausman is to emerge as an ace, 2016 will be the year. Consistency is key.