Gausman, whose constant shifting from Triple-A Norfolk to both Baltimore’s bullpen and starting rotation since 2013 has rightfully grated on O’s fans, appears to finally be comfortably cemented into the Orioles’ starting five entering the 2016 season. The fourth-overall pick in the 2012 Amateur Draft has flashed more positives than negatives in his 273.1 career innings, though the margin is far from substantial. However, no longer being shuttled up, down, left and right bodes well for Gausman.
The idea of Gausman matching his potential with production in 2016 can not only be attributed to a better than worse start to his career, but also to the reality he’s a very talented dude. In an attempt to identify what he’s done well and not so well in his three seasons with the O’s, we will also be able to shed light on how his game can indeed rise to the heights that Gausman, and the Orioles, assuredly expect.
1. Command the Outer-Half of the Plate
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that all sports are “games of inches.” Whether that’s a running back reaching the nose of the football over the goal line or a soccer ball precisely ricocheting off the post, every game sees its share of moments in limited space. To the matter of pitching, the man standing 60 feet, 6 inches away is told to utilize a pentagonal plate that spans a mere 17 inches wide with a vertical limit of knees to belt, give or take.
When it comes to Gausman, the hard-throwing righty has restricted himself to only half of his total allowance.
This past season, Gausman strictly regimented the inner-half of the plate to right-handers, lacking the balance it takes to waver big-league batters. On one hand, you can kind of understand it. Among starters in 2015, Gausman’s fastball usage and velocity were third and 11th highest in baseball at 67.8 percent and 95.2 MPH, respectively. Asking a hitter to square his hips against plus-heat is increasingly more daunting than chancing a fastball over the middle of the plate. Simply, more is required from a hitter on the inner-half.
Yet, that’s made Gausman predictable.
On the outset, the peripherals don’t strike you as obscene, but when compared to Matt Harvey, the poster child of quality outside heat, Gausman’s inabilities to find the outside of the plate become more apparent.
Exclusively in the areas of the low-outside corner and the 50-50 range on the black, Harvey generates more strikes in zones where pitching requires paramount attendance. Extending the plate, as Harvey has done, ripples the rest of a pitcher’s arsenal. More strikes away from righties can lead to the furthering effect of a slider or changeup off the plate, even making the inside fastball that much more punishing. Pitchers need to move the eyes of a hitter, and Gausman has not yet shown an ability to do that. Whether his refusal is out of fear or not, he’ll need to earn the respect of right-handers on the outside corner.
Though Gausman has failed to force hitters into respecting the outer-half of the plate, he has the arm, and the blueprint, to add to his craft.
2. Change Speeds
Some of us don’t know what it’s like to have a fastball that carries the cruising speed of a frigate bird. On a good day, I took pride in mimicking a near-retirement Jamie Moyer from the right side, and my changeup was more likely to float like a batting practice fastball than induce a swing and a miss, but to each his own.
As was mentioned before, Fangraphs’ PITCHf/x recorded Gausman’s fastball total at the third-highest frequency in baseball (among starters with at least 100 innings) at 67.8 percent. Gausman throws hard and he throws hard often, which may or may not be a direct result of the Orioles’ current pitching philosophy. According to PITCHf/x, the Orioles’ 44.8 combined fastball percentage among starters is the highest such fastball rate in baseball since 2012, a strategy that’s seen its pros and cons. To no coincidence, Gausman led the O’s starting rotation in fastball percentage last season, and there’s no reason for him to not continue throwing an abundance of heaters. Still, he may do well to slow it down a bit more often.
Kevin Gausman Pitch Type, 2015
Following the trend of breaking trends, Gausman is not only predictable in his pitch location, but the sheer volume of fastballs is hiding a repertoire that stands to be tested. Gausman’s go-to offspeed pitch is undoubtedly his splitter, a pitch that saw a 45.6 percent chase rate in 2015.
When categorizing a “good” splitter against a “bad” one, you look for two things: depth and deception. Depth portrays the vertical movement on the pitch, while deception translates to the speed differential in comparison to the fastball. Last September, an outing where Gausman set a career-high with 10 strikeouts, Ezequiel Carrera fell victim to a disappearing splitter in a 3-2 count that stands as a prime example of Gausman’s deadliest out-pitch. In 2015, Gausman averaged a 10.5 MPH dip from his fastball to his splitter. Though not overwhelming, his split-finger is well-enough deceiving to produce whiffs such as the one above.
Gausman also features a forkball less popular than his splitter, though the pitch proposes that Isaac Newton had more to discover when scribing the laws of physics. Just ask Josh Hamilton.
One aspect of Gausman’s game that’s managed to gain somewhat of a cult following has been the development of a more dangerous third pitch. It was reported last spring that Gausman was focusing on bringing back the curveball, a pitch he relied on extensively in college. In January, Gausman hinted to MASN’s Roch Kubatko that his curveball is likely to see a rise in usage.
“I just think I need to throw it more and trust it. I didn’t really start throwing my curveball until about the last week of spring training, so I didn’t really feel like I got those reps that you need in spring training to go into the season.
If Gausman’s word is true, the introduction of a frequently active third pitch would allow the 25-year-old to both manipulate the outer-half of the plate against righties while also changing speeds. Gausman’s irregular .276/.318/.529 split against right-handed hitters in 2015 suggests that a curveball could act as a two-strike equalizer against arm-side batters. Though fortuitous, the path to a breakout may be just that simple.
Orioles fans reserve the right to doubt a middling rotation, yet Kevin Gausman’s anticipated leap would not only serve as a collective sigh of relief, but a talent such as his pitching to his expected level would mark as the O’s most profound offseason acquisition. Gausman has the “it” to pave a road to stardom, and if 2016 is in fact the year it starts, it could be as simple as a pair of fundamental adjustments.
Let’s sure hope so.