The Orioles have a starting pitcher who ranked in the top ten in the American League in K/9, K/BB, K%, xFIP, and SIERA in 2016. He ranked in the top 15 in ERA, strikeouts, and fWAR. He had the 18th best ground ball rate and the 15th best hard hit rate. He threw his fastball harder than all but two other AL starters. He was, by many measures, one of the 15 best starters in the American League. That man? Kevin Gausman: ace pitcher.
Well, ok, maybe he’s not an “ace” ace. He only threw 179 innings, had the 7th worst FB/HR and HR/9 ratio in the American League, stranded a likely unsustainable 81% of baserunners, and had relatively pedestrian FIP (4.10), WHIP (1.28), and BABIP (.308) marks. In an American League that had a down year in terms of starting pitching, however, Gausman established himself as one of the league’s better arms despite a lack of fanfare. Much of the hand wringing over the Orioles over the past five years has been over the lack of a top of the rotation starter, so it is odd that the emergence of that type of pitcher went largely unnoticed. Perhaps it has to do with more traditional measures: a 9-12 record and a solid but unspectacular 3.61 ERA, or the fact that he had a middling 2015 after looking like a potential breakout candidate. Whatever the reason, though, there doesn't seem to be a ton of buzz about Gausman becoming a legitimate top of the rotation starter.
Gausman was more of a steady performer than a spectacular one in 2016 but, in the current run environment in the American League, steady is an important virtue. From July 1 on, Gausman threw at least 6 innings in 14 out of 17 starts and gave up three runs or fewer in 11 of those starts. His best performance came at Boston on September 14 as the Orioles were pushing for a playoff berth. He threw 8 shutout innings, allowing just 4 hits and 1 walk to go along with 6 strikeouts, capping off a dominant 5 game stretch where he allowed 3 total runs (all of which came in the same game). While he faltered a bit in his next two starts, he rebounded with a Wild Card clinching victory over the Yankees in his final start of the season. It’s always dicey to rely on second half breakouts to predict success in the following season, but Gausman certainly looked like he began to turn a corner and start to realize the potential the Orioles saw in him when they drafted him fourth overall in 2012.
So what can the O’s expect from Gausman in 2017? Certainly, he needs to keep the ball in the yard. He has a career HR/FB mark of 12.7%, slightly above the league average since 2012, but his 15.4% mark in 2016 was nearly three percentage points above league average. This was somewhat offset by his ability to strand baserunners, but it is unlikely he posts another 81% LOB mark again, especially since he hovered around 73% (almost exactly league average) in 2014-2015. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs categorized Gausman’s splitter as one of the best pitches in baseball in 2016, and heavier use of that pitch could certainly help bring down his sky high homer rate. A league average home run rate and BABIP could also help offset any loss he will likely see in his strand rate.
The ZIPS and Steamer player projection systems do both forecast a bit of a pullback in terms of run prevention for Gausman, likely as a result of his artificially high LOB numbers in 2016, but still see the underlying skills of strikeout and walk rates as staying solid. I think it's more than reasonable to expect similar numbers to 2016 with the possibility for a true breakout. Given the uncertainty of every other starter in the rotation, aside from maybe Chris Tillman, that's exactly what the Orioles will need.