23 January 2018

How Can Kevin Gausman Get Back On Track?

As of this moment, the depth chart on Orioles.com lists the O's starting pitching rotation as Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Gabriel Ynoa, Miguel Castro, and Alec Asher. Last week, Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun wrote an early prediction of the O's 25-man roster considering the current options, and he came up with these five: Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Mike Wright, Gabriel Ynoa, and Miguel Castro.

By now, everyone knows the Orioles need starting pitching. It's basically a given when you say the word "Orioles." If you bring up the Orioles to a baseball fan, he or she will most likely ask you about either Manny Machado or the rotation options. It's kind of sad!

In a recent interview, Buck Showalter said that, while it's difficult, fans should stay patient. He said things like, "I share their sense of some anxiety, but I do know that the end game, we’ll end up getting there. I know a lot more than I’m letting on" and "There’s a lot of things going on and we’re prepared for it. I think the final product is something we’re going to be proud of."

Make sure to read the full article for more of Showalter's wisdom. And hey, maybe he's right! Showalter has forgotten more about baseball than any of us will ever know. Still, maybe a starting rotation that you'd be proud of is not the same thing as one that Showalter would be proud of. Maybe simply not having to rely on Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley counts as enough of a positive. To Showalter, lower-tier options like Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas may be very appealing. Maybe he's not as concerned about handing the reins over to Castro.

There's always hope that the O's could piece together a workable starting rotation that's enough to get by, because they've done that. But considering the pitchers involved, it never felt like it had the chance to repeat year after year. And now, the options are even more limited, which would be disappointing by itself if it weren't for the fact that the O's are about to lose major contributors after the 2018 season.

For now, the only two locked-in rotation options are Gausman and Bundy. Bundy should have no limitations in 2018, so there's some hope that he can take another step forward. But what about Gausman? In 2017, Gausman's ERA jumped by a full run, and his peripheral stats took a hit as well:

2016: 3.61 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 8.72 K/9, 2.35 BB/9, 3.0 fWAR, 4.2 bWAR
2017: 4.68 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 4.33 xFIP, 8.63 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, 2.5 fWAR, 1.9 bWAR

Gausman was better in the second half, as he has been throughout his career, but it was a discouraging performance. The Orioles needed more from Gausman, and they didn't get it. There were plenty of reasons why the O's collapsed in 2017, and Gausman is hardly the only party to blame. But he still hasn't taken that next step.

Despite the obvious worries, there are still some reasons for optimism. Gausman seemed to be unlucky BABIP wise; his .336 BABIP in 2017 was his worst since a .328 mark in 47-plus innings in his rookie season. It hadn't been above .308 since then. The jump in BABIP is also a bit odd when factoring in his exit velocity allowed the past two seasons:

2016 exit velocity: 83.4
2017 exit velocity: 81.9

Opposing batters didn't hit the ball as hard, yet more hits dropped in. That's not a ringing endorsement of the O's team defense in 2017, but weird things can happen in a single season. Like Steve Pearce's 2014, for example, or Richard Bleier's 2017.

If Gausman is going to get back to how things were in 2016 (or perform even better), he's going to have to limit the amount of baserunners. Only four qualified pitchers allowed more walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) than Gausman. It's tough to succeed if runners are constantly on base. An underwhelming defense is partially to blame, sure, but Gausman still has to finish batters off.

If anything is concerning for Gausman, it's the jump in walks. While hitters made less contact against him in 2017...

2016 O-Contact%: 63.8
2017 O-Contact%: 62.6

2016 Z-Contact%: 87.6
2017 Z-Contact%: 84.8

... they swung in the zone slightly more (from 64.7% to 65.3%) while chasing out-of-zone pitches much less:

2016 O-Swing%: 35.8
2017 O-Swing%: 31.6

As you can imagine, Gausman's control in 2017 just wasn't as good. Perhaps the rise in walks simply gives that away, but let's look a little deeper. Gausman throws two pitches the most, his four-seam fastball and his splitter (also sometimes called a changeup). Gausman throws the fastball about 64% of the time, and the splitter about 20% of the time.

Here is his pitch heatmap from Baseball Savant for all fastballs in 2016 vs. 2017:

The heatmaps for the splitter probably tell us more, though:

In 2016, Gausman often was able to pinpoint the inside/low corner for right-handed batters, and that down-and-away corner for left-handed batters. If he missed? It was usually a ball, with not a lot of damage done. But in 2017, he threw a bunch of splitters that were more hittable. They were still down in the zone, but they weren't as close to the corner.

Opposing hitters fared a bit better against Gausman's fastballs last season. But they improved mightily against his best pitch, the splitter, gaining 70 points of slugging percentage and 62 points of isolated power.

There's a reason why teams like the Rockies have previously expressed interest in adding someone of Gausman's potential. There's a lot to like about him, and it doesn't seem like he would be difficult to fix. He's not broken, necessarily, but for whatever reason, the O's can't get him to put everything together.

Maybe Gausman is indeed fixed right now; he mentioned in September that he worked out the kinks with his delivery. He always seems to be tinkering with something, though, whether that's where he is on the mound, pitch usage, etc. Constant adjustment is part of the job, but it doesn't matter as much if the results aren't there.

If you don't think the O's can get the most out of Gausman, there's a good chance you believe another team could. That's a problem, but hardly a new one.

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