27 February 2018

Gausman is Finding His Inner Tanaka

Kevin Gausman is a stud.  That is how he has been viewed for a long time.  He looked like a polished strong mid-rotation arm coming out of LSU.  In the minors, he overpowered batters with his fastball command and splitter.  In the majors, there are moments or streaks where his fastball and splitter are riding hot while he also drops a fairly respectable curve or slider (depending on the year).  However, those moments and streaks are not common enough for Gausman to be mentioned as a top of the rotation arm or even a mid-rotation arm for any club with serious playoff consideration.

This issue with Gausman is not a new concern.  His breaking balls were always more about potential than where the stood in the moment.  He doesn't get tight spin and he doesn't get much consistency in that spin.  He largely has no feel for the pitch and uses it more as a show me, change of pace offering.  That means his effectiveness is dependent upon pitch movement that runs away from a left hander or into a right hander.  For a right handed pitcher, that often means limited movement of pitches that largely stay in the same plane for a batter.  In other words, Gausman is always playing around the barrel of the bat.

Above you can see a generic chart for what pitches tend to do.  Sliders and curveballs, even cutters, can break away from a right handed hitter with varying downward movement.  The two plane movement helps a pitcher avoid the bat and maybe even the barrel.  Gausman's best pitches come in that top quartile where the movement varies mostly in the vertical, which means if anything flattens out it might well go pretty far.

It is a fairly unique way for a pitcher to pitch.  In fact, here is a list of starting pitchers over the past five years who have thrown both four seamers and splitters for 60% or more of their pitches.
Name FA% FS% Sum
Kevin Gausman 65 15 80
Taijuan Walker 59 16 75
Jorge de la Rosa 34 31 65
Jake Odorizzi 42 22 64
Nathan Eovaldi 53 9 62
The fact that this combination is so rare among starting pitchers suggests that it is simply hard to do this and be successful.  There is a long list of pitchers who are four seam fastball and changeup style pitchers who have been quite lauded, but never lived up to their enormous prospect hype. Dewon Brazleton comes to mind.  When they do appear, like Rich Harden or Johan Santana, their changeup is a more traditional offering than a splitter.  That said, it is a rare combination with respect to finding great success.

Gausman says his curveball is in excellent shape this year, which is something that it feels like we hear every year before the regular season begins and everything unravels.  What is interesting is that he also noted that he picked up a new sinker grip from new Oriole Andrew Cashner.  The piece in that links notes that Cashner's sinker tails into right handers and away from left handers, which all sinkers do (unless you are Charlie Morton).  That pitch may help Gausman, but he is still working that top left quadrant.

Last year, Cashner's sinker came in at -8.2 inches horizontal movement (2.8 inches off his four seamer) and 7.6 inches vertical movement (2 inches below his four seamer).  Gausman's old sinker (he did not throw one last year) had a similar -8.2 inches horizontal movement (same horizontal movement as his four seamer last year) and a similar 7.5 inches vertical movement (about two inches different than his fastball.  The difference primarily is that Gausman has a really good boring four seam fastball that took away an axis of movement with his sinker.  If he could get a little more movement from his sinker then it could be a multiplanar pitch working off his fastball instead of one that sees two more inches of drop.

If it were to become a solid offering, then he would be spending a lot of time with his four seamer, splitter, and sinker.  This is a combination, again, that is not very common in the MLB.  You tend to see this combination in aging pitchers who are moving off their four seamer due to decreased velocity and over to a splitter.  In this circumstances, you see a good bit of a 10/10/50 lean where the pitcher surprises a batter with a four seamer or two seamer while subsisting on the splitter.  Mike Pelfrey and Tim Hudson are two examples.

However, it is a pitch set that you do see in a group of pitcher who share one thing in common: growing up in the Japanese baseball system.
Fav FA% FS% SI%
Hisashi Iwakuma 89 27 21 24
Masahiro Tanaka 92 16 26 20
Hiroki Kuroda 91 7 23 41
Kuroda can probably be knocked out of this grouping, but Iwakuma and Tanaka fit well.  In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a start who came up through the American system to show this style of pitching.  Pelfrey, Hudson, and Anibel Sanchez are the only regular starting pitchers over the past five years to use these three pitches more than 10% of the time.  Gausman also differs quite a bit from any of these pitchers in that he has a truly plus fastball.  These other pitchers fit more in a crafty veteran style.

It will be interesting to see if Gausman can come up with a decent sinker that profiles with more contrast with his four seamer.  Other pitchers have certainly found success with this mix.  Although, it may well be something that has not been a style for MLB raised pitchers for quite a long time.

1 comment:

Jan Frel said...

Jesus that was good