03 July 2018

Kevin Gausman Is Doing Second-Half Things In The First Half

Like other promising but inconsistent starting pitchers throughout the game, Kevin Gausman can look amazing and terrible in consecutive starts. It can happen to any pitcher, really, because baseball is incredibly difficult, but there's something about the Orioles and not getting the most out of their pitching talent.

Gausman also has made a habit of putting together cold-then-hot campaigns. In his five big league seasons before 2018, Gausman easily performed better in the second half:

1st half (2013-2017): 4.94 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 19.5 K%, 7.5 BB%
2nd half (2013-2017): 3.58 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 23.7 K%, 7.1 BB%

These strong second halves typically lead to Gausman breakout questions. What if he could do this for a full season? He could be an actual frontline starting pitcher, or even *gasp* an ace!

Well, it's July now, and Gausman is having himself a solid first half, with a 4.05 ERA and a 4.36 FIP. That ERA is better than league average for a starter in the American League (4.27), while the FIP isn't (4.25). But even though his strikeouts aren't as high as they've been the last few seasons (20.7 K%), Gausman is doing some things to get excited about. His 5.8 BB% would be the lowest of his career (previous low of 6.2%), and his groundball rate (46.3%) would be the highest (previous high of 44.4%).

Gausman has dialed back his fastball usage a bit while throwing his secondary offerings -- his split-change up (his best pitch) and his slider -- more. He isn't getting as many swings and misses as in previous seasons, but his nasty splitter is generating more grounders.

He also made a tweak in mid-April that seems to be paying dividends. Before an April 18 start against the Tigers, Gausman decided to adjust his windup by bringing his hands behind his head:
The adjustment was born out of his dry throws off the mound Tuesday at Comerica Park, his day-before-starting ritual.

"I just kind of started messing around with it," Gausman said. "And it felt really good. I felt like I was landing in the same spot every time, and just felt like I was really reaching toward home plate. I told [pitching coach Roger McDowell] yesterday that I was going to do it, and he kind of challenged me a little more and said, 'No, you're not.' And whenever someone challenges me that I can't do something, I'm probably going to do that."
 This is what Gausman's windup looked like in October 2017:

He also started the year with his traditional windup, but that didn't last long. Since his start on the 18th, Gausman's windup has looked like this one (on May 22):

It's not an enormous change, but Gausman has been very good since: 3.61 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 20.6 K%, 5.2 BB%. Coincidentally, he also posted that exact same ERA and a similar FIP (4.10) in 2016, his best individual season to date. It may be a coincidence, but Gausman's fastball velocity increased in May and then again in June.

Still, there have been bumps in the road. On May 17, Gausman allowed six runs in 4.2 innings against the Red Sox. A week and a half later, he lasted just 2.2 innings against the Rays while giving up seven runs.

But in his last five starts, he's gone at least 5.2 innings in each outing while allowing three or fewer runs. On April 23, he threw an immaculate inning against the Indians while allowing two runs in eight innings. On May 5, he threw nine innings of shutout ball in Oakland in a game the Orioles somehow lost 2-0 in 12 innings. And most recently, he tossed eight innings of two-run ball against the Angels.

Gausman has gone on intriguing pitching runs before. Pitchers adjust all the time, and Gausman is no different. Maybe this season he'll switch things up by having an encouraging first half followed by an underwhelming second half. Or maybe Gausman will keep things rolling and put together his best season since 2016, or perhaps one that's even better. Whether the new windup is leading to smoother mechanics or is just easing Gausman mentally, it's working for now. And don't forget: Anyone pitching well in front of this defense deserves credit.

Photo: Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

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