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Kevin Gausman, two steps forward and one step back

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Kevin Gausman had a seemingly disappointing 2015 for the Orioles, but still made strides forward as a pitcher. Read below for his strange 2015 results.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

2015 was another strange year for Kevin Gausman. He started off in the bullpen as the next man up in a rotation that had no holes out of Spring Training. Only it turned out that the rotation had quite a few glaring holes and before he could even step up to the rotation he struggled in the bullpen and went down with an injury. All in all, Gausman pitched 112.1 innings, only one inning less than 2014, posting a 4.25 ERA--compared to a 3.57 ERA in 2014. Not great results for one of the few young pitchers the Orioles have decided is simply too good to trade away.

His FIP even says this year he was much worse, 4.10 compared to 3.41 a year ago. Really though, Gausman was not all that different of a pitcher in 2015 compared to 2014 even if the results say so. His xFIP in 2014 was 3.93. In his 17 starts (100.1 innings) in 2015 he posted an xFIP of 3.74. According to xFIP, he actually was a better all around pitcher in 2015 which seems crazy. But, what xFIP does is normalize a pitcher's home run rate on fly balls. The theory being that home run rate stabilizes for most pitchers around 10 percent and some of the fluctuation can be explained by simple bad or good luck. This becomes very important for Gausman because in 2014 he posted a paltry 5.8 percent home run rate and in 2015 he posted the much more robust 13.6 percent in his 17 starts.

Now, some pitchers can influence their home runs rates above or below that ten percent mark, but usually only by about one or two percent. The wild swings from Gausman over the past two seasons would indicate that his home run rate has most likely not found it's true resting state. So, his quality xFIP number in 2015 (3.96 league average) indicate that Kevin Gausman was simply unlucky in 2015, but remained the same, if not a better, pitcher than he was in 2014.

And if that was all I gave you, that would be enough, but I have more.

See, defensive independent pitching statistics (FIP and xFIP being among the most popular) have often perturbed me for their simplifying of baseball. So I like to dig deeper and see if their is more underlying the numbers. Another obvious pitfall is Gausman's struggles versus right handed hitters who hit for a .360 wOBA in 2015 against Gausman. Some would say a reverse split is due to regress, some would say that his lack of a true breaking ball makes it hard for him to get right handed hitters out. But, even a bad split cannot explain it all. Below is a table of numbers I like to use when analyzing a pitcher and I believe reveal a bit more about 2015 for Kevin Gausman.

Year BABIP K% BB% LOB% LD% FB% HR/FB Hard% Contact% SwStr%
2014 .304 18.5% 8.0% 72.8% 23.3% 35.3% 5.8% 28.4% 80.5% 8.8%
2015* .289 21.5% 5.7% 72.8% 18.1% 36.8% 13.6% 27.5% 77.7% 10.9%

*All 2015 numbers are from Gausman's 17 starts.

By almost all of the those measures, Kevin Gausman was an even better pitcher in 2015 than he was in 2014. He struck out more batters, walked less, stranded the same amount, gave up less line drives, gave up a similar amount of fly balls, gave up a little less hard contact, gave up nearly three percent less contact than before, and got batters to swing and miss two percent more. In fact, his swinging strike rate was right behind Jake Arrieta and Stephen Strasburg for the year. All of that indicates to me that Gausman got better, not worse, as a pitcher in 2015. Yet, those pesky home runs kept that from showing in the results, which may have been simply some bad luck on his part.

Once again, if that was all I gave you, that would be enough, but I have more.

I thought, well maybe since I noticed that he was throwing his fastball up in the zone more that has led to more home runs and thus the significantly higher home run rate. So I looked at his Pitchf/x data. First thing I noticed was that he threw a curve ball for the first time in the major leagues in 2015 and pretty much scrapped his slider. If you remember way back to draft day 2012 his curve was the pitch the Orioles decided to scrap so he could work on his slider which they thought was the better of his two breaking pitches. Score another one for the Orioles failure to properly develop pitchers. He threw his curve around 10 percent in 2015 which is up about two and half percent from his 2014 slider. He also increased the percentage of sinkers he threw, but only to about five and half percent. This reduced the rate of four seam fastballs to 64 percent from 69 percent in 2014. So his pitch mix changed slightly, but nothing that would indicate he was becoming dinger prone.

As I said before, he is also locating his fastball higher in the zone by about 2.5 inches on average over the course of the year. Yet, the rate of fly balls and line drives put in play on his four seam fastball remained essentially the same. And the location of his other pitches largely remained the same. However, he did have a much higher isolated power (ISO) against his fast ball in 2015, .194 compared to .105 in 2014. The other big takeaway is that his splitter and straight change were also hit much harder in 2015, but his curve ball was a surprisingly effective pitch for weak contact only allowing a .087 ISO against. Those higher isolated power numbers could be some bad luck on balls going over the fence instead of into a fielder's glove or they could be because of bad location.

In conclusion , ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I'm not entirely sure what to make of all of that. If I had to make a guess, I would think Gausman simply ran into some bad luck in 2015, but has things he needs to improve on as well. Like most falsely dichotomous choices in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. He struck out more hitters, got them to swing and miss more, and gave up weaker contact. But, he located his fastball higher and it got hammered, which again may simply be a small sample size fluctuation. He needs to work on everything and hopefully in 2016 the yo-yoing back and forth between the majors and AAA will stop as he cements a spot in the rotation and goes for 200 innings. The Orioles--and all of us--are really banking on it.

All Pitchf/x data was taken from BrooksBaseball.net and all other data was taken from Fangraphs.com