Despite taking the loss and only throwing five innings, watching Kevin Gausman was the ultimate breath of fresh air.
Displaying an average fastball velocity of 96.4 MPH (and after one start, his average fastball sits behind only Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi), Gausman managed to stroll through five innings relatively unharmed. His only blemish? A 3-2, 97 MPH fastball Rays' catcher Curt Casali turned around for an RBI double, scoring Steven Souza who was moving on the pitch.
An argument could be made that Gausman should have been awarded a strikeout on the previous pitch to Casali, but as seems to be a trend among home plate umpires, the O's got squeezed.
As frustrating as such a missed call is, the Orioles didn't score any runs anyway. It would be like trading no runs for having Pedro Alvarez go 2-3 with a pair of hard hit balls as hope he may soon find his swing. Oh wait...
Anyway, the evening was not wasted. Gausman's return from his minor league rehab stint went about as well as any Orioles fan could have expected. For the majority of the night, Gausman commanded both sides of the plate, changed speeds and and quite frankly, made the Rays look really, really bad.
The question of "stuff" has never plagued Gausman, and on nights like Monday, we glimpsed into his delicate molding as a pitcher. Most noticeably was Gausman's reintroduction of his slurve, or for the uninitiated a "slider-curve". One of the Gaus' bigger bugaboos throughout his time in the big leagues has been his lack of a go-to breaking ball, but on Monday, we saw a pitch of a certain quality he'd yet to feature.
In 2015, there were grumblings that Gausman was ready to ditch the slider, a pitch he'd never really had a feel for. Exchanging the slider for the curveball, a pitch he'd grown up with and used at LSU, the Orioles' pitching coaches approached Gausman with an anti-Adair philosophy. However, with Gausman slated for bullpen duties, he opted against using his curveball, as he was still regaining confidence in its entirety. He went back to the slider.
Essentially a two-pitch pitcher, Gausman's time in the big leagues has revolved around striking out hitters with two-strike fastballs and using the splitter as his secondary offering. His breaking ball was never convincing enough for it be taken seriously.
Last July, Gausman struck out Adonis Garcia on what was his modified slider in a 2-2 count. While Garcia's butterfingers make the result of his swing look much worse than it actually was, Gausman's breaking ball was more in between a cutter and slider, lacking much movement and even more depth.
As deceiving as Wile E. Coyote was to the Roadrunner, Gausman's "slutter" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had never been used more than 10.8% over the course of a year, that of course being last year.
It's never easy to take a sample size of five innings and 25 slurves at face value, but Gausman's commitment to a craftier breaking pitch is no secret. Well, the secret appears to be out of the bag.
*Stares into oblivion, interrupted*
Oh, hey. Sorry there. I got lost in thought.
*Recognizance slowly returns, though not without GIF temptation*
And it wasn't as if this kind of pitch was a one-hit wonder. Up until Gaus seemed to lose some juice into the 5th inning, this was the basis of what he featured throughout the night. Actually, 28% of the night, a career-high in any outing terms of breaking ball usage.
A knockout, dynamite, sliding curveball that would seem more prone to bats being flung over the dugout. Obviously, the pronouncing difference between Gausman's varying breaking balls is the explosiveness. In 2015, Gausman lofted a pitch that, from personal experience, would be labeled a "disco ball", because all it does is spin. The new Gausman slurve does a lot more than spin.
The graph on the left refers to the northernmost GIF, where as the graph on the right charts Gausman's slurve usage from Monday. As we can pinpoint from one pitch in 2015, you're looking at a pitch hovering around 300 RPM's, not the sort of rotational force you hope to create when throwing a slider.
On Monday, Gausman managed to create pitches with around the same RPM's, but as it pertains to said rotation, a slider is not a slurve. Upon some investigating in regards to spin rates from 2015, not much has really changed. His range of about 300-1000 rotations per minute sit around where he was with his slider and where he is now with the slurve, which can mean thing a few things, but likely points to one simple truth.
He's just more comfortable with the slurve.
A slider is not an easy pitch to throw, and like some guys who can't maneuver a changeup or curveball into the strike zone, some can't grasp the concept of a slider. If you watch pitchers like Chris Archer, who can throw sliders upwards of 30-40% of an outing, their success hinges on familiarity with the grip, release point and feel of the pitch. Archer, for example, is one of the best at manipulating the slider's thought-process.
The pitch is executed to perfection with the intention of a fastball, but released with the same motion of a quarterback, more or less. Many can "throw" a slider, but those that have it mastered, like Archer, separate themselves for obvious reasons. More rotation is needed to create the "wipeout" effect that Archer magically produces, but a slurve doesn't. The grip and natural release of the baseball do most of the work, and that happens to be where Gausman is better suited.
For Gausman, a pitcher adding a pitch such as this at the big league level, could have either thrived or succumbed to its demands, and unfortunately it didn't work out. Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti did the right thing by getting Gausman back to his original base, and because of it, Gausman now has a pitch he can use with a clear state of mind.
All pitchers pitch with a personal, unique delivery, meaning the baseball won't always conform the way we want it to. Gausman is more adaptable to a curveball grip, and as his wind-up and approach to the plate deem it be, it's just easier for him to come down on the baseball than around it.
Not having an "out pitch" to use against right-handers is more or less unheard for a starting righty, but I'd bet such a notion wiped away before long. By becoming less predictable, in any count, will make Gausman that much scarier because the slurve changes the eye level and placement in all four directions of the plate.
The slurve will make the fastball look faster, his rising fastball more enticing, the splitter harder to pick out, and with a pitch averaging nearly 14 MPH difference on his fastball, you'll see more swings like Evan Longoria showed above. It's amazing what happens when a player is allowed to champion his personal craft the way it was intended it to be. You know, Jake Arrieta, yada yada, yada...
Granted, it's just one outing and who knows. Maybe he was simply having a more than unusual night locating the slurve. As is one of baseball's new favorite terms, perhaps he was just getting lucky. I would press you to aim for more, however.
I think the Gaus just got nastier.