The Orioles are struggling and all eyes are on the starting pitching, although if you ask me their struggles in the month of July have been offense related and not the pitching. However, the Orioles going into the season were very much banking on a step forward by their former top draft pick Kevin Gausman.
After his most recent start in Toronto, Gausman has a 4.18 ERA. An alright number, but not as good as the Orioles have hoped for. Jumping out among the basic peripheral numbers is the staggering amount of home runs he has given up. Gausman’s current home run to fly ball rate is 17.6 percent. League average in 2016 is 12.7 percent.
Going a little bit deeper, his continuing struggles against right handed hitters is the primary cause of his troubles. For his career, Gausman has a .348 wOBA (weighted on base average is an all encompassing offensive statistic that uses linear weights to attribute value to different outcomes, you can read more about it here) against right handed hitters. In 2016, it is all the way up to .386.
The league average in 2016 is a .318 wOBA. By the way, against left handed hitters in 2016 Gausman has allowed a .270 wOBA. On top of all that, Gausman has a 6.9 percent HR/FB against left handed hitters and an eye popping 30.0 percent HR/FB against right handed hitters in 2016.
Clearly, Kevin Gausman’s has yet to take a step forward because of his struggles against right handed hitters. However, that does not answer the question of why. I have three theories.
Cannot command his fastball away to right handed hitters
This is not the first problem you’ll hear about when it comes to Kevin Gausman, but it matters. Gausman much prefers to pitch to his arm side rather than his glove side. This means he can work the zone away on lefties to get ground balls and whiffs. However, because of some other limitations with Gausman’s arsenal, with right handed hitters it means they can focus on one area of the plate if Gausman cannot command his fastball to both sides of the plate.
Below are two zone profiles to illustrate this point. The first is the zone profile for Gausman’s four seam fastballs he has thrown in 2016 to right handed hitters, the second is against left handed hitters.
Looking at the charts it’s clear where Gausman is comfortable with his fastball. He busts left handed hitters away and out of the zone mostly to induce weak contact and play up his excellent splitter. However, to right handed hitters the focus is missing. The balls tend to either be low and out of the zone or too far inside.
The most common part of the zone for his fastball against right handed hitters is right down the middle. Not ideal. If Gausman could get his fastball working to both sides of the plate it becomes a much more effective weapon against right handed hitters.
A bad breaking ball
Gausman’s breaking ball has been the subject of much discussion throughout his tenure with the Orioles. Even coming out of the draft scouts said it was well behind his fastball and splitter. It is still his weakest pitch. This year Gausman is back to using his curve and has shelved the slider. He uses the pitch 14.71 percent of the time against right handed hitters. It’s not insignificant.
Right handed hitters also murder the pitch. Right handed hitters have a 0.429 isolated power number in 2016 against Gausman’s curve ball. League average ISO in 2016 is .161. “That’s not very good” said the astute analyst.
The breaking ball is important to Gausman because it’s the only pitch he has where it breaks away from right handed hitters. The splitter/sometimes straight change he throws all break in to right handed hitters and the fastball does not break. A breaking pitch gives the hitter something else to think about.
But, he does not locate it well enough to reap the benefits of the break. Without a different look, and in combination with poor fastball command to both sides of the plate, it leads to struggles against right handed hitters.
Kevin Gausman’s best pitch is his splitter. It gets by far the most swings and misses, right round 25 percent of the time. Also, when put into play, it results in a ground ball around 55 percent of the time. Furthermore, it only has a .143 ISO against, far and away the lowest of any of his pitches.
Some of those numbers also stay true with right handed hitters. His usage rate goes way down to only 11.75 percent of the time versus the 23.92 percent of the time he throws it against left handed hitters. He also gets whiffs on 29.41 percent of his splitters to right handed hitters which is very good. Far and away his best swing and miss pitch against right handed hitters.
However, those numbers are hard to square with the results overall for his splitter against right handed hitters. Right handed hitters have a .290 batting average against his splitter with a .645 slugging percentage. They kill his splitter. For comparison, lefties hit .208 with a .226 SLG. The numbers are both good and bad for him. The reason is harder to discern.
He does not throw many splitters in the zone overall, nor does he to right handed hitters. He mostly keeps it below the zone, but the splitters he does leave in the zone get killed. Again though, he averages about a foot and half below the center of the strike zone on his splitter. It could be he simply leaves too many splitters up in the zone and right handed hitters kill them.
All three of these in combination cause Gausman to struggle against right handed hitters. The lack of fastball command to both of sides of the plate leaves too many that are dead center. The lack of a quality breaking ball means that he has no effective pitch that moves away from right handed hitters.
Lastly, the splitter, for some reason (maybe even because of the negative effects of the first two reasons), gets both good and bad results. That leaves Gausman with little to battle against right handed hitters.
The way to fix it is tougher. Either a significantly improved breaking ball or sharpening of fastball command would yield great dividends in my mind. Both could be hard to achieve. Or, dare I say, the development of a cut fastball. The other idea is to fully commit to the splitter against right handed hitters.
They have killed the pitch, but if he can work that low and his fastball high the combination could work. The splitter is clearly effective against right handed hitters with such a high whiff rate. Turning himself into a two pitch starter might not be the best move, but he needs to change something to get right handed hitters out.