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Kevin Gausman could grow into the pitcher the Orioles need this year

He’s been growing right before our eyes since 2013. This year, Kevin Gausman’s role in the Orioles rotation could be massive, especially if he takes the necessary steps forward with his overall game.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Gausman is always expected to do more. Fair or not, the soon-to-be 26 year old tends to be viewed through a unique lens, one that sees the full potential in his abilities as something that hasn’t broken onto the scene quite yet. For the fourth overall selection out of the 2012 draft, the upcoming year marks one that might just feature a breakout campaign.

The multi-million dollar question for Gausman — and every young pitcher, for that matter — is rooted in his potential progression as he logs more major league innings. Projecting what lies ahead is difficult, but putting the pieces of his past together to make a semi-valuable prognosis might just work. Today, let’s do just that.

After all, it’s the first week in January. What else would we discuss?

A deeper dive into the arsenal

Gausman likes his fastball. You don’t need numbers to back up that statement, though the Fangraphs usage tally shows that he’s used his heater about 68 percent of the time since he’s been with the big-league club. It’s a plus pitch with some good run and velo when it’s working, so that’s not surprising.

The hallmark of a Gausman start is generally a devastating splitter, a pitch that could be argued as the best changeup-like offering in the league — there’s data to back that up.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ PitchFX leaderboards, Gausman had the second-best whiffs/swing percentage for splitters in all of baseball in 2016 amongst qualified arms both in relief and starting roles (in this case, a minimum of 200 pitches). At 45.86%, the only split with a higher percentage in this area is that of Zach Putnam, who sits at 46.15%.

Now, you might figure that the splitter isn't exactly a commonplace in Major League Baseball and we should dive into a search looking at the whiffs/swing numbers on MLB changeups. Let’s do it.

Amongst starters in the league — with the same 200 pitch minimum — just one pitcher had a whiff/swing number higher than Gausman’s on their “changeup”. That’d be Jeremy Hellickson, whose change-of-pace offering tallied an impressive 48.29%. Stephen Strasburg falls into second place in this query with 45.45%.

That all adds up to a simple truth: Kevin Gausman’s splitter is really, really good. And that’s great!

But if we’re searching for a step forward, one that could potentially knock down his 1.4 HR/9 number, we could start by toying with the idea that Gausman will need a legitimate third pitch to be a consistent every-five-day pitcher for years to come.

Up until this point, he’s gotten by with his two plus pitches. But as he looks to catapult his level of ability into the next level, it’s clear that continuing to develop a well-rounded arsenal needs to be a consideration.

After going back and taking notes on some of his highs and lows from 2016, it became clear that hitters were teeing off most when he left either his fastball or splitter over the middle of the plate — (duh, right?). He got in trouble most when he caught too much of the dish, and good Major League hitters took advantage. Nothing out of the ordinary there. However, while none of us are Major League pitching coaches, we could argue that many of those costly homers given up last season were byproducts of Gausman’s slight predictability.

He did own two plus pitches through his 30 starts, but if you remember back to one of the hot topics of the mid-summer stretch, Gausman also struggled to reel in consistency with his breaking ball.

Here’s a Gausman quote from a July story via Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun where the focus was on Gausman’s breaking-ball development:

"It's been good," Gausman said. "I think I'm kind of turning into more of a curveball pitcher. It's definitely taken strides toward being better and being more consistent just with the swings I'm getting on it. I'm getting more swings and misses, more weak contact, getting ground balls on it. I'm not really getting hit on it as much as before."

Later on in the story, as Meoli, too, hinted that a three-pitch arsenal structure could benefit Gausman in more ways than one, the soon-to-be 26-year-old talked about what he exactly categorized the pitch as.

He had always thrown a “slider” — and that’s still what Fangraphs labels the pitch in their usage charts — but there’s still no fantastic way of describing the pitch, something Gausman eluded to:

"I think the biggest thing is trying not to label it as something," Gausman said. "I think so many people get caught up in the fact that it's supposed to be a slider and it should be harder, or it's got to be a curveball and it should be slower. They're all breaking balls. In the last year, I've taken a step forward to just being like, 'Some nights, it's a little bit harder and more like a slider, and some night it's got a bigger break and a little slower.' I'm kind of learning how to throw which one I want to throw, so that's big."

Those quotes underscore the basic premise — as Gausman grows up in the big-leagues, how long can his dominant two-pitch approach continue to produce growth as more innings are logged? As the league continues their analysis, it’s more likely than not that the breaking pitch is going to need to develop.

And while the righty doesn’t exactly need to use it more than about 13 percent of the time as he currently does, the feel for controlling it and hitting spots will undoubtedly be a focal point.

Control vs. command

One area of Gausman’s game we’d all applaud is his ability to limit free passes to opposing batters. In the past two seasons, he’s had BB/9 ratios of 2.3 and 2.4 that have helped the at times walk-prone rotation keep those numbers down.

In 2016, there were just three starts out of 30 where he allowed more three or more walks. He throws strikes, and that’s mostly a good thing.

But piggybacking off of our last section and attempting to find a solution to lessen the damage when it comes to long balls, pinpointing on command, not control, is an intriguing topic. We’re all a little bit guilty of using these two terms interchangeably, but Gausman’s case is a perfect one in differentiating between the two.

Control isn’t an issue for Gausman, and unless something goes drastically awry in the future, it likely won’t ever be. He’s mastered the art of throwing strikes perhaps even better than anyone in the current rotation. However, as we continue on the path of attempting to find routes where he can go from legitimate MLB starter to All-Star caliber, command can be a crucial hot topic of progression.

Now, this is a totally inexact science, but there’s enough evidence in the highlights alone that suggest Gausman misses his spots in and around the zone a bit more than the average MLB pitcher. Again, it’s not a knock on his control, rather a conclusion, based upon the HRs he surrendered last season, that his pinpoint command can be improved.

It’s nitpicking and a general statement that doesn’t require much analysis, but I think it’s important to toss into the conversation when glossing over Gausman’s entire body of work.

He does a lot of things right. Analyzing him in full, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be the team’s ace in the very near future. If his progression sees an increased ability to command both his fastball and splitter, the home run numbers will drop and his value as a starting pitcher in this league will continue to grow.

The future is likely a bright one

Combining the pitching itself and the totality of the numbers, it says a whole lot that as an outside analyst, you’re hard-pressed to find many areas where there are glaring needs for improvement.

Truthfully, when analyzing a young arm with a bright future, one that tossed at-least six innings in each of his final nine starts in 2016 (five going into the 7th frame), it’s difficult to pull out too many pitfalls.

Gausman is a talented pitcher.

He’s a major-league starter with tremendous upside.

The Orioles are lucky to have him.

All true statements, all encouraging.

It’s understandably easy to look around the league at highlight-reel talent and ask when Gausman is going to reach his peak — it’s what we as fans of the game love to do. On the flip side, it’s sometimes difficult to let natural progression take place with our league’s young players and allow them to catch up, grow naturally and find their place as dominant players.

Gausman is on the right track. He’s logged some encouraging innings as a youngster and seems to be climbing the ladder one step at a time. By all means, success is going to continue to come, and likely with major improvements in value along the way.