As a young man, I was not fortunate enough to grow up with a fondness for Orioles starting pitching. As an adult, I have not been fortunate to grow up with a fondness for Orioles starting pitching.
Time is a flat circle, folks.
When the Orioles drafted Kevin Gausman, a fellow Coloradoan who was the talk of high school baseball in the state when we were both seniors in high school, I was thrilled. I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that he was a power pitcher that resembled the hope the Orioles had been searching for. And every year he’s been an Oriole, Gausman has, at times, showed that his right arm is worthy of such lofty ambition.
But there’s been those other times, too.
Yet again, Gausman crumbled in the first half of the 2017 season, only to emerge as the team’s best pitcher down the stretch. If two years of the same thing means signals a trend, it’s a pattern unbecoming of a pitcher the caliber that Gausman is.
As was stated before, Gausman’s 2017 mirrored much of what he did last season, except the peaks and valleys were much more extreme. In 97.0 first-half innings, Gausman pitched to a 5.85 ERA, with a 18.4-percent strikeout rate and a 9.8-percent walk rate, all numbers that don’t speak to Gausman’s talent level.
Though the Gaus has never created a ton of strikeouts, he was basically pitching like a glorified Jason Vargas, you know, without the All-Star bid. In Gausman’s initial 97.0 innings this season, his WHIP finished at 1.76 (the worst in baseball), while this slate of poor peripherals can also be judged on the merits of a .376 BABIP (also the worst in baseball).
He was probably as unlucky as he was bad, though with such a high walk rate while failing to put away hitters, he kind of got what he deserved. Gausman was also very predictable in his offerings, not helping the cause, either.
Even as Gausman has progressed season-by-season, he continues to rely too heavily on the fastball. This approach, despite his 2016 surge proving otherwise, has been tried and tested and continues to define as insane.
Whether he was stuck throwing fastballs because he couldn’t throw strikes or just wasn’t confident throwing his splitter is a question tough to answer, but the shorter answer is simple. Gausman is a prime example of what happens when you throw too many fastballs in an era where 96 MPH isn’t as intimidating as it used to be. All of these dudes nowadays can hit fastballs, and Gausman was far too predictable in trying to get outs.
I thought one of the more intriguing moments of the Orioles collapse was right after his second-to-last start, an outing where Gausman went four innings giving up six runs, he was asked to sum up his 2017 season to that point. His response:
“Not very good all around,” Gausman said of his season. “Didn’t go deep into ballgames. Not many quality starts. Obviously, I’m very frustrated. And with the season I had last year and obviously starting Opening Day. I haven’t been a guy that should have gotten that right this year. … I feel like I’ve been throwing the ball well, so that’s what makes it even more frustrating.”
And he’s spot on. Gausman didn’t go deep into ballgames, he should have gotten right sooner than he did, and though it may mean more to some than others, getting the ball on opening day can have its significance. The Orioles have every right to expect more from a pitcher like Gausman, and yet again he disappointed.
Gausman also mentioned to MASN earlier in September that he felt much more relaxed and confident in his mechanics during the summer months, and it showed. Gausman finished the year with a 3.41 ERA and a strikeout rate of 26.2 percent, where his walks also declined. Compared to his first half 1.76 WHIP, Gausman lowered that figure to 1.20 down the stretch. So too did his BABIP, falling to a much more productive .289.
He was much better to end the season and as it is with pitching, it boiled down to command.
The map on the left shows Gausman’s first-half location frequencies, where the map on the right signifies his work in the second-half. After struggling mightily to locate with quality, Gausman was much more adept working away from lefties and into righties to end the year. The tell-tale sign of a good pitcher isn’t just the ability to throw strikes, but strikes that make hitters second-guess the strike zone. It’s no coincidence Gausman pitched to his capability over the second-half.
Contributing at a standard behooving to his gifts, Gausman also relearned how to become more of a pitcher.
The splitter came back with a vengeance, and naturally, so did Gausman. His ground ball numbers increased, while the manner of his surrendered contact softened. Jamming righties or drifting away to lefties with a running fastball while getting guys to swing over the top of his splitter has always been Gausman’s bread and butter. Over the second-half, he was churning because he found the strike zone and missed barrels. If only it was only that easy...
I’m a staunch Gausman defender because unlike the tumbleweeds that have blown through Baltimore for most of my life, this guy has everything it takes to spread his roots and grow. All of his up and down struggles have certainly dented my belief in this creed, but when he has it figured it out, he’s exactly what the Orioles have needed.
Pitching to a 3.26 ERA over his past two second-halves, Gausman has offered the notion that he can indeed be good over long periods of time. But he has to do it even longer.
Because the Orioles can’t win if he doesn’t.