clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Orioles need Kevin Gausman to get on track, and he will

In three starts so far this season, the Orioles most exciting arm hasn’t lived up to early breakout expectations. We’re gonna make excuses for him.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Jumping out to a 9-4 start, would such an Orioles’ hypothetical at the start of the season include a struggling Kevin Gausman?

Probably not, but the Orioles are weird.

Gausman’s steady maturation and inherent gifts made 2017 look like the year he would stop and sneak into the elevator destined for the penthouse. Early on however, the 26 year-old has pitched more like a porky kid pressing all the buttons just to piss off everyone else in the cabin.

In 18.2 innings in Gausman’s four starts, he’s accumulated an initial 7.23 ERA (4.30 FIP), while his opponent BABIP numbers have skyrocketed up to a .379 mark after a .308 total a season ago. Walks are up, strikeouts are down, and for a guy whose most noticeable trait is his power arm, his early returns profile a pitcher dwarfing his mountainous stuff.

While Gausman’s number’s have stricken the Orioles’ faithful with an early case of onset panic, calm reflection and deductive reasoning may suggest a few reasons for the righty’s current funk.

Obviously, the most glaring issue has been Gausman’s pitch inefficiency. In four starts, he’s averaged 4.2 innings per appearance with a 94 pitch mean, majorly attributed to long at-bats. While a pitcher with Gausman’s veracity doesn’t fit the bill as someone who’d have a hard time putting hitters away, his peripherals make such a reality tough to comprehend.

Kevin Gausman Plate Discipline 2016-17

Plate Discipline O-Swing % Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Plate Discipline O-Swing % Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
2016 34.80% 67.10% 48.20% 65.50% 86.50% 41.40%
2017 25.10% 60.60% 40.70% 71.70% 82.00% 43.90%

Strangely, Gausman has actually seen his success grow within the strike zone. Hitters have been more hesitant around the plate, and despite the walks, his ratio of pitches working over the plate is currently trending upwards compared to last season. On the contrary, Gausman’s drawn-out starts can be blamed on his inability to get hitters to flail, as his chase rate has stumbled while contact made outside the zone has climbed.

So why does someone with Gausman’s arsenal fail to create swings and misses? Well, the expansion of his slider may be a cause.

Gausman has made an early effort to use his slider with more frequency, a likely signal he’s more comfortable with the pitch now than he was a year ago. While I’m all for a more diverse roulette, Gausman hasn’t quite figured out when to use it.

Kevin Gausman Pitch Usage 2016-17

Pitch Usage FS% FS Sw-Str% SL% SL Sw-Str%
Pitch Usage FS% FS Sw-Str% SL% SL Sw-Str%
2016 21.30% 22.00% 13.30% 12.80%
2017 20.00% 14.70% 17.6%% 7.60%

Though the splitter usage hasn’t curtailed so drastically, Kevin’s reliance on the splitter as his go-to out pitch a season ago (38.7 K%) hasn’t identified as the same in 2017 (9.1 K%). As Gausman has attempted to use his slider more, it hasn’t been kind of out creator he’d like it to be. Even more perplexing, he’s used both pitches down in the zone with two strikes in a manner befit to get outs.

In order to create swings and misses as well as weak contact with the off-speed stuff, hitters have to respect the fastball. Clearly, Gausman’s April command of his best pitch hasn’t been as crisp as he showed towards the latter half of 2016.

Or has it?

Though the early catching metrics have Welington Castillo as slightly less than average as a pitch framer, the eye test in his case shows a guy making a concerted effort to help his pitchers out. Though Castillo isn’t perfect, he’s definitely been a boost, and though Gausman’s fastball has built a preemptive reputation as erratic, he’s still creating space on the perimeter of the plate.

Building on the momentum he established at season’s end, Gausman has still found a way to bust the fastball into the arm side of the plate, while maintaining a similar pattern on his glove side as well.

With more pitches over the plate and the expanded feature of his slider, it’s hard to comprehend that Gausman would have such a difficult time managing his pitch allotment. While Gausman is more than capable of missing bats, that hasn’t quite happened yet, and some of it lies in his sequencing.

In terms of pitch tunnels, Gausman hasn’t capitalized on creating necessary deception. For example, Gausman’s splitter-fastball combination has been a relied upon formula, though a tunnel differential of 1.0936 tells us that his fastball has consistently crossed the plate at a far differing plane than the immediate splitter. In simpler terms, he is yet to force hitters to make that split-decision to swing, as he’s made it a little too easy to decipher his plan of attack.

On the other end however, Gausman’s fastball-fastball pitch pair has shows just how much life he has on his fastball, accumulating a 0.0861 post-tunnel break ratio, 24th-best among pitchers in a field of narrow margins.

While Gausman’s start to 2017 has been imperfect, we’re probably looking at case of early- season kinks still in the process of being worked out, while he still figures how his arsenal works best for him. The Adam Duvall grand slam on Tuesday was the first home run he’s surrendered thus far (on a tough pitch to boot), a sign of encouragement for a player whose susceptibility to the home run has proven to be a historical chunk of his surrendered run output.

Finding the feel for the fastball will cut down the walks, making his slider and splitter more potent, which creates more whiffs which shortens at-bats and starts to make all of this seem like a distant memory. It’s still April, things are still coming together, and as frustrating as it is to see a player like Gausman with so much working in his benefit, it’s still only April.

He’s just too good for things not to turn around.