As the resident Kevin Gausman apologist, his start two nights ago against the Pirates was probably his most frustrating appearance so far in 2017.
Just as Gausman was starting to get into a rhythm, his Tuesday night 6.2 innings of four-run baseball, while progressive at times, just seemed like the watered down version of himself.
After a month and a half of trying to blow his fastball by everyone and anyone, Gausman made a mid-season adjustment, using his changeup, splitter and slider with more regularity toward the end of May and into June. On Tuesday, we saw Gausman revert back to his early season strategery, exclusively using the fastball when way ahead in the count, and leaking mistakes over the plate.
Funny enough, after giving up three runs in an extended second inning, Gausman tweaked his approach, allowing only one run through nearly five more innings of work. How so? By varying speeds.
From the start of April through May 14, the span of seven starts, Gausman threw his fastball at just over 63 percent with a 7.19 ERA, and that number has continued to climb. In his succeeding six starts, Gausman has had the fastball cooking up to a very nice 69 percent, with a 3.65 ERA accounting for that span. Strangely enough, his BABIP has slightly risen, while his strikeout rate has also marginally softened.
This strengthened adaptation is likely a byproduct of the Orioles heavy fastball philosophy that began upon Buck Showalter’s arrival, but this has been that and then some.
Since May 20, a span that has some believing Gausman may be straying away from his initial woes, his two-strike fastball rate has hovered around his overall fastball usage rate at just above 69 percent. Before then, Gausman was more diversified, using his fastball at 61.7 percent of the time in two strikes.
It doesn’t take much to understand the reasoning behind Orioles catchers wanting to use fastballs with the chance to put hitters away. If you believe the old adage that a well-placed fastball will always be the toughest pitch a hitter may see, then Gausman’s current approach is well and good. However, the Orioles have continued to throw two-strike fastballs, and it’s continually let them down.
Among starting staffs, the Orioles are last in baseball in strikeout percentage when combining 0-2 and 1-2 counts. A combined 34.0 percent strikeout rate between O’s starters is the lowest in both leagues, so naturally, the Orioles three qualified starters—including Gausman—are among the bottom of the pile in whiffs per swing.
This tired approach with two-strikes is among the reasons that Gausman currently owns a .422 BABIP with an opponent .819 OPS in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. If you repeatedly show the high 90’s fastball and batters pick up on its frequency, a lack of diversification and missed spots doesn’t create effective velocity. Waiting for bad things to happen merely becomes a matter of “when”, not “if”.
Just as he did against the Pirates, Gausman’s modus operandi has been to use the fastball early on, then flashing his secondary stuff with more haste as ballgames progress. This allows us to deduce that his nearly 75 percent use of the fastball the first time through the order is an attribute to his two-strike frustrations. For whatever reason, as Gausman settles into games, he becomes a more renaissanced righty.
One of the reasons Gausman seemed so ready to permanently pivot to what his talent suggests was because of what he did for most of the second-half of last season. Over that stretch, opponents sustained a lowly .685 OPS, as a 2.83 ERA and 23.7 percent strikeout rate were more parallel with the kind of pitcher Gausman can be. Doing what he did, those numbers were attained by using all of his pitches all game long.
We aren’t necessarily harping on using two-strike off-speed or breaking balls, but when he was down in the count, Gausman wasn’t afraid to throw use his splitter and slider in hitter’s counts.
For example, during his dominance a season ago, Gausman used his splitter, slider and changeup at a rate of 45 percent in 2-1 counts. Regardless of whether or not he earned a swing and a miss or hitters let his secondary stuff pass, Gausman issued a warning that he was willing to pitch a little bit backwards despite having a max-velocity fastball. That only made his fastball that much faster later in counts, which lead to soft contact and whiffs. Both of which, tend to mean outs.
In 2-1 counts in 2017, Gausman’s fastball has accounted for 65 percent of the stake, while he’s been less willing to use his splitter when behind. When you get the sense that a fastball is coming, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re throwing. You make big league hitters that much better.
It’ll be interesting to see if Gausman’s fastball command allows him to maintain his high-volume heater usage with two strikes, but as we’ve seen thus far, it just isn’t there. As magnificent as 9th inning rallies and walk-off home runs are, such heroics have camouflaged a string of really ugly starts. The Orioles are going to need someone other than Dylan Bundy to be viewed as a guy who probably delivers a win every fifth day, and Gausman is the obvious choice.
But in order to march forward, all he has to do is look behind him.