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Orioles’ Gausman is prioritizing precision over power in early-season success

Is the right-hander finally turning that long-awaited corner?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In the midst of a nightmare opening to the season for his team, Kevin Gausman has quietly become the Orioles most reliable starting pitcher. However, it’s not been business as usual for the 27-year-old. Gausman, it seems, has reinvented himself during his sixth major league campaign, and it’s working to great effect.

Over the years, Gausman had become known as a power pitcher. Between 2013 and 2017, the right-hander’s average four-seam fastball velocity bounced between 95.3 and 96.8 mph, according to FanGraphs. This season, it’s down to 93.8. The drop in velocity could be intentional, or it may just be part of the aging process. Whatever the case, Gausman’s fastball has been his least valuable pitch so far this season, and it has coincided with him getting more creative in his pitch selection.

Only 57.9 percent of his pitches have been four-seamers, the lowest mark of his career. Most of his off-speed stuff is now being thrown with career-high regularity. Splitters are making up 22.6 percent of his offerings, followed by sliders (17.4 percent) and changeups (1.9 percent). The only pitch that hasn’t been involved much is the sinker (0.3 percent), but he’s never shown a desire to throw it often anyway.

The result has been much more active hitters. Opposing offensives are swinging at 49.2 percent of pitches and Gausman is getting 11.6 percent of his strikes from swings. Both are the biggest of career.

More swings has meant less pitches per plate appearance (3.80) and, therefore, fewer walks and strikeouts. His 7.41 strikeouts and 2.12 walks per nine innings pitched are well below his career averages of 8.27 and 2.74, respectively. This has allowed him to go deeper into games than ever before. He already has one nine-inning performance and two other outings where he has pitched into the eighth frame. He is averaging just over 6.1 innings per start, which would be his best mark as an MLBer if it continues.

Something that Gausman has benefitted from lately is extra rest in-between starts. His nine-inning game in Oakland came after an extra day. Same goes for his most recent outing. Clearly, it’s a set-up that the O’s feel comfortable with as well, because he is getting pushed back another day this week. Instead of starting on Wednesday as originally planned, he will move to Thursday. That also means pitching against the Red Sox instead of the Phillies, which could have potentially contributed to the decision too.

There are a few aspects of his performance that raise red flags, but many of them can be reasonably explained away. Gausman has stranded 86.6 percent of runners, way above his 76.1 percent average, but it may be happening because he’s not allowing as many runners on base (1.196 WHIP). His ERA (3.18) has never been lower, but it’s not ridiculously far off from his xFIP (4.00).

Batters are hitting .275 against Gausman on balls in play, which is a tad suspicious given that 33.8 percent of balls are being hit hard against him, his highest rate since his 2013 rookie season. However, he is working with a 45.2 percent ground ball rate, the highest he’s ever posted. Even with this lackluster Orioles defense behind him, ground balls are going to be better than fly balls.

This season, so far, rejects many of Gausman’s typical stats because he has changed his tendencies quite drastically. Scouting reports from past seasons don’t really apply. Rather than bringing the heat and relying on that velocity to get outs, the former LSU pitcher is slowing things down and mixing his pitches to keep hitters off balance.

As the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli explained back in April, Gausman has even tweaked his windup as well. It’s a longer motion now that includes more moving parts in which the hurler’s hands go above and behind his head during his rock back before swinging back down in front of him to build momentum. It’s the opposite of what you would expect most pitchers to do. Rather than simplifying, Gausman made things more complicated. He told Meoli in that piece from the Sun that it has helped him stay closed prior to unleashing his pitches.

There would still seem to be room for improvement. One avenue that he could explore would be involving his changeup more often. It’s a pitch he seems to have grown less and less fond of over the course of his career. He threw it seven percent of the time as a rookie and is down under two percent now.

It gets kind of confusing with Gausman because he has a split-change and a regular change. The split-change is his best pitch overall and he throws that a lot. He could probably stand to throw that more often too, but it’s not what we’re talking about here.

The straight change is a little faster, according to FanGraphs. Pound for pound, it grades out as his best pitch this season. Over 100 pitches thrown, the changeup is worth 4.45 runs above average. His split change is worth 3.31. His slider is worth 2.50. And the fastball is a ghastly -1.47. You can understand why he is using more off-speed stuff.

Gausman’s talent has always been obvious. It was only a matter of time before he strung a few starts like this together. What few likely foresaw was the way in which he has done it. Fewer fastballs and more off-speed stuff wasn’t the style in which Gausman was expected to flourish, but he’s done just that to begin the 2018 season. Can he continue to do so? It will be fun to watch and find out.