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A Birdland Salute to Kevin Gausman

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The number of guys from the “I like our guys” era of the Orioles is dwindling rapidly. With a Tuesday trade to the Braves, Kevin Gausman joins the group whose careers have headed elsewhere.

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles
Kevin Gausman from the time of infinite potential.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

There is nothing quite as exciting as a well-regarded pitching prospect. Why this is the case is a bit of a mystery, given the unpleasant truth behind the nihilistic acronym TINSTAAP - “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.” They get hurt, they turn out bad, or both. Yet when you start dreaming about your pitching prospects, those all seem like distant problems that happen to other people’s pitchers.

I find myself thinking about all of this as I ponder a farewell to Kevin Gausman, Oriole. Gausman was in a very real way the most exciting draft pick that the Orioles ever got to make in the Dan Duquette era. The 2012 team was already surprisingly good and the O’s still got to reap the #4 pick in that June’s draft from a bad 2011 team. The idea of adding a top draft pick to augment an already-successful team was appealing.

Gausman came to us from Louisiana State University, and it was not only in Orioles fans minds that Gausman could be considered an exciting prospect. The professional prospect ranking crowd glommed onto him quickly, with MLB.com rating him as the #37 prospect in baseball prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America rating him #26, and Baseball Prospectus putting Gausman at #13 in baseball. He rated even higher with each of these publications before 2014.

Gausman, in short, was one of the good ones, and as manager Buck Showalter has been known to say on that subject, “You can’t mess up the good ones.” Except, well...

The Orioles were determined to put that theory to the test. Within a year of being drafted, Gausman got promoted to the MLB level and thrown right into the rotation. Three of his first five starts were bad and after that the Orioles jerked him into the bullpen. The next season, they waited until June to summon Gausman from the minors for good, and the year after THAT, in 2015, they once again jerked him between the bullpen and the rotation.

In spite of all of this messing around on the part of the team, Gausman nonetheless managed to be forged into the elusive solid starting pitcher. When the O’s finally stopped screwing around with Gausman in the 2016 season, giving him 30 starts in the big league rotation, it is not a coincidence that he posted a 3.61 ERA over 179.2 innings, with 174 strikeouts against just 47 walks.

Those are not numbers that will win anybody a Cy Young award but they are numbers that are practically to die for among the results of recent Orioles starting pitchers. That level of success did not last. Was it the deterioration of the Orioles defense that hampered Gausman after that? The departures of coaches Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, with whom he can now be reunited after his trade to Atlanta? Something else? We may never know for certain.

Even Gausman himself, facing Orioles reporters for an exit interview of sorts after he was traded away from the only MLB organization he has ever known, acknowledged that he felt like he had not pitched as well as he could have here.

Few Orioles fans would disagree. For my part, I do not blame Gausman. He is the heroic figure in this narrative, battling valiantly against the comical ineptitude of the Orioles starting pitching development, or at least what passes for such.

Whatever success Gausman has found was in spite of that force, rather than because of it, and I believe that now that he has been freed, he will go on to show, indirectly, just what a clown show has been operating around here.

This series strives to find each player’s legacy, big and small, and to me, that’s Gausman’s: Somewhat like Jake Arrieta before him, he will reveal how screwed up it all was. I wish the best for him in Atlanta. I don’t think he will need any good luck at all there - only the benefit of breaking out of this carnival horror house. Going from the AL East to the NL East can’t hurt, either.

If I wrote this a week from now I might feel differently, but Gausman got traded yesterday and he gets his Birdland Salute today and this is what his departure brings to mind.

By the numbers, his Orioles career will ever remain something of a mystery. For instance, one common trend among pitchers is that they fare better against the same-handed batters as the pitcher throws. Gausman would thus be expected to be better against righties than lefties, yet for his career, righties hit to a .799 OPS while lefties were held to a .724 OPS.

In the same vein, “everyone” knows Oriole Park at Camden Yards is not a friendly environment for pitchers. Gausman had a 3.70 ERA in his home appearances and a 4.74 ERA in his road appearances. It is weird and almost beyond explanation, just like Gausman’s consistent better performance after the All-Star break, with a 4.77 first half ERA and a 3.63 second half ERA. If only they could have convinced him it is forever August.

He was our pitching prospect and as much as baseball fans can, we lived those successes and failures with him. There will always be hope for the next pitching prospects, even if none of them will ever be quite what Gausman was imagined to be.

When you consider some real, honest-to-goodness Orioles first round draft disappointments - Matt Hobgood in particular, and Brian Matusz to a lesser extent - it’s a lot easier to be happy about how Gausman turned out. He was in the rotation for five seasons and will continue on in MLB rotations after this trade. The O’s should be so lucky to find several players as good as Gausman in their next waves of pitching prospects.

Gausman was drafted. He pitched. He is Birdland.

The flurry of deadline day trades have left the Orioles with just three members of the 2014 team still kicking around on the roster. Four years is a long time in baseball. It was fun while it lasted and Gausman was a part of all of that. For that, he will always be special.