Is Kevin Gausman for real?

Kevin Gausman has been productive in stints throughout his big league career, and now he’s in a great park for pitching. With a July ADP of 394 per the NFBC, Gausman was being drafted in “backup closer” territory–around guys like Blake Treinen and James Karinchak. No slight to those two, I’m just making the point that Gausman was pretty much free.

Four starts into 2020, it may be time to reevaluate Gausman. Through 25.2 innings, he has career-bests with a 11.92 K/9 and a minuscule 1.75 BB/9. I’m curious if he can keep this going, as I’m invested in some places. Namely, I need him to stabilize my horrible TGFBI pitching squad. So let’s dig underneath a bit, to see if Gausman is for real in 2020.

The Career

Age: 29
Draft: First round out of LSU (4th overall) by the Orioles in 2012 MLB Draft
MLB Debut: May 23, 2013
ERA: 4.30
Strikeout rate (prior to 2020): 21.7%
Walk rate (prior to 2020): 7.1%

Gausman has played for the Orioles, Braves, and Reds. He signed a one-year, $9 million deal to play for the Giants in 2020.

He closed out last September hot, with a 3.65 ERA and 15 strikeouts against only three walks (12.1 innings). He was a tale of two halves. Here’s a snapshot:

Split IP ERA FIP BB SO wOBA
1st half 62.1 6.21 4.18 24 64 0.341
2nd half 40 4.95 3.66 8 50 0.316

I wanted the raw strikeout-to-walk numbers there, because I lean on those a lot and I think the difference is stark. Here is another look at Gausman’s two halves from 2019:

Split BB% K% K-BB% WHIP GB% HR/FB
1st half 8.5% 22.6% 14.1% 1.51 41.3% 12.1%
2nd half 4.8% 29.8% 25.0% 1.27 30.8% 19.4%

If we’re talking strictly K-BB%, Gausman morphed from Jose Quintana (14.2% K-BB% in 2019) during the first half to Shane Bieber (25.5% K-BB%) in the second half. Put differently, his first half mark would have ranked 40th among 61 qualified pitchers last year, while his second half mark would have ranked sixth.

The Arsenal

There has to be some upside for a guy who can fling 95 MPH heat and then drop a 82-84 MPH splitter on you. Let’s do the fastball, first.

The Heater

Early in his career, Gausman learned to elevate his heater. He was a Baltimore Oriole then, and he was taking a page out of the Chris Tillman book. Here’s a great read by Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs, penned in April of 2015. And in case you are remembering the rougher version of Tillman from later in his career, I should remind you that in 2013 and 2014 Tillman flung 200+ innings with a sub-4.00 ERA. He wasn’t a bad guy to be emulating.

Interestingly enough, it was the Orioles’ organizational philosophy at the time to be able to locate fastballs down in the zone. But it was manager Buck Showalter who thought Gausman could benefit from elevating his fastball more, like Tillman. As Sullivan’s article states, if opposing hitters are thinking splitter, low fastball, and curveball–which Gausman employed at the time–then they can focus on one part of the zone (the bottom). However, were Gausman to elevate the heater more, any hitter would have more of the zone to cover and to think about. This is where the adage “changing eye levels” comes into play. By April of 2015, Gausman had thrown 50 fastballs, and on average they were up six inches from the year previous.

Here’s a recent look at what Gausman can do with the fastball and the splitter, courtesy of everyone’s favorite ninja:

That’s the hitter having to worry about the whole zone. It seems rudimentary to me–and it’s entirely possible I’m missing something–but that’s a nasty combination. Gausman was elevating early in 2020, too:

So far, Gausman’s four-seamer has a career-high 29.6% strikeout rate, and only a 24.2% ground ball rate. I’m citing ground balls because I wonder if he’s taking full advantage of his home park, knowing that the fly balls won’t hurt him as much. His 36.4% fly ball rate on the fastball is the second-highest mark of his career, but the 16.7% HR/FB rate is pretty tolerable–far below last year’s 21.2% mark and a shade better than 2016-2017 levels (17.1%, 17.3%). Anyway, the small sample size caveat applies. But that 24.2% ground ball rate jumped out at me, so it’s something I’ll monitor moving forward. So far, Gausman’s 10.6% swinging strike rate on the four-seamer is the highest of his career–up from 10.0% in 2019, for reference. But the fastball isn’t really where he gets his whiffs, not historically. The swing-and-miss marks on the fastball are up in 2020, but it’s still not his splitter.

The Splitter

Gausman is still using the splitter plenty. He’s at 29.5% usage on the pitch in the early going, similar to last year’s 35.1% mark. His swinging strike rate on the pitch is up to 24.6%, or the highest that mark has been since his rookie season mark of 25.0% (a small sample of only 124 pitches, similar to this year’s 118 splitters thrown thus far). He’s allowing a stupid-low .176 wOBA on the pitch thus far, and a 16 wRC+. Nope, not a typo. A 16 wRC+.

Basically, it’s early. But the splitter looks just fine, as nasty as ever.

The Velocity

Here’s one reason we could be seeing a little growth in 2020. Gausman has rebounded a bit with his velocity. Here’s a nice visual from on Twitter (it’s easier for me to pull from there, but the graphic is courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Average velocity on his fastball has increased to 95.6 MPH this year, up from 94.1 and 94.2 MPH over the last two seasons. The splitter is up a tick as well, from 83ish MPH the last two years to 84.5 MPH on average in 2020.

From what I can tell, these two pitches are Gausman’s “bread and butter.” The fastball is there to change up eye levels. But the splitter is the swing-and-miss pitch.

For what it’s worth, Gausman is also throwing a few more sliders (2.1% to 8.3%) and changeups (5.6% to 10.0%) in 2020. He actually has a career-low 52.3% usage on his fastball thus far. Right now it seems like the whole picture is a positive one. Added velocity, slightly changing pitch mix, better home park. Sounds pretty good to me.

Summary

I wonder if Gausman is taking advantage of his new home park environs. For instance, on his fastball in 2019, Gausman allowed an average launch angle of 14 degrees and a 91.0 MPH average exit velocity. In 2020, the exit velocity allowed is stable, at 91.4 MPH. However, the launch angle on the fastball is up to 24 degrees on average. And that jives with Fangraphs, where you can easily see a career-high 40.3% fly ball rate. It’s super-early to talk line drive rates, too. But he’s allowing a career-high 25.4% mark, as well as a career-high 43.3% hard contact rate (again, that’s per Fangraphs).

Is it possible this is a conscious tradeoff? We know that high-strikeout can go hand in hand with high fly ball rates, and that sometimes home runs are just an unfortunate side effect. I just wonder if Gausman is really taking to his home park and using it to his benefit. Trading off a few more fly balls and some hard contact for more strikeouts is a good thing for fantasy baseball, so long as he can keep the home runs in check. So far he’s got a 1.40 HR/9, one I can live with so long as the career-best 31.8% strikeout rate and career-low 4.7% walk rate continue to hold. For instance, even if he does give up a homer every now and again, not walking tons of hitters means it shouldn’t hurt as much. And give me all those strikeouts! For reference, noted fly ball pitcher Justin Verlander had a 1.45 HR/9 in 2019, and we lived with that just fine due to the whopping strikeout rate.

Lastly, Gausman’s splitter is on another level so far in 2020, with a xWOBA of .178 and an average exit velocity of only 79.0 MPH. The launch angle on the pitch has cratered, too–from 14 degrees on average in 2019 to only eight degrees in 2020.

Gausman enters his start at home today against the Los Angeles Angels. He’s coming off of a career-high 11 strikeouts against the Athletics in his last turn. I’m banking on him in a number of places, and looking underneath the hood today was encouraging.

What say you guys? Are there any thoughts on Gausman? Is there something I missed?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s