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Jul 05

Gausman the Ace You’re Looking For

On Friday, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN wrote an article discussing the need for the Orioles to pursue a top flight starter.  You can read the article for yourself if you like, but in the article one unnamed scout had this to say about the O’s:

I think they’re a pitcher away — I really do, said a National League scout who follows the Orioles. They have guys who can get you to the playoffs, but in a five- or a seven-game series you need an ace you can count on who’ll get you that W.  If they’re able to go out and get a really quality guy, I would put my money on them.

Looking through the names of the Orioles starters, it’s not difficult to see just what the scout means in terms of missing a clear cut ace:

Name GS fWAR WHIP K/9 ERA FIP
Chris Tillman 18 0.7 1.42 5.5 4.21 4.60
Ubaldo Jimenez 17 0.7 1.48 7.88 4.31 4.49
Wei-Yin Chen 17 0.9 1.30 6.32 4.12 4.43
Bud Norris 14 0.7 1.16 6.21 3.62 4.50
Miguel Gonzalez 13 0.2 1.42 7.23 4.56 5.14
Kevin Gausman 5 0.6 1.36 5.46 3.86 3.64

2014 Orioles Starting Pitchers

Not exactly an awe-inspiring group.  To put things in perspective, on the season, the Orioles top five pitchers by games started have accumulated only 0.8 fWAR more than former Oriole Jake Arrieta did in just May and June.  That’s in an additional 68 starts.  In terms of ERA, Norris ranks 50th in MLB, Wei-Yin Chen ranks 79th for FIP, and Tillman, Jimenez, and Norris are tied, amongst others, for 74th in fWAR.  The O’s staff really does consist entirely of #2, #3, and #4 starters.

So, things could be better.

Seeing that ace starters are expensive to acquire (in this seller’s market, how much would the O’s have to give up for David Price from a divisional rival? Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were just traded to the Cubs for perhaps the best SS prospect in baseball Addison Russell, as well as Billy McKinney, Dan Straily, etc., and that of course assumes that the Rays would be willing to deal.  If so, the discussions start with Dylan Bundy and continue from there) in terms of both talent and resigning them, and that’s also assuming there’s a starter available that could be a game-changer.  Cliff Lee?  He hasn’t pitched since May 18th because of an elbow strain, but Lee would make a difference, but are the Phillies willing to trade him?  Who else?  Bartolo Colon is definitely available, and you could probably talk yourself into Ian Kennedy, but these aren’t pitchers that are leaps and bounds better than what the Orioles have now.  Rather than shop for Tier 2 guys or beg division rivals to take all of your prospects, perhaps the Orioles best option already exists on their current staff.  Maybe they have their presumptive ace in the electric right arm of 23-year old Kevin Gausman.

Crazy, Right?

Making an argument for Gausman as an ace of anything is difficult, admittedly.  In his 10 career starts, Gausman has an ERA of 5.64, WHIP of 1.48, and has allowed 5+ runs four times.  FIP is a little kinder perhaps, coming in at 4.74, but seeing how the AL average for starters in 2013 was 4.14 and in ‘14 is 4.04 (for AL rookies it’s 4.45 and 4.02 respectively, which doesn’t exactly sell my argument does it?) it’s not as though we’re looking at Gausman with a glass half-empty mindset.  Jose Fernandez he isn’t.

But, those stats are cumulative, split evenly across two seasons.  In 2013, in his first five starts, Gausman was a disaster.  Teams hit .333/.367/.618 against him, smacking seven home runs in only 24 2/3 innings pitched.  He also managed to allow 21 earned runs in those few innings, making his ERA 7.66.  If there’s any positive in Gausman’s introduction to Major League hitters is that he wasn’t physically injured.  It’s almost shocking that he didn’t develop whiplash from watching balls rocket into the night sky.

2014 has brought considerably more success.  In his five starts this season, teams are hitting just .260/.333/.346 with a single home run.  That’s not derived by luck either, seeing that his BABIP is .299, which is precisely league average for AL starters.  In fact, let’s look at the two seasons in a fun, tabular format!

Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP
2013 7.30 2.19 2.55 1.62 5.85
2014 5.46 3.54 0.32 1.36 3.64

Gausman Seasonal Breakdown as Starter

Remember, we’re looking at a whopping total of 24 2/3 innings of work in ’13 and 28 innings in ’14, so those numbers might not look all that impressive.  The main takeaway is that if Gausman throws strikes and his BABIP isn’t an absurd .351 as it was last season, he can be effective at keeping runs off of the board.

We already saw Gausman’s potential last season.  After being sent to the minors, he returned to pitch in the Orioles bullpen and pitched pretty well.  Here are those same numbers from above but this time as a reliever.

Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP
2013 11.35 2.74 0.39 1.04 2.00

Gausman Seasonal Breakdown as Reliever

I’m still only discussing 23 innings here, so consider all warnings about small sample sizes, but Gausman pitched quite well out of the bullpen.  Compared to the AL averages for FIP (3.75) and WHIP (1.30) for relievers, Gausman measured up quite nicely.  His K/9 turned into Fernando Rodney and Cody Allen territory, proving that he threw quality pitches and could get Major League hitters out.

Real Gausman, Please Step Up

Even in 2014, Gausman has pitched like two different starters.  In his five starts this season, he’s allowed five earned twice.  In his other three, he allowed two earned runs combined in 19 innings of work.  In those three games, lest you think he was feasting on a steady diet of Padres and Royals, Gausman faced Oakland, Toronto, and Tampa, which are currently 6th, 3rd, and 13th in terms of wOBA.  Those three teams hit a combined .209/.264/.299.  In this last start against Tampa, he was torched for seven hits and five earned runs in just five innings.  Is it a case of familiarity?  Tampa knew what to expect?

I think it had more to do with the extra days off between starts.  If you look at the numbers from PITCHf/x, Gausman relies most heavily on a fourseam fastball that sits in the 96-mph range, a slider, and a changeup/splitter.  To further define Gausman’s repertoire and usage, I’ve copied the following from brooksbaseball.net:

Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) HMov (in.) VMov (in.)
Fourseam 333 67.14% 96.01 -6.45 10.28
Sinker 10 2.02% 92.64 -8.78 7.06
Change 21 4.23% 87.06 -8.83 5.79
Slider 50 10.08% 80.38 2.34 0.09
Split 82 16.53% 83.81 -7 3.32

Gausman Pitch Trajectory and Movement

In the three games where he pitched regularly (between 5-6 days of rest between starts) look at the breakdown for Gausman’s three primary pitches:

Opponent Pitch Type Velocity Count Strike % Swing % Whiff %
Oakland Fourseam 96.4 70 62.9 45.7 4.3
Slider 81.2 10 90.0 50.0 10.0
Splitter 83.8 16 75.0 68.8 43.8
Toronto Fourseam 96.0 71 62.0 49.3 7.0
Slider 84.3 10 60.0 30.0 0.0
Splitter 83.5 10 50.0 40.0 40.0
Tampa Fourseam 96.4 71 67.6 53.5 7.0
Slider 82.6 5 0.0 0.0 0.0
Splitter 83.9 29 72.4 62.1 31.0

Pitch Results 06/07 – 06/18

In those three games, Gausman’s fourseam fastball averaged over 96-mph per start, and it was thrown for a strike 60% of the time.  That’s important since Gausman relies so heavily upon his fastball, throwing it 67% of the time overall and 64% to start an at-bat.  That splitter is much more difficult to resist when behind in the count, and that’s precisely how Gausman handles batters when he’s ahead.  Look at how he attempts to finish off hitters when he’s at the advantage.

Count Fastball % Slider % Splitter %
0 – 0 64.41 / 76 15.25 / 18 13.56 / 16
0 – 1 59.32 / 35 10.17 / 6 18.64 / 11
0 – 2 65.22 / 15 0.0 / 0 30.43 / 7
1 – 2 56.10 / 23 12.20 / 5 26.83 / 11

Pitch Type by Count

When he’s ahead in the count, Gausman attempts to get batters to chase after his splitter.  Is that really news, though?  Set batters up with a fastball, then get them to flail helplessly at a splitter in the dirt or a slider that is definitely a wipeout pitch.  When he’s at his best, Gausman throws his fastball for strikes, and then he can dictate the rest of the at-bat.  Now, look at those same pitches after nine days of rest in his next start against Tampa.

Opponent Pitch Type Velocity Count Strike % Swing % Whiff %
Tampa Fourseam 94.8 58 56.9 48.3 3.4
Slider 79.5 14 64.3 28.6 7.1
Splitter 83.6 20 35.0 35.0 15.0

Pitch Results 06/27

Maybe he was having a bad day.  Velocity was down on his fastball.  It might have taken a while to get loose.  What that says to me, though, is it’s a pitcher struggling to locate his pitches, so he’s taking a little something off.  Of course, in the realm of fire-ballers, throwing 95 can be seen as something of a letdown.

Then There Was Detroit

All of this fits perfectly until you look at his first start this season against Detroit.  Here are the pitch results for that game:

Opponent Pitch Type Velocity Count Strike % Swing % Whiff %
Detroit Fourseam 96.1 63 71.4 57.1 1.6
Slider 81.9 11 45.5 45.5 18.2
Splitter 84.3 7 0.0 0.0 0.0

Pitch Results 05/14

Doesn’t this fit the model above?  Isn’t this exactly how Gausman should be pitching?  He started that game coming off of only 3 days of rest after being on the disabled list with a bout of pneumonia.  Watch Gausman pitch in that game, and his biggest issue was putting batters away with two strikes.  He didn’t have a feel for any of his breaking or off-speed pitches so he relied too heavily upon his fastball.

In the third, after his pitch count climbed over 40 (remember, coming off of short rest) the Tigers finally got to Gausman, and they clobbered him to a tune of four singles (two of those of the infield variety).  In the fourth, as his pitch count climbed, he fell behind in counts, pitched in hitter’s counts, and under the immense pressure of the Detroit Tiger baseball hitting machine, Gausman walked a couple of guys and allowed singles (one a bunt single) and a sacrifice fly.  His most egregious offenses were the two walks, a double steal, and a wild pitch.  That’s not to dismiss any fault, but he wasn’t exactly hit around the park.  He missed with location as he tired, and the Tigers made him pay for it.  You know who also struggled in that game?  Justin Verlander.  Maybe it was something in that Inner Harbor air.  Under those bright blue Baltimore skies, sometimes bad things happen to good pitchers.

Summary

There’s not a lot available on the market right now, and with so many teams believing they still have a chance at the postseason, the price in terms of prospects is astronomical.  The Orioles will either pay through the nose, sacrificing their future for the chance at someone else’s #2 or #3 starter, or they’ll have to look to their own team to find their ace.

The Orioles should allow Gausman his chances in the starting rotation.  His arm has life enough to stay there, and he has the upside of maturing into a #1.  With a fastball that averages 96, often hits 98+, and an evolving slider, Gausman could be the difference between making the postseason and staying there for a while.

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