Kevin Gausman: Last Chance to Buy?

Judging from my twitter comments, it looks like there’s a window of opportunity for those of you that want to buy Kevin Gausman, for this year or for your keeper teams. But we know that Gausman has flaws. The question is: how likely is he to correct those flaws and become the fantasy superstar that his velocity and minor league record seems to suggest is possible?

Relevant to all of this is Cole Hamels.

In 2010, Cole Hamels was coming off the worst season of his career. He was an up-and-down starter that had two good seasons and two bad seasons on his record. His change-up was amazing (24% whiff rate back then, 15% is average), his fastballs were okay (90mph average, 7% whiffs, sinker got 60% grounders), and his breaker? That was the problem.

At the time, Hamels threw a curve that got 7% whiffs and 44% grounders, which is far below the 11%/50% thresholds for average. He was missing a good breaker to get lefties out.

In 2010, Cole Hamels added a cutter. It wasn’t even a great one. It’s gotten 9% whiffs and 55% grounders, so it’s about average. But it made his curve better (12% whiffs), and it gave him a weapon against lefties — he uses it almost 50% more often against lefties. You know how the rest of the story went.

Back to 2014. Kevin Gausman has velocity — still over 96. The pitch has a good ball rate (33% is better than average), and he had excellent control in the minors. His splitter has gotten 30% (!) whiffs so far, his other change (!) 20% whiffs (by BrooksBaseball). His slider (9% whiffs) is no good. Could Gausman be a righty Hamels?

First, it would suck if we had to wait four years for him to find a cutter. And it might take that long because the Orioles don’t like the cutter as an organization. Even if it might help their struggling young starter, they think it saps velocity, and many pitchers agree.

Second, it’s tough on certain pitchers to learn something that breaks the other way. I talked to Tim Hudson last week (grips piece coming soon), and he said of his inconsistent breaking ball that “it’s just naturally where your arm is, where you wrist is — I naturally throw inside the ball.”

But that’s why the cutter is kind of great. You throw it more like a fastball and let the grip make the movement. Maybe Gausman isn’t going to have a great slider. Maybe he could have a great cutter.

It’s really hard to open this up to a statistical query, but scanning the leaderboard of single-season change-up leaders, a few names leap out. Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields, and Jason Vargas have grown up in the PITCHf/x age and appear on the first page. James Shields has gradually increased his cutter usage to great results. Jason Vargas never found a good breaker — after experimenting with a meh cutter, he’s settled on a meh curve. Jeremy Hellickson’s curve is actually good, so he’s put the cutter away.

None of these guys have the velocity of a Kevin Gausman. As for why he doesn’t get more whiffs on the fastball with a 96 mph heater, that’s another question. It’s possible the pitch is straight. Horizontally, at least. It gets fewer than six inches of horizontal movement, and six inches is average for a right-hander’s fourseam fastball.

Still, a 96 mph (straight) fastball with a wicked splitter and a good change? I’ll take your shares at a cheaper price, and hope the breaker sorts itself out. (Probably still a spot starter in mixed redraft leagues though.)

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Any comps to Jordan Zimmerman with the heater/lack of wiffs? I know Zimmerman is a pitch to contact sort, but seems like a similar issue.