Kevin Gausman’s Very-Bad-but-Actually-Very-Good Season

For all intents and purposes, Kevin Gausman had a bad season. Like, catastrophically bad, such that has ERA was 10th-worst among qualified starters. That he was allowed to see enough innings to become a qualified starter should be construed as nothing short of a blessing for him.

On paper, sure. This narrative works on the surface, at the macro level. But Gausman had himself a season of two incredibly different halves. An aside: if you don’t pay attention to FanGraphs’ community research, you should. User jkved10 wrote a post about Gausman on July 24 — about the time I reluctantly convinced myself to roster him in my primary home league — in which jkved10 noticed a sudden change in Gausman’s release point. Kudos to the author for doing all the heavy lifting for me. Click through to familiarize yourself with the events that unfolded and the ensuing analysis, or dig around Brooks Baseball for yourself.

The results weren’t immediately promising at the time of his/her writing: a 4.94 ERA across six starts. Everything else under the hood, however, had changed: 12.2 strikeouts and only 2.6 walks per nine innings (K/9, BB/9), good for a 3.19 xFIP. Sure, everything else stunk; he was still allowing home runs and hits on balls in play at astronomical rates. But the peripherals very dramatically improved, having essentially doubled his K’s and halving his walks in that span.

Such success continued. In his 19 starts from June 21 onward, Gausman struck out 10 hitters-per-nine and recorded a 3.39 ERA despite a still-inflated rate of home runs to fly balls (HR/FB). A tale of two halves, indeed: prior to June 21, his 6.60 ERA was almost exactly doubly large. He was a second-half ace, and this was more than just regression to the mean — his success correlated, if not directly resulted from, his adjustment.

While his splitter is and has always been his best pitch, it was his slider that pulled his decidedly lost season out from the gutter. Having all but completely phased out the pitch, Gausman reintroduced it and, with his midseason tweak, unleashed it as an absolute force. Its whiff rate jumped from 8% to a deadly 19%, and it thereafter limited hitters to an anemic 0.031 ISO. Gausman suddenly had (has) two legitimately plus pitches and a four-seamer whose velocity at least makes scouts dream (or have nightmares) about being plus.

Additionally, his issues with contact quality, as evidenced by his HR/FB and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) allowed, were a mirage. Whether you’re a disciple of Baseball Prospectus’ deserved runs allowed (DRA) or just a simple ol’ FIP guy, the advanced pitching metrics all paint Gausman as having been incredibly unlucky. To be clear: his BABIP from June 21 onward looked completely normal. It’s the absurdly inflated .373 BABIP prior to then, at a time when he couldn’t have possibly been pitching worse, is what decimated his full-season ratios. I’ve written a lot about this kind of bad luck, namely when talking about Robbie Ray’s disastrous yet highly intriguing 2016 season (admittedly, Ray was far unluckier). Despite his marvelous second half, Gausman still finished the season with one of the 20 worst BABIPs allowed since 2000, out of more than 1,500 qualified pitcher-seasons. We’re talking 98th-percentile unluckiness. While some of it is probably is fault — pitchers are simply hittable sometimes — I’m loath to think it will happen to him again. As evidenced in my previously linked Ray piece (and, anecdotally, by Ray himself), it rarely does.

This brings us to the hard part:

Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimized by Kevin Gausman. Yeah… that seems about right. (Paul Sporer: “fool me 9,482 times, shame on me.”)

All that prospect promise, and all those every-other-year letdowns. It’s easy to write him off, especially after how badly he burned you if you drafted him as a mid-rotation starter this year (he was SP33 per NFBC ADP). Alas, this is the perfect opportunity to buy on Gausman. The sharps are on him — in some way-too-early industry mock drafts, he’s going about 30 picks later than he did in 2017. Even if his second-half peripherals regress a bit, they’re still plenty solid enough to actually propel him to mid-rotation-starter value assuming good health, and I think there’s upside there given it seems like he’s actually, finally, figuring things out.

If you’re reluctant to draft him as a top-45 starter, I understand. Deep wounds take time to heal, and the scars could linger forever. Heck, I may be a bit reluctant to draft him there, given it’s not as steep of a discount as I would’ve liked. But given how drafts unfold — consider that, save for few exceptions, the entire middle tier of starting pitchers crumpled in disastrous fashion this year — you could do worse than to gamble on Gausman instead of, say, Gio Gonzalez or Cole Hamels. I won’t call this a hype train because I’m hanging halfway out the train car, suitcase and cap in hand. He certainly won’t be someone for whom I reach because, despite having not drafted him anywhere in 2017, there are just some things you can’t unsee. But if he’s still hangin’ around, especially near the end of standard (shallow) drafts, I’ll grab him. He simply could never be as bad as his first half, and he has laid the groundwork to achieve the upside of his second half.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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5 years ago

I feel a lot like Paul on this one. Also, I would love to see some numbers on splitters since the change in the seams. I think pitchers that relied heavily on splitters have been hurt proportionally to batters being helped by the differences in the ball. Disclaimer: Completely anecdotal. I have zero data to back my claim.