The Orioles have not had a lot of luck with their pitching prospects of late, most recently thanks to Dylan Bundy’s Tommy John surgery. That is part of the reason that Kevin Gausman is such an exciting pitcher for them. Also he throws really, really hard. When he finally reached the majors to stay as a starter in June, Orioles fans and fantasy owners were ready for Gausman to strike out a ton of batters and become the ace of Baltimore’s staff. Instead, Gausman has struck out more than three batters fewer per nine innings this season than he did in his stint in the majors in 2013, and his overall numbers have declined further since the All-Star Break.
The key to Gausman’s exceptional strikeout rate last season was his splitter, which paired nicely with his hard fastball to make batters chase balls out of the strike zone. Hitters swung at 34.3 percent of his out-of-zone pitches last season, which would have placed Gausman in the top 15 among qualified starters. This season, that O-Swing rate has dropped to 27.3 percent. In the second half, it is 27.9 percent, which places Gausman in the bottom 15 of qualified starters.
|Lowest O-Swing%, 2nd Half, Qualified Starters|
The low O-Swing rate pitchers fall into one of a few categories. There are the elite command pitchers like Adam Wainwright, Jered Weaver, Jose Quintana and Jeremy Hellickson. Then there are the fringe major league starters like Franklin Morales and Danny Duffy. Pitchers in those two categories tend to have softer fastballs. Finally, there are the pitchers that you would expect to have better strikeout numbers because of their stuff but don’t for some reason. Joe Kelly has been the epitome of this pitcher for several seasons, and this year Gausman has joined him.
Except that it actually makes sense that Gausman has struck out fewer batters this season. At least, it does as long as you only look at his numbers from this season and ignore his scouting reports from when he was a top prospect. A splitter is an effective pitch to throw off of a hard fastball, but that works best when a pitcher is ahead in the count and the batter is forced to try to protect. Meanwhile, Gausman has started to fall behind hitters. He has had the fifth-worst first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.
|Lowest F-Strike%, 2nd Half, Qualified Starters|
|Rubby de la Rosa||47.0%|
Gausman’s poor 51.2 percent first-strike percentage appears to be the low point of a trend of declining command. Last season, Gausman threw a first-pitch strike 61.2 percent of the time. That has dropped to 55.4 percent in the first half in 2014 and 51.2 percent in the second half. From 2013 to 2014, Gausman has also seen his O-Swing rate and walks per nine decline.
|All of 2013||61.2%||35.2%||2.5||.328||5.66||3.99|
|First Half 2014||55.4%||26.8%||3.1||.287||3.29||3.55|
|Second Half 2014||51.2%||27.9%||3.8||.362||4.71||3.45|
The funny part is that Gausman has shown a small but steady improvement in his FIP over that same period. I expect many fantasy owners will notice the extreme swings in Gausman’s BABIP and either trade for him for the stretch run or buy back into him in 2015 drafts expecting ERA regression and improved strikeouts simply because of his fastball velocity. I don’t believe it’s that simple.
Gausman was likely the victim of poor batted ball luck in 2013, but I speculate that his second-half BABIP spike this season is at least partially the result of falling behind hitters who can then sit on fastballs and bypass his splitter. Derek Carty’s research showed that hitters hit for a higher average on their balls in play when they are ahead in counts compared to when they fall behind, and that would neatly explain why Gausman’s O-Swing rate has dropped in parallel with his F-Strike rate.
For me, that means I want to see an improvement in Gausman’s command before I expect his strikeouts and ERA to dramatically improve. And I believe that could easily happen. Gausman walked fewer than two and a half batters per nine at all three levels he pitched in 2013, and he was lauded for his command as a prospect. This season is more the anomaly than last, and I will be ready to jump back on the Gausman train next season if he starts to once again get ahead of hitters.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt