Tipping Pitches: What’s Wrong with Gausman?

Kevin Gausman is a total mess right now. His strikeout, walk, swinging strike, hit, groundball, and home run rates are all at career-worst levels. Just four of his 16 starts have been quality starts and he’s only gone 6+ innings in six starts. It’s been a nightmare. His splitter is still solid (though a bit worse than last year), but his fastball and breaking ball (it kinda morphs between a slider and curve, but generally sucks regardless) are both just getting smacked around.

Gausman’s fastball was actually a bit better than average from 2014-16. Among the 105 starters who threw at least 3000 fastballs during that time period, Gausman’s .748 OPS was 41st and the average was .770 while his 19% strikeout rate was 32nd, a few ticks north of the 16% average. This year his fastball has a horrible .936 OPS and 13% strikeout rate combo, the OPS being 15th-worst among the 89 pitchers with at least 600 fastballs thrown, but it’s made worse by the fact that his 1029 fastballs are the third-most in the league this year.

His poor results are coming in shockingly high volume. The average strikeout rate on fastballs is still 16% and Gausman’s rate slots him 62nd in the league. He had a dead-even platoon split on the fastball from 2014-16, but this year has seen both sides surge against him, especially righties. They are toting a .963 OPS off his fastball, compared to lefties at .884. Among the 61 pitchers with at least 400 fastballs thrown to righties, Gausman’s OPS is 52nd.

He’s throwing the fastball in the lower third a lot more this year, but it’s actually the high fastball that has been a problem. Upper third fastballs to both righties and lefties:

  • 2014-16: .151/.206/.233, 39% K, 5% BB, 2% HR
  • 2017: .386/.491/.500, 17% K, 15% BB, 2% HR

His lower third fastballs are actually a bit better:

  • 2014-16: .294/.394/.440, 13% K, 15% BB, 2% HR
  • 2017: .277/.429/.337, 16% K, 21% BB, 1% HR

But that success could be fleeting. The biggest change has been him finding success in hitter’s counts with the low fastball. In the 2014-16 sample, he has an 1.165 OPS, but this year it’s at .787 thanks in large part to a .217 BABIP. Conversely, he could be due for some improvement on the high heat in pticher’s counts. He allowed a .297 OPS in 2014-16, but it’s up to .785 this year thanks to a silly .474 BABIP.

I think Gausman would benefit by getting back to the high heat. He threw it up there 22% of the time in 2014-16, but it’s down to 15% this year. Of course, that is easier said than done because his control of the pitch has been a problem, regardless of the zone.

His breaking ball deployment hasn’t changed. He throws it down in the zone 75% of the time, in the middle about 19%, and upper in the zone around 7%, but the results have, particularly in pitcher’s counts:

  • 2014-16: .231/.231/.369, 25% K, 0% BB, 3% HR
  • 2017: .370/.357/.519, 18% K, 0% BB, 4% HR

Gausman has struggled to find a reliable breaking ball throughout his career and paired with his fastball issues this year, it’s created a lot of trouble for him. Some of the horrific 6.47 ERA can be explained away by an undue amount of bad luck (though he no doubt contributes to it) manifesting in a .374 BABIP, the league’s worst mark among qualified starters.

In short, he’s simply not this bad. If he were, I don’t think the Orioles would be running him out there every fifth day. His stuff is a bit worse across the board and that is being amplified by poor sequencing and deployment (he’s never had great command and this year the control is markedly worse).

Three of his best starts this year have come against the Blue Jays (5.3 IP/2 ER, 6 IP/1 ER, 6 IP/2 ER). They sit 21st in wOBA at .316 and in K% at 20%. I won’t necessarily be surprised if he throws well against them tonight, but I’ll be watching his fastball deployment in all counts, his breaking ball when ahead, and his overall control. Gausman is still someone who can turn quickly and once again become a strong asset, especially in this pitching-thin environment, but it won’t come without multiple improvements.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Nice analysis about Gausman’s problems this year. I’m glad I got rid of him in a 15 team pts. league.
If there’s one thing that I’d respectfully disagree with, it’s where you say that the O’s wouldn’t be running him out there every fifth day if he really was that bad.
So, what do you think their options would be? You don’t honestly believe that Asher, Wilson or Wright would be better options, do you?
And if you look at their AAA club (Norfolk), the only arm on the leader board is Jayson Aquino. And with an ERA of 4.50 and not being on any top prospect lists, it’s hard to imagine that he’d help too.
As you know—and we Orioles fans are painfully aware of—the farm system is barren, so making a trade for a proven starter would be difficult, if not impossible. And probably foolish too, if it involved giving away any more of the scarce talent we do currently have.