Kevin Gausman will make an impact as a Starter in 2014

I’ve said this to a few people already but now I’ll officially go on record – Kevin Gausman will be one of the Orioles top two starters by the end of the season.  If he is not but stays healthy, then that bodes really well for the success of the rotation as a whole and the team in general.  Either way, I expect Gausman to have a very good season and establish himself as a cornerstone of the Orioles rotation going forward.

The LSU graduate did not quite achieve the results – in terms of runs allowed – that we all hoped for in 2013 but all of the underlying performance indicators were positive.  Kevin’s 24.4% strikeout rate was well above the 2013 Major League average of 19.9%.  His 6.5% walk rate was also significantly better than the 2013 average of 7.9%.  Even the 9.6 hits per innings he allowed over 47 2/3’s Major League innings is usually acceptable for a pitcher with his control and strikeout ability.

Case in point, Gausman struck out 9.3 batters per innings while walking only 2.5 batters per nine during his first run in the big leagues.  The following table shows pitchers in 2013 who threw more than 40 innings, struck out 9.0+ batters per inning, and allowed 2.5 or fewer walks per nine innings.  The table is sorted by ERA+ and includes both relievers and starters:

Rk Player ERA+ SO/9 BB/9 IP Age Tm Lg G GS
1 Koji Uehara 376 12.23 1.09 74.1 38 BOS AL 73 0
2 Greg Holland 342 13.84 2.42 67.0 27 KCR AL 68 0
3 Luke Hochevar 215 10.49 2.18 70.1 29 KCR AL 58 0
4 David Robertson 199 10.45 2.44 66.1 28 NYY AL 70 0
5 Kenley Jansen 190 13.03 2.11 76.2 25 LAD NL 75 0
6 Drew Smyly 178 9.59 2.01 76.0 24 DET AL 63 0
7 Glen Perkins 177 11.06 2.15 62.2 30 MIN AL 61 0
8 Nick Vincent 161 9.52 2.14 46.1 26 SDP NL 45 0
9 Matt Harvey 157 9.64 1.56 178.1 24 NYM NL 26 26
10 Max Scherzer 145 10.08 2.35 214.1 28 DET AL 32 32
11 Chris Sale 140 9.49 1.93 214.1 24 CHW AL 30 30
12 Trevor Rosenthal 139 12.90 2.39 75.1 23 STL NL 74 0
13 Jason Grilli 131 13.32 2.34 50.0 36 PIT NL 54 0
14 Junichi Tazawa 130 9.48 1.58 68.1 27 BOS AL 71 0
15 Felix Hernandez 121 9.51 2.03 204.1 27 SEA AL 31 31
16 Casey Fien 104 10.60 1.74 62.0 29 MIN AL 73 0
17 Heath Bell 93 9.87 2.19 65.2 35 ARI NL 69 0
18 Kevin Gausman 75 9.25 2.45 47.2 22 BAL AL 20 5
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/22/2013.

There are some big time pitchers in that table.  It is no surprise that most of the names are relievers.  Besides Guasman, there are four other pitchers who made a start in 2013 and equaled or surpassed Gausman’s production in terms of strikeouts and walks:  Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Felix Hernandez.  I am not suggesting that Gausman is on the level of those starters – all of whom made 30+ starts and bettered Gausman’s K and BB rates – but it does suggest that his underlying performance in a quick, first run in the majors is on the same plane with the performance that elite starters and relievers put up last year.

It should be noted that Kevin’s strike and walk rates as a starter were a tad less impressive than his overall numbers as he struck out 7.3 batters per nine innings while walking 2.2 batters per nine as a starter.  Still his 3.33 SO/BB ratio as a starter was not that far off of his total 3.77 rate.  I don’t think we can assume either that he will be a 7.3 SO/9 guy going forward as a starter based on less than 25 innings as a starter in his first major league season.

Kevin Gausman, Adam Jones, and a zillion doughnuts.

Kevin Gausman, Adam Jones, and a zillion doughnuts.

Gausman’s ERA+ is the worst on the list which is not surprising given that his underlying numbers are also the lowest of any pitcher in this particular table.  Nonetheless, it is still much lower (and his actual ERA of 5.66 is much higher) than we would expect from a pitcher with the SO and BB numbers that he produced.  Advanced pitching statistics agree.  The 22 year old right hander had an FIP (fielding independent pitching ERA) of 3.99 and an xFIP of 3.04 which supports the notion that the end results were not quite as good as his performance suggests they could have been.

The issue for Gausman in 2013 – the reason his ERA contradicts his walk rate, SO rate, and FIP – is that when he got hit, he got hit hard.  Opponents slugged .470 against him which was good for a .194 ISO (isolated power).  His 4.0% homerun rate was well above the 2.5% major league average, while 10% of all hits against him went for extra bases compared to the league average of 7.4%.  This would suggest a command issue.  While Gausman displayed above average control during his time in Baltimore, he caught a bit too much of the plate a few too many times.  201 batters faced is far too small of a sample size from which to derive any real meaning from in terms of what pitches caused Gausman the most trouble.  His slider resulted in a .278 ISO, but that’s made up of two doubles and one homerun in 18 at bats.  

The four seam fastball was a nice weapon versus RHB but far less effective against LHB.  The four-seamer resulted in .314 ISO (four doubles and four homeruns) in 51 at bats against left-handed batters.  The good news is that in limited action, lefties flailed at his split-change (a pitch Gausman developed just last season).  20 at bats that ended with the split change resulted in 12 strike outs and only three singles.

Gausman and his catchers were learning last season how to best utilize his pitches to put away major league hitters.  Obviously one lesson learned was that the split changeup is effective in neutralizing lefties.  Watching him pitch last season, it is pretty clear that stuff is not the issue nor is control.  It is command and utilizing all of his weapons in the best possible manner to get Major League hitters out.  Michael Wacha’s are rare.  It is far more normal for a pitcher to take 50, 150, or 500 innings to really figure that out.  The good thing for Gausman and us fans is that he has the other pieces in place and the stuff to get major league hitters out right now, so that part should come a little quicker for him than it does for others.

Ideally, it would be in everyone’s best interests for Gausman to begin the season pitching for AAA Norfolk.  He has a better idea of what he needs to work on now – utilizing his pitches in the best possible manner and commanding his slider and four seam fastball – and it would be beneficial to be able to work on those elements in a low-pressure situation in Norfolk.  I don’t expect him to be down there very long, as there were plenty of signs this past September to indicate he has already made substantial progress in those areas.  It would not shock me at all if Gausman is in the Major League starting rotation for good in early May.

I am not sure the Orioles should go out of their way to clear a spot for Gausman in the big league rotation but even if that is not their intention, I imagine he will have a relatively unobstructed path nonetheless.  It is hard to imagine that – even if the organization adds a quality top-half of the rotation starter and perhaps a low-risk bounce back candidate – that all five members of the Opening Day rotation will be healthy and pitching well enough to keep Gausman on the outside looking in for very long.  As I stated in the open, if that does happen than I am sure everyone will gladly take that outcome.

Years of unrealistic expectations for our young pitchers and some legitimate failures have left a lot of Orioles fans jaded that any young starter coming up through the organization will truly succeed, especially once that young starter hits a bump in the road.  The reason “this time will be different” is because Gausman is different than the “failed” starters that came before him.  His pure stuff blows Brian Matusz and Brad Bergeson out of the water.  His control is much, much better than Jake Arrieta’s.  His control and stuff is better than Zach Britton’s.  He is likely a better overall pitcher than Chris Tillman in terms of control and pitches and Tillman is doing just fine for himself these days.  The O’s past failures in the homegrown starting pitching department have no bearing on Gausman’s future successes.

I’ve already made one prediction – that Gausman will be amongst the O’s top two starters by the end of the season – but that is sort of vague.  So here is my more precise prediction of Kevin Gausman’s final 2013 Major League numbers: