Kevin Gausman & Other Thoughts on the Rotation

Adam Jones lines Kevin Gausman's locker with doughnuts during Spring Training.  Gausman infamously used to eat three powdered doughnuts between inning while pitching for LSU.

Adam Jones lines Kevin Gausman's locker with doughnuts during Spring Training.  Gausman infamously used to eat three powdered doughnuts between inning while pitching for LSU.

The Orioles decided last night – although have not officially announced – that 2012 first round draft pick Kevin Gausman will make his major league debut on Thursday when the team begins a four game series in Toronto.

Gausman was a strong bet to reach the majors this season but his arrival is a tad earlier than some might have expected.   The promotion likely means that Gausman will reach “super 2” status if he is not reassigned to the minors at any time this season or next.  Clearly the Orioles feel he is a legitimate option right now and are willing to risk the future money and contract implications that come with a player reaching arbitration a year “early”.  If the Orioles are comfortable taking that risk, I am not sure if it should even be a discussion point amongst fans.

The real question is if the 22-year old is ready to pitch in the major leagues.  You never know until he tries but my feeling is that he is ready.  I watched Gausman pitch in spring training and in several of his starts with the Baysox this season.  He has the sort of semi-funky but still smooth delivery that a lot of successful pitchers have.  It is the kind of delivery that has some deception while at the same time is one he is able to repeat and remain consistent with.

The stuff is great.  A fastball that sits 94-95 and can be pumped up to 97-98 on occasion.  Gausman’s best weapon is his changeup which sits in the low to mid 80’s with great arm action.  It is a true swing and miss offering.  At LSU, Kevin threw an above average curveball that he has used sparingly against AA hitters at the suggestion of the Orioles, who felt he would be better served in discovering other ways to get hitters out rather than blowing them away with his curve.  Gausman has worked on a slider that has reportedly come a long way in a short period of time.  I saw him throw a couple of good ones in his start against Akron a few weeks ago.

The right-hander pounds the strike zone.  He has thrown 68.5% of his pitches for strikes this season and has walked only 2.7% of batters faced which works out to exactly one walk per nine innings pitched.  Gausman appears to have the rare and extremely valuable combination of power stuff and control.  He is not going to hurt himself by giving up walks.

22.6% of Gausman’s strikes in the Eastern League have come from a swing-and-miss.  That is a high percentage and a strong indicator of the quality of a pitcher’s stuff.  If batters are offering at a pitch but still unable to make contact, it is usually an indicator that the pitcher has very good stuff.  With all of those swings-and-misses it is of little surprise that he has struck out 49 batters in 46 1/3 innings of work, which works out to 9.5 K’s per nine innings pitched.

The combination of power and control is best exemplified when one looks at his lack of walks and strikeouts together – for every one batter he has walked, Gauman has struck nearly ten (9.80) hitters.  K/BB ratios like that – even in AA – do not grow on trees.

If there is any concern in the numbers or elsewhere, it is that Gausman has not pitched above AA, has an era of 3.11 (which is good, not great), and a pedestrian hits per nine innings ratio of 8.5.  The amount of hits is hard to gauge.  Gausman has been pitching in front of a mediocre at best defense with Bowie and on fields that are certainly below major league standards.  It is risky business looking at hit ratios in the minors because of the non-ideal pitching conditions.  Not that I am comparing Gausman to him yet, but Matt Harvey allowed 8.7 H/9 IP in the Eastern League in 2011 as a 22 year-old.  In 2012 at the age of 23, he reduced that a bit to 7.9 H/9 IP.  Now in his rookie season with the Mets, Harvey has a National League leading 4.5 H/9 IP.  The bottom line is with minor league defenses, fields, and hitters that are often more aggressive than the average major leaguer, minor league hit numbers are not always an indicator of a pitcher’s ability to limit hits once he reaches the majors

The ERA should also not be too much of a concern.  Gauman has not dominated in terms of keeping runs off the board.  However, there are potentially valid reasons.  Besides for the previously mentioned issues surrounding the defense, there are other factors that could have led to a slightly inflated ERA.  Kevin has thrown 7 wild pitches and hit 3 batters, largely while working on his slider.  The ERA – like hits allowed – should at least be viewed with a grain of salt giving the surrounding circumstances.

Lastly, I am not overly concerned about the jump from AA to the majors.  Gausman is not going to come up as a finished, perfectly polished major league starter.  That much is certain.  At the same time, given the type of pitcher he is – power pitcher with very good strike zone command – I am not sure how much seasoning he would have really required in AAA anyway.  The bottom line is his stuff is major league stuff.  Might he have to adjust to getting major league hitters out?  Probably.  However, that is likely a step he would have had to take regardless of whether he pitched at AAA or not.

In any event, Thursday should be an exciting game.  Gausman may or may not be 2013’s version of Manny Machado – the rookie that stabilizes one of the team’s “weaker” areas – but I would not be at all surprised if Thursday is the start of a largely successful rookie campaign for him.

A few other quick pitching thoughts, not all of which are related to Kevin Gausman . . .

·         Gausman is pitching in the place of Jair Jurrjens who made just a single start with Baltimore before being optioned back to AAA Norfolk.  However, that might prove to be temporary.  If Kevin sticks with Baltimore he might ultimately end up pushing Freddy Garcia from the rotation instead.  Buck has wisely had a short leash on Garcia, even when he has thrown moderately well.  It is clear from watching Garcia pitch that his stuff leaves little room for error.  It is certainly not an ideal situation having a pitcher that could blow up at any moment and cannot necessarily be trusted to go deep into games.  It would not come as a shock if over the next couple of weeks Jair finds his way back to Baltimore and Garcia finds his way out of it.

·          The rotation for the Jays series (and beyond) lines up like this:  Gausman (Thursday – Jays), Tillman (Friday), Garcia (Saturday), Gonzalez (Sunday), Hammel (Monday – Nationals), Gausman (Tuesday), Tillman (Wednesday), Garcia (Thursday), Gonzalez (Friday – Tigers), Hammel (Saturday), Gausman (Sunday).

The dates to watch here are all of the Garcia starts, May 31st (Friday versus the Tigers), and Monday June 3rd which will be the O’s first off day since last week.  Obviously, it might not be in the O’s best interest for Freddy to make two addition starts – particularly starts against the Jays in Toronto.  At the same time, Jurrjens cannot be recalled until May 31st which unfortunately falls one day after Garcia would be in line to make his second start.  Baltimore would probably have to use a spot starter before the 31st if they decide to part ways with Garcia.  Jake Arrieta could fit the bill, but he might be optioned tomorrow to make room for Gausman.  Steve Johnson is another candidate.  One the O’s get their off day on the 3rd, they will have a little more roster flexibility.  They can re-arrange the rotation and should have a better understanding of where everyone falls in the rotation.  These next couple of weeks might see the rotation remained unsettled but I would imagine that come June 3rd, it will be in a much better position.

·         The Orioles will have used 11 different starters after Thursday’s game.  They used 12 in 2012.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  While the 5th starter remains unsettled, the other starters have been used largely because of injuries to Gonzalez and Chen.  The fact that the Orioles have so many capable starters ready to fill in is in itself a good thing.  Most teams have used more than five starters at this juncture.  The main difference is many of those teams don’t have enough available options to have tried out 6 non-opening day starters by this point – they are more or less stuck riding out whoever they originally bring up to fill the vacancy.  The Orioles are seeing what they have in all of their pitchers early on so come June or July they will hopefully be able to build a solid rotation.

·         For the record, those 11 starters are:  Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Josh Stinson, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Freddy Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, and Kevin Gausman.  Your early favorite for the 2012-tying 12th starter has to be Tsuyoshi Wada, who threw his second rehab start last night for Norfolk.  After that, T.J. McFarland seems to be the next most likely with no clear options in the organization beyond that (unless the Orioles get desperate enough to have Matusz make the mid-season move from the bullpen to the rotation).

·         Jason Hammel struggled again over the weekend.  I don’t know what is wrong with him but I did spend quite a bit of time staring at his Pitchf/x data over at Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs the other day.  What is clear is that his sinker and curveball have been far less effective in 2013 than they were in 2012.  Batters swung and missed on Hammel’s sinker 7.15% in 2012 and missed on his curveball 8.41% of the time in 2012.  Those numbers have dipped down to 3.81% and 2.56%, respectively, in 2013.  His two-seam (sinker) velocity is down 1 MPH from last year as well.  Watching Hammel pitch, it is clear that his two-seamer is lacking the dynamic movement it had last season.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that Hammel has been ineffective in 2013 because his two-seam fastball has not been as good of a pitch for him as it was last season.  That is certainly part of it but I don’t think it tells the entire story.  Hammel’s two-seam fastball has not been terrible nor should it override the fact that he does have other pitches.  Somewhat inexplicably, Hammel is throwing his two-seam fastball about 10% more in 2013 when behind in the count then he did in 2012.  He is throwing the two-seam fastball behind in the count at the expense of his change-up which he has used 6% less in 2013 when behind in the count then he did in 2012.

At the same time, Hammel is getting a lot less swings at his curveball this season.  Last year he used it as a strikeout pitch thrown out of the strike zone.  This season, hitters are laying off the curve out of the zone and focusing in on fastballs over the plate.  Hitters are taking more curveballs for called strikes which is another sign that they are simply dismissing the curveball and waiting for fastballs.

Given all of that, a short-term solution would seem to be to throw more curveballs over the plate and change ups.  Obviously Jason needs to set these pitches up with his fastball which he should still do, but maybe just limit the number he throws a little more than he would like to until he can hopefully figure out why the two-seam sinker has ceased being the weapon it was in 2012.  Get ahead with the fastball and immediately go to the change and curve to finish an at bat.  If behind in the count, he might be well served to throw more change ups and get me-over-curveballs to get back in the count rather than attempting to simply throw a fastball over.  Jason has enough tools to be effective even without a plus sinker.  It might just be a matter of figuring out how to best use them.