Kevin Gausman has been a nightmare for the Baltimore Orioles this year. That actually may be an understatement as he currently sports a 6.11 ERA. The peripherals don’t paint a much brighter picture with a 5.04 FIP, 4.71 xFIP, and 4.74 SIERA. His strikeout rate has dropped from 23% last year to a below-average 19.6%, while his walk percentage has increased to 9.4% from 6.2% last year. Kevin Gausman has been bad this year by just about any metric. But even in the increasingly warm weather (and high run environment) of Baltimore, there remain a few slivers of hope for the 26-year old.
The first case for improvement comes from the fact that he is still pitching every fifth day. He leads the Orioles in innings, despite having the worst ERA of all qualified pitchers. Jason Collette and Paul Sporer brought this up on their FanGraphs podcast, The Sleeper and the Bust, in regards to Mike Fiers, who has turned his season around after allowing all of the homers to start the year. Paul even mentioned this in regards to Gausman in an article about a month ago that you can read here. The case with Fiers was a simply unsustainable HR/FB%. With Gausman, he owns a .367 BABIP to this point in the year. That is gonna come down and at least a marginal decrease in ERA should come with it. However, a lower BABIP doesn’t help with strikeouts and walks, both areas he needs to improve on to have a solid second half of the season.
Thankfully for Gausman, there are signs that those might be coming around. He seems to have made an adjustment in the last month. Up until he took the mound against the Cleveland Indians on June 21st, Gausman’s horizontal release on all of his pitches was mostly between -3.00 and -2.75. Since the Indians start, his average horizontal release point is about -2.30. The chart below, taken from BrooksBaseball.com, illustrates this sharp change.
It seems to be quite a significant difference, so let’s take a look at some of the results since that start.
On the surface, Gausman has allowed run totals of 3, 0, 0, 5, 8, and 1 to give him an ERA of 4.94 in the last 30 days. That’s still bad, but there are good outings there. More promise comes with his strikeout totals in those games (9, 4, 9, 7, 5, and 8). That is good for a 31.6% strikeout rate. Only Chris Sale (36.4%), Max Scherzer (35.7%), and Corey Kluber (34.5%) have a higher K rate than that this season. I’m not trying to say that Gausman is in their company or that he will maintain that rate going forward, but hey, six starts with an elite strikeout rate isn’t nothing. The extra strikeouts have come along with an increase in whiff rate on his slider. In the next graph, you can see this increase paired with a continued strong whiff rate on his splitter. Gausman has also started to throw his four-seam less in favor of the splitter, throwing it 28% of the time so far in July.
Throw in a walk rate of 6.8% that is more in line with the rest of his career, some solid peripherals (3.91 FIP and 3.17 xFIP) plus a big decrease in xwOBA (taken from baseballsavant.com) from 0.384 to 0.309, and we might be seeing a turnaround from the right-hander. The Orioles probably wished it came sooner (or never got this bad), but with the mess of the AL wild-card race, they only sit 3.5 games back of the last AL playoff spot. As a team, the Orioles rank fourth in wRC+ in the last two weeks, partly thanks to Manny Machado starting to get out of his funk. Baltimore will need Gausman to pitch like he did last year if they want to stick around in the wild-card hunt. Another possibility is Gausman is dealt before the deadline. According to mlbtraderumors.com, the Rockies have reportedly inquired about him. Either way, it will be interesting to see if these improvements can push Gausman to a solid finish, although that may be even more difficult if half of his starts were to take place in Coors Field.