Kevin Gausman took his lumps in the first half of what was a frustrating season for him, one that he entered with sky-high expectations and left with more questions than answers.
He spent the first two-plus months contributing to the most frustrating rotation in baseball. But what he did to fix that could breed the same kind of confidence in him that his second half of 2016 brought this year.
Gausman’s mechanical tweak in mid-June, noted here in September, paid clear dividends. Gausman, 26, squared himself more to the plate to keep his cross-fire delivery a bit more on line with home, and almost everything about his season turned around.
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After he was shelled to the tune of seven runs on six walks and eight hits against the New York Yankees on June 11, Gausman had a 6.49 ERA with 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.41 walks per nine, good for a 1.90 WHIP.
From that point on, he had a 3.61 ERA with 10.13 strikeouts per nine and 2.84 walks per nine, with his WHIP lowered to 1.253. Last week on FanGraphs, Alex Chamberlain wrote about the implications of all that from a fantasy perspective, and the message will be similar for Orioles fans: If you have anything left in your jar of Gausman faith, tapping into it this offseason could pay serious dividends.
The Orioles have no choice but to keep the belief that the second-half Gausman from either 2016 or 2017 can be sustained over the course of a full season, and prefer that it would be next season. The only constants in their rotation carrying into next year are Gausamn and Dylan Bundy, with a host of internal options such as Miguel Castro, Gabriel Ynoa and other Triple-A pitchers who will audition to join them with an expected set of free-agent acquisitions.
Bundy, 24, is still evolving, but there’s been more good than bad from him over his two major league seasons. Gausman has been particularly volatile, but the peripherals from his post-adjustment starts are promising.
His swinging strike rate jumped from 8.3 percent to 12.6 percent after the adjustment, and that came with an uptick in pitches in the zone. As a four-seam pitcher who works up in the zone, he’s a fly-ball pitcher who plays in a division of hitter’s parks. His home run/fly ball rate is 13.3 percent in his career, and was 14.8 percent this year. There wasn’t much difference in how frequently he allowed home runs pre- or post-change in his mechanics.
And with the Orioles’ outfield not covering as much defensive ground anymore, some of the fly balls that do stay in the park fall in, as evidenced by his abnormally high .336 batting average on balls in play — which Chamberlain noted was one of the 20 worst BABIPs since 2000. That’s a historic level of bad luck, and if Gausman can do something to harness that — his late-season emphasis on mixing in his two-seam fastball and varying speeds on his four-seam for weaker contact could help — there’s plenty to take solace in going forward.
All of it ultimately comes down to Gausman, who the team will again be relying on to be a front-line starter, and to deliver on that for a full season. And it can’t just come once he grows his goatee in the second half.
But if Gausman is the pitcher he was after he changed his delivery for a full season, the Orioles might get the reward they’ve been waiting for from a pitcher who needs to turn his promise into actual performance.