Fantasy Baseball: Kevin Gausman isn't throwing his best pitch right now
Kevin Gausman has ditched his splitter and that could explain his struggles so far. Chris Towers takes a look into the numbers.
From the outside, there's only so much we can know about what's going on with any player. We have enough granular data to tell you what is happening and how they are going about their successes or failures. What's a lot harder to do is figuring out the why.
Did a hitter make a change to his swing? With the naked eye that's awfully hard to tell. With advanced stats, we can look at the results of their swing over a period of time, which can tell us what is happening with their swing. However, results don't necessarily tell us anything about intention. They don't tell us what a hitter is trying to do, or why.
The same is true of pitchers, and Kevin Gausman is a great example of this. We can look at his results, and they aren't pretty. After Tuesday's poor outing against the Yankees, he has a 7.23 ERA through his first four starts, double his season ERA from 2016. He has just 13 strikeouts and a league-high 12 walks in 18 2/3 innings, and generally hasn't looked anything like the breakout pitcher many were hoping to see.
We can also look beyond the headline numbers to see what Gausman has done, and where things have gone wrong. Gausman's velocity has held steady from last season, and while he has struggled with walks, he is actually throwing a nearly identical percentage of his pitches inside of the strike zone, per PITCHf/x. He isn't garnering nearly as many swings, either at pitches inside or outside of the strike zone, as well.
So, there's some what for you. But we can go deeper, looking at Gausman's pitch usage, which really stands out. Gausman has introduced a new pitch, a harder slider than the curveball he used last season. He has thrown this pitch around 20 percent of the time, and while ditching his curveball isn't the worst idea in the world, the bigger issue is that Gausman has almost entirely abandoned his splitter, throwing it just 28 times in four starts. That's about half as often as he threw it last season.
Why has he done this? I haven't seen a good explanation yet, and since I'm not Kevin Gausman -- and since I am also not John Cusack and I don't have access to a secret door that allows me to enter his head like in a Spike Jonze movie -- I can't exactly answer that question. John Meoli of The Baltimore Sun speculated that Gausman might not have the feel for the pitch yet, because he has had a history of blisters with it. That's as good a theory as any I've seen!
The why in this instance, is obviously critical. Gausman's splitter is his best pitch, historically, and Ias a pitch he should throw even more often. He threw it around 20 percent of the time last season, a rate he has cut in half so far. However, as last season went on, he started throwing it even more, topping 25 percent usage in five of his final 11 starts. That helped fuel his breakout, because the splitter has been by far his best pitch, in terms of both batted-ball results and swinging strikes.
So, it's a curious thing to see him essentially ditch the pitch. It also, strangely, gives me some hope for the future. Gausman hasn't been the pitcher I hoped to see coming into the season because he literally has not been the pitcher I expected to see. Whatever the reason, they key to turning things around for Gausman could be as simple as finding his splitter and leaning on it more.
It may not be a magic bullet. There is probably a good reason Gausman hasn't thrown the pitch often, and we just can't see it from the outside. However, Gausman showed ace upside last season, and the splitter was a key to that. I still believe in his potential, because he could still just be a small tweak from finding it.
I just won't be starting him until he does.
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