Kevin Gausman may carry less risk than one might think
The Mariners have a lot of areas in which they can upgrade, none of which they’ve addressed. Most of their improvements can be made to the offense, but they’re in need of a frontline starter too. They’ve been linked to Luis Castillo, and now it seems that they’re in the market for another ace, depending on how you feel about him. That pitcher is Kevin Gausman.
News! Here is the news:
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 24, 2021
The Mariners join a number of teams looking to sign Gausman, who will likely command somewhere around $20 million per year over three or four years. Had I told you as recently as a few years ago that Gausman would earn that much money, it’d probably come as a bit of a shock to the both of us. He’d spent the bulk of his career hovering just below league-average as a starter with the Orioles, and then after spending two partial seasons with the Braves, he struggled so much with plantar fasciitis that he was waived and picked up by the Reds, who made him a reliever.
With the Reds, Gausman leaned on his splitter even more. He’d already started to fade his slider and throw his splitter more with the Braves, but one residual effect of pitching out of the bullpen for the Reds was the realization that he could throw his splitter nearly half of the time, and with robust results. He continued to throw his splitter at a high clip, and since 2020, Gausman has posted a 23.5% strikeout minus walk percentage with a 1.00 HR/9 over 251.2 innings. Those are ace-like numbers.
The rub is that Gausman dwells on a very precarious profile. Clearly, he doesn’t have much of a track record to speak of, but also, his repertoire is made up of 90% fastballs and splitters. That effectively makes him a two-pitch starting pitcher — something that does not portend success going three times through the order. Compounding these concerns is that splitters are notoriously difficult to command with consistency.
I’ll admit, upon hearing the news that the Mariners were linked to Gausman, I, uh, expressed my displeasure. My perception of Gausman’s 2021 was that his fastball and splitter command had both been mercurial at points. His command was especially erratic following the sticky stuff ban, after which Gausman’s splitter’s spin rate dropped significantly. The result was a splitter that was markedly worse across the board: it drew fewer whiffs and chases, which, obviously, resulted in a lower called strikes plus whiffs (CSW) percentage.
Had that continued to be the case, I think I’d find myself completely out on Gausman, but as with several other players across the league, he got his spin back — even if it took him about a dozen starts. When it did come back, so did the whiffs, but it also came in concert with a cluster of home runs. Gausman gave up just five home runs on the year with his splitter — that’s quite good! But four of those came in September — that’s quite bad!
Here’s the home run on the splitter from April:
And then the home runs from September:
The home run from April isn’t a good pitch, but it isn’t the worst, either. Gausman left it hanging, but it’s at least at the bottom of the zone. The four from September, though? They’re all out over the plate, right in the collective wheelhouse of all four hitters. What’s uncanny is that they’re all mistakes, all in the same spot. And while that’s certainly concerning, I find it more compelling that it’s a blip rather than a feature of his game. Perhaps it was some hangover effect of the sticky stuff ban, or it could be that his mechanics were out of whack — after all, he’d dropped his release point in September. Whatever it was, it shouldn’t persist.
And so, for me, I’ve come around on Gausman. The version of him that existed in my head is a much more flawed pitcher than I think he actually is. Clichés about players’ flaws are pervasive, and clearly, they’ve seeped into our collective consciousness. His profile remains a risk of sorts, but one that’s well worth it, especially when you consider that he could find one more level.
Gausman ranks in the 84th percentile in fastball CSW at the top of the zone, and yet only in the 12th percentile in both average fastball location and percentage of fastballs located at the top of the zone. In other words, his fastball plays really well upstairs, but he doesn’t throw it there very often. If he were to do so, it would probably unlock something in his fastball and help his splitter play up even more.
At the end of the day, the Mariners have to convince free agents to sign with them. Selling them on a winning team and culture figures to be the most difficult part, but outbidding other teams will do the trick for most players — and it’s the part that’s the most under the team’s control. I might have been out on a Gausman signing as recently as yesterday, but the more you look into him, the more he makes sense for the Mariners. If the asking price is anywhere within their ballpark, they ought to pull the trigger.