Kevin Gausman and Searching for Optimism

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Kevin Gausman of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the first inning against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

In 13 starts this year, Kevin Gausman had a 6.21 ERA. In his last 3 starts before going down with an “injury,” Gausman’s pitching lines were:

  • 1 IP 8 ERs
  • 5 IP 7 ERs
  • 2 IP 4 ERs

That’s 3 starts, 8 innings pitched, and 19 earned runs. It was shockingly bad. A pitcher Atlanta counted on during last year’s division-title run had become unusable and unreliable in their rotation. Their only recourse was the IL stint.

Now we have this:

I imagine most Braves’ fans aren’t terribly excited to see Gausman again. His results left little to be excited about and his inconsistency is its own breed of frustration.

But behind those results and just under the surface of those inconsistencies is a different story for 2019 Kevin Gausman. There are, believe it or not, reasons for optimism, as the title suggest.

As bad as those 3 games mentioned above were, it was just 3 games. Here’s what Gausman did the 10 games before that:

IPERAFIPK%BB%OBA
544.333.6424%9%.291

For a majority of the season, Gausman was a perfectly solid major league pitcher, which is basically what Kevin Gausman is. Of course, if you remove the 3 worst games for any starting pitcher, his numbers are going to look significantly better. The stats in those 3 games still count, as do the losses to which they led. But 19 ERs in 8 innings can erase the memories of all the solid work that came before it.

If we dive even deeper into the numbers, which is where should be anyways with a sample size this small, the news gets even better. Gausman’s baseline metrics show not only has he been solid this year, but actually a bit unlucky.

Gausman has 13.4 swinging strike rate, the best of his career, and 73% contact, also the best of career. Those are notable because swinging strike rate and contact rate are two metrics that correlate strongest to K%. They correlate so strongly that you can actually use them as a K% predictor. For swinging strike rate, you can simply double it. So a 13.4% SwSt% should produce a 27% K rate. For contact rate, you simply take the inverse percentage. So a 73% contact rate should produce, again, a 27% K rate. Gausman’s K-rate for the year is 22%. There’s a one or two percent margin of error, but as you get up to four or five percent, regression is expected.

Gausman has pitched well enough to have a much better strikeout rate. It just hasn’t happened yet. Combine that with the career high .340 BABIP he’s running this year, and it’s not hard to understand why some positive regression could be in his future.

One problem with those plate discipline metrics, and even BABIP, is they don’t account for the quality of contact. Gausman might only be giving up a 73% contact rate but what kind of contact has it been?

For that, we’ll use Baseball Savant’s average exit velocity. Here’s Gausman’s chart:

201888.8 mph
201688.0 mph
201787.3 mph
201586.9 mph
201986.1 mph

As you can see, Gausman is actually allowing his lowest average exit velocity since Statcast data become available in 2015. Taking that into account creates even more confidence that career high BABIP is more an absence of luck than skill.

As for other red flags, his fastball velocity was 94.1 mph last year. This year’s it’s 94.1 mph. Home runs are at normal levels. Ground balls are a little down but nothing that can’t be explained by sample size variance. Spin rates are fine, he’s getting his swings out of the zone, actually another career high, and his command is pretty much at career norms.

The elephant in the room for Gausman is always the 2-pitch thing. This year, he’s throwing his fastball or split 95% of the time. Last year, it was 85% of the time with the difference mostly being made up by the slider. He’s basically abandoned that pitch in 2019. But, as we just saw, the problem this year hasn’t been an increase in quality or quantity of contact. If hitters were consistently squaring him up, we’d see it in the numbers. And that just isn’t the case. And remember, before those three disastrous starts, he still looked mostly like Kevin Gausman.

The question is where to go from here? When he’s ready to come back to the team, what is his role? Before diving into his numbers, I had no interest in him rejoining the rotation. Now, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. If it were just one or two things pointing to bad luck, it wouldn’t be as strong of a case. But when I see him maintaining or even excelling in a number of his underlying metrics, it becomes more clear we were watching more randomness in results than a decline in talent.

If I had it my way, I’d love to see what he can do as a one-inning reliever. Only using two pitches becomes insignificant in a one or two inning role. And the quality of those two pitches, which could see a bump with a shorter workload, could be electric in high leverage situations. Maybe the closer they’re looking for is already on the roster? But even as a starter, he should be fine.

Whatever his role, there shouldn’t be a sense of dread among the fan base about his return. The numbers behind the numbers don’t paint the same ugly picture his most recent results did. In fact, some show he’s pitching at a career-high level just masked some bad luck. And at the very minimum, we’ve at least uncovered there are, indeed, reasons for optimism.

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