If you’re getting Drew Pomeranz vibes off of the Giants’ big acquisition of the winter, I don’t blame you. Kevin Gausman is almost certainly a player of that ilk — talented with the chance for peak performance and at a modest price ($9 million). But Gausman isn’t a total reclamation project like Pomeranz or Derek Holland before him: he’s not coming off failed seasons, he’s coming off back-to-back half good-half bad seasons.
As part of my conscious uncoupling from the site ahead of March 31st, I spent the winter not really looking into the few players the Giants acquired. That means this year’s community projection series will feature a lot of discovery on my part, and I think that’s a nice way to ease back into writing about baseball before having to stop. I knew almost nothing about Kevin Gausman before I wrote this, even though I wrote this at the time of the deal:
The Braves traded for him in 2018 from Baltimore and got a solid 2.87 ERA in ten starts (59.2 IP) from him. It all went to hell in 2019, though, with a 6.19 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 80 innings. They traded him to the Reds who turned him into a reliever, and in Cincinnati’s bullpen, he was much better: 3.21 FIP in 22.1 IP with an 11.7 K/9. He features a 96 mph fastball and devastating split finger (40.8% Whiff Rate).
So, here’s a little more: the Orioles drafted Gausman in the first round of the 2012 draft. He’d make his major league debut for them just a year later, appearing in 20 games (47.2 IP) with five starts, before settling in as a rotation stalwart from 2014-2017. Over these next four seasons, he’d post a 104 ERA+ across 109 games (101 starts) with a 4.06/4.09 ERA/FIP. Basically average!
He remained basically average in 2018 (97 ERA+) when the Orioles traded him to the Braves at the deadline. He pitched better than average after switching leagues, with a 143 ERA+ in 10 starts (59.2 IP). And then he was a disaster in the first half of last season. The Reds claimed him off waivers in August and made him a reliever (he started one game in mid-September, but it went horribly wrong).
He wasn’t good as a reliever — he was great! As SB Nation’s Red Reporter noted back in November:
Take away the one start he made for Cincinnati, and the differences are even more pronounced.
Here he is throwing an immaculate inning just a couple of weeks after the Reds acquired him:
9 pitches. 3 strikeouts. Immaculate stuff.— MLB (@MLB) August 18, 2019
(MLB x @Gatorade) pic.twitter.com/N8tIsUHSx3
So, now we’re fully in Drew Pomeranz territory, right?
That’s not how the Giants see it. They’re paying him to be a top of the rotation starter and not some swing arm. And his prior track record, despite the strictly average ceiling of it, bests Pomeranz’s by more than a little bit: 14 more games started in two fewer seasons with a 5-year run of a healthy, consistent starter’s workload.
But over the past two seasons, he’s managed to start a season in an absolute rut before being bailed out by a team switch. That could very well happen with the Giants, too, but by the time the trade deadline rolls around, will he be in the Giants’ preferred role for him or the one the Reds seemed to have created for him?
After the claim and before the immaculate inning, professional Giants-hater Dan Szymborski (this is a joke) wondered,
The question is, just how high is Gausman’s ceiling at this point? He no longer tops out in the high-90s as he did earlier in his career, and he’s struggled to develop his repertoire after his fastball and splitter. He’s abandoned his slider in 2019 and nearly doubled usage of his splitter from a few years ago, which has had the nice side effect of cleaning up his release point consistency.
A two-pitch starting pitcher doesn’t sound like a starting pitcher who will last very long. That’s basically Shaun Anderson, and we were already talking about how he’d probably be more effective out of the pen this year. Is it true that he’s down to just those two pitches?
Statcast swears he has a slider, and while that’s factually true, it’s still most correct to say that he’s ditched it almost entirely and is primarily a fastball-splitter guy. ABsinceWayBack posted two charts on the Braves’ SB Nation site two months before he was waived —
— and remarked:
So in 2019 he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher now. One is a hot fastball, the other that sexy split. No problem I guess, as long as he executes those. But location has been an issue this year.
The scouting report on Gausman appears to be this:
Look for the hittable low fastball first. If the split comes high, you have time to adjust and poke it anywhere you like. If you see the slider and speak of him, speak well.
That’s a striking consolidation of pitch selection — and necessary, too, given the endangered species that is the sinker — and a damning analysis of his stuff; and yet, it seems to me that makes him a perfect candidate for the Giants’ new development system.
Pitching Director Brian Bannister and Pitching Coach Andrew Bailey will not only be tasked with picking up where Derek Johnson and the Reds left off in terms of refining Gausman’s delivery and pitch design, they’ll have the chance to help Gausman remake his slider or reformat another pitch type that can be effective.
Gausman’s slider features an above average spin rate (2,264 vs. 2,090 average), but in 2018 (the last time he threw it more than 100 times), batters slugged .488. They also whiffed on it 32.2% of the time, so it can be swing and miss. He might need to locate it better, and that might come with some delivery tweaks.
Worth noting that in 2018, batters slugged .499 against his four-seam fastball. Last year, it was .550. But he didn’t ditch it because, obviously, he needs it to setup his devastating splitter, which, as of yesterday, is still devastating:
Kevin Gausman's splitter picking up right where it left off. pic.twitter.com/cXAJfBiZVc— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) February 25, 2020
I’ll say what’s been left unsaid to this point: Kevin Gausman is a good baseball player and a talent upgrade over what the Giants had heading into the offseason. There’s a former top prospect still in there. Gausman turned 29 just last month. He’s the type of player you remain optimistic about on a team slated to lose 260 games just in the first month of the season, if for no other reason than for the haul the Giants can get for him at the deadline.
I considered more innings, but my suspicion is that if the Giants really are committed to keeping him a starter then they’ll leave nothing to chance and script his usage. Probably a lot of five inning starts or pulled after four if he finds himself in a lot of jams in the early going.
Still, ZiPS projects a 3-win season from Gausman in 151 IP, which would be just a bit below Madison Bumgarner’s 2019 (3.2 fWAR) though in far fewer innings (207.2). Maybe the most important part of this projection is his role. Will he stick in the rotation or wind up in the bullpen before the trade deadline?
The easy “projection” is that the Giants’ ceiling this year is what’s most likely to happen. The core will be a tick below average. The rookies will be average at best. Everywhere, the pitching will stink, and Gausman, who was most effective out of the bullpen last year, will only be effective out of the bullpen this year.
Yes. I’d bet my gig with SB Nation on it.