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May 30, 2013
Kevin Gausman, the Debut Ante
Kevin Gausman was the first pitcher chosen in the 2012 amateur draft, selected fourth overall out of LSU by the Baltimore Orioles. The right-hander soared through the minor leagues, earning a 2013 assignment to Double-A following just 15 innings in the low minors and then needing fewer than 50 innings at Bowie before the Orioles deemed him ready for the Show. Gausman’s quick promotion, following that of Jose Fernandez, is another example of the philosophy that powers TINSTAAPP.
Minor League Stats
Gausman's minor league strikeout rate was solid yet unspectacular considering his pedigree and repertoire, but the obscenely low walk rate stands out. He posted a gaudy K-to-walk ratio of 49-to-5 in Double-A this season, and his true outcome stats were well-rounded, with just three homers allowed. Upon being called up, the 22-year-old Gausman became the youngest pitcher in the American League, and his first assignment came Thursday in Toronto. It was a classic battle of power versus power, pitting Gausman's high-90s velocity against a Blue Jays lineup whose 67 home runs through Tuesday’s games were the third most in baseball.
The first pitch of Gausman’s career was a 96-mph fastball to leadoff man Melky Cabrera that missed above its intended location for a ball. Gausman got the ball back from catcher Matt Wieters, but then had to toss the potentially historic ball back to the umpire so that it could be removed from play. He appeared to be slightly bothered by the distraction, despite the gesture’s benevolent intentions, but one can forgive the kid for wanting to go right back after Cabrera.
The young Oriole is a quick worker, and his eagerness to get back into rhythm gave the early impression of a fierce competitor. Cabrera would see five consecutive fastballs with steadily increasing velocity up to 98 mph, but he was able to convert a lunging swing into a single up the middle. Gausman mixed in some off-speed stuff against no. 2 hitter Jose Bautista, including an 82-mph slider that was over-rotated and that finished too far out of the zone to be a factor, as well as a cliff-diving changeup that resulted in an F-9.
The rookie needed only his heat to register his first major league strikeout, setting down Edwin Encarnacion on three consecutive fastballs, the last of which froze Encarnacion when home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo rang him up on a pitch that missed far inside.
Gausman's first swinging K arrived in the next plate appearance, against cleanup hitter Adam Lind. The pitcher's approach was the same as in the previous sequence to Encarnacion, with three fastballs in a row to start the at-bat, but Gausman pulled the string on a deadly changeup that had the depth of a breaking ball, finishing Lind to end the inning.
Gausman allowed two singles and a walk over the first three innings, spreading out the damage to a baserunner each frame to keep zeroes on the scoreboard. His pitch command was inconsistent due to issues with repeating the delivery, but the raw stuff was strong enough to survive a number of missed targets. The fastball dominated his first-pitch approach the first time through the batting order, and the only hitter who was greeted with a non-fastball on the first turn through the lineup was J.P. Arencibia.
Gausman was staked to a 3-0 lead by the time he took the mound in the bottom of the fourth inning, thanks to a two-run double by Manny Machado and a solo shot by Chris Davis, both hit off of Toronto starter Brandon Morrow. The home half of the fourth was the first time that the rookie ran into trouble. It started with a lead-off double by Lind, who found vengeance for his first-inning K by smashing an 0-2 changeup off of the top of the right-field wall.
Gausman badly missed Wieters' target on the pitch, which was set up on the low-outside edge of the strike zone to mimic the pitch that struck out Lind in the first inning, and the designated hitter took advantage of a pitch left out over the plate. Arencibia immediately followed with a two-bagger of his own, pulling a slider down the left-field line to plate Lind. It was the second time that Gausman had started the Toronto catcher off with a non-fastball, though he had employed the strategy in just one other at-bat to that point in the game.
The damage continued when Brett Lawrie pushed a gorgeous bunt down the first base line for a base hit that also advanced the runner, followed by an eight-pitch battle with Colby Rasmus that ended in a walk to load the bases with no outs. Gausman's first three pitches to Emilio Bonifacio missed the zone, as did the fourth, but the rookie was graced with a generous strike call that kept the at-bat alive.
Bonifacio then crushed a ball to the warning track in dead center field, plating a run with the sacrifice fly that came within a couple feet of a grand slam. A head-scratching decision by Toronto to pull a suicide squeeze resulted in a non-productive out when Munenori Kawasaki popped up to the catcher, helping Gausman escape the near-catastrophe with his team still in the lead.
Gausman’s fastball was still buzzing along at 96-99 mph into the fifth, but I continued to be surprised by hard contact from Blue Jay batters. It could be that hitters were getting a good look at the fastball, or perhaps minimal movement on the pitch made it easier to square up once the batters locked down their timing. Pitch sequencing may have also played a role in connection with some command issues that put Gausman in fastball counts, but whatever the main culprit, it was somewhat shocking to see so many hitters pulling 97-mph fastballs with authority. The biggest blow was this two-run homer by Arencibia, who finally got a first-pitch fastball and crushed it over the left-field wall to give the Jays the lead for good.
Gausman's pure stuff was as strong in the fifth as it had been all game, including a fastball that sat 97 mph and above. His first-pitch approach evolved to include non-fastballs to three of the last five hitters, and he even used a slider-change combo to set up the heat versus Bautista, finishing him off with a letter-high fastball at 99 mph that overwhelmed the former home run king.
Lawrie fell prey to a similarly backwards approach, as Gausman lulled him to sleep with a couple of changeups and mixed in a tight slider before the fastball put an end to the inning. It turned out to be Gausman's final batter, and the rookie starter's day was finished after 89 pitches. The Orioles went on to drop the game 12-6.
The Blue Jays' bats were on fire Thursday, and Gausman would actually finish with the best stat line among Baltimore pitchers. His fastball was humming throughout the contest, and the devastating changeup gives him a potent two-pitch mix that can be effective against hitters on both sides of the plate.
Gausman’s breaking ball appears to have plus potential, but the overall effectiveness could be compromised somewhat by its similarity to his change. The slider and the changeup are thrown at nearly the same velocity due to a 13-mph spread between his average fastball and change, and the incredible depth on the changeup gives him two pitches that share similar movement in the vertical plane.
Gausman battled with his mechanical timing on Thursday, trading pitches that were badly over-rotated with those where the arm came through too late to reach full extension at release point, and in many cases he threw pitches that looked like balls out of his hand. Such inconsistencies are typical of young players, particularly those making their first appearance in the big leagues, so his performance can be taken with a large grain of salt. He did paint some targets on the day, and the results were eye-opening when everything lined up.
Mechanics Report Card
After the 2012 draft, I reviewed Gausman's mechanical baselines from his final college season, and though I saw a pitcher with tremendous upside, I also felt that he had some barriers to overcome before his game was ready for the big leagues. Making such adjustments can take a while, even with great coaching, and some organizations may not see a need to make a change. That said, I have been impressed by the improvements that Gausman has made in the short time since his days at LSU, and his upside is magnified by a rare combination of baseline skills, physical prowess, and an advanced learning curve.
Gausman generates deceptively strong torque with his lower half, as he not only delays trunk rotation, but also utilizes an early initiation of hip rotation as he thrusts forward with the landing leg prior to foot strike. His momentum is also plus, though inconsistent, and the strong combination of power grades contributes to his elite radar-gun readings. Gausman’s momentum starts with a strong move toward the plate, and he undergoes a gear-change after max leg lift. His inconsistencies were often tied to the timing and aggressiveness of his transition to second gear.
Starting on the first-base side of the rubber, Gausman crouches over at the beginning of his delivery with an imbalance that is sustained through foot strike, an element made worse by a drop of his center-of-gravity after max leg lift. The posture grades out as average with flashes of plus, but that score represents a big improvement over the spine-tilt of his college days. Gausman’s lift-leg follows an unusual pattern, with a sharp angle and good height at maximum lift, followed by the jutting movement into foot strike, but the net result is a long stride that helps to extend his release point. He showed a couple of different lift patterns in the game when pitching from the stretch, including a waist-high lift as well as a quicker move that nearly qualified as a slide step.
Issues with controlling both the balance and the momentum aspects of his delivery create problems for Gausman at release point, yet his overall repetition played at a league-average level, a factor that inspires optimism about his long-term outlook. Gausman pitched again on Tuesday, but he was absolutely pummeled by the Washington Nationals to the tune of seven earned runs over four innings of work, including three homers allowed. He walked only one, but he also failed to strike out a single batter. I have yet to give that game a proper sit-down and analysis, but the fact that he was throwing hard and throwing strikes—yet getting hammered—speaks volumes about his agenda for development.