Q&A: Orioles' Kevin Gausman seeking consistency after two straight uneven seasons

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A first-round draft pick in 2012 who was in the major leagues less than a year later, Kevin Gausman has seen his constant efforts to fashion himself into a front-line major league starter play out in front of Orioles fans desperate for him to fill that role.

His increasing glimpses of that, as well as the struggles that stood in the way of sustaining that success, have been one of the most fascinating threads through this decade for the Orioles.

It’s never been about health, or ability, but whether he can gain the mental acuity and mechanical mastery required to be the consistent No. 1 starter the team has needed for so long.

He’s been in this position before. Gausman, 27, ended 2016 on a tear, but struggled badly as the team’s Opening Day starter in 2017 before turning it around at midseason.

Gausman spoke with The Baltimore Sun during spring training about the lessons learned from 2017 and nearly five seasons in the majors, his obsession with throwing hard, and how being the self-described worst at everything growing up molded him into a major leaguer.

‘The worst I’ve ever been at baseball’

In terms of last year, and I guess this would carry over to this year, too — you ended 2016 on such a high and were one of the best pitchers in the league at that point. How does that influence an offseason? And when you look back on that, especially having done it again, what about last offseason and what you carried into the season stands out about how 2017 went?

You know, you hear a lot of pitching coaches who have been around for a long time talk about how you really gain experience in the offseason. It gives you time to really think about things, and kind of assess your season and look back on things you did well and also things you didn't do well. Obviously, 2016, making the wild-card game, was a really exciting season. Those last couple of months were really fun, and everybody was pitching really well. So, it was a great environment; a really, really solid team, too, all around. It was a lot of excitement, and unfortunately, we didn't go past that.

But like you said, I ended on such a high and came into camp, had a great offseason, worked my butt off in the weight room to kind of get more prepared, because it was my first time making 30 starts. I think that was a big thing, too. I think for a pitcher, the first time you're able to do something at the highest level that the best guys in the game do at your position, you kind of get a little bit of a sense of, “All right, I can do it and I can go even further.”

Obviously, I did that last year. I made 34 starts, but the quality of starts just wasn't what it was in 2016. I think it was a little bit mechanical, and early on — looking back now and having the offseason to kind of digest things — I think I just tried to do too much. I think rather than just going out and being Kevin Gausman, I was trying to be somebody else, trying to be even better than what I'm capable of. That's one thing that I look back on in 2016 when I was pitching really well, and even last year, in the second half, it was something where I almost just went out there and competed, and whatever happens, happens. In 2017, last season, I know at the break I had to really sit myself down and say, “All right, this is going to go one of two ways. I can either battle back and try to kind of save this season and get some experience going into next season, or I can have an excuse to fall back on, that it's just a bad year.” I think I did a great job of busting my butt in the weight room during the season to be ready. I made every start I could, but like I said, they just weren't as quality as they were the year before.

When you mention trying to be someone you're not, does having to be an Opening Day starter and a pitcher that fits that bill in a lot of different ways, does that play into that at all?

Maybe. I don't think so. I'd like to think that I didn't try to do anything more, but at the same time, I think it was the fact that [Chris Tillman] was out to start the season. I knew a lot was going to be counted on me, and I pitched every five days for the first two months, which was great. I wanted the ball. That's the type of guy I am. When I get going, I really want the ball every five days. I would like to think that it wasn't like that, but looking back, I think maybe it definitely had something to do with it.

And when did you know something was wrong? It doesn't seem like an injury thing, but something didn't seem like it was right outwardly. When did that strike you?

Honestly, it was probably the start in Cincinnati [on April 18]. That's probably some of the best stuff I've had in the big leagues. I remember warming up and knowing that I kind of had whatever I needed that day. I had every single pitch, and just went out there and didn't pitch very well. Gave up a grand slam, gave up I think five runs in the [second] inning and only went [2 2/3 innings] or something like that. That was when I was like, “There's got to be something going on, mechanically or in my mindset. Something's just not right.” I worked my butt off the whole year with [pitching coach Roger McDowell] to try to figure it out, and unfortunately, I don't think I really figured it out until the All-Star break.

You mentioned Roger, and that's something I wanted to go to. What's it like to be going through that with a new pitching coach? He came from the [Dave Wallace-Dom Chiti] tree that you guys are so familiar with, and obviously every coach has his players’ best interests at heart and that’s something he makes clear to us every single time we talk to him. But dealing with that with a new pitching coach, is that something that requires a little more convincing or maneuvering to get what he wants to you in a way that is OK to you?

Yeah. I think it's like any job — anytime you have someone who comes in, they've kind of got to gain your respect in some aspects. I obviously respected him with just his resume alone, coming over here. But you never really know how you're going to work with someone until they're kind of hands on. One thing I'll say about Roger is he was very patient with me last year. He would get on me when he needed to, but he saw that I was really struggling to find it, to find myself.

That's the worst I've ever been at baseball, and to do it at the major league level is tough. It's tough to kind of swallow some of your pride a little bit, and he was there every day with me, every bullpen, and really kind of got me to focus on the things that I needed to focus on — which was having that good four-seam, down and away, and being a guy who can throw my fastball where I want to when I need to.

How did that change you've talked about so much, in staying on line [in your delivery] — I know a lot of people call it the cross-fire delivery [that you had] — how did that change come about, when he said, “If we do X,Y and Z will happen?”

It was in Cincinnati. The next day, I got to the ballpark really early. I wanted to look at video, and he was already there. He was already looking at it and kind of pointed out some things from [2016] compared to [2017]. My stride, I was going way toward the third base dugout. When I do that, it's really hard for me to be consistent with my fastball in particular. He kind of told me, “Hey, I think this is what we need to fix.”

I was a little stubborn at first. I didn't know if necessarily, that's what it was. But I'll say now that I trust his opinion a lot, and he called me multiple times in the offseason and just kind of reminded me, “What are you doing to do to stay on a better line this coming year?” My first bullpen, he said I looked great, and really, this whole camp. That was what I did this whole offseason to get ready for it, making sure I'm landing in the same spot every time.

You said it was the worst you've ever been at baseball, at this level. What does that do, even knowing that you can have good stuff like that Cincinnati game and good stuff most games if we're being honest, and it doesn't work? What does that do mentally to someone trying to make that next step?

It's tough. I think at times, you have to take that step back and realize that these are the best baseball players in the world. Sometimes, you're going to throw a pitch right down the middle and a guy is going to swing and miss. Another time, he's going to hit it 500 feet. Some of that's just kind of the nature of the beast, you know? Being in the big leagues, these guys are unbelievable, and the pitches that they hit will amaze you, and the pitches that they don't hit will amaze you, too. You've got to give them credit, but at the same time, like I said, it's tough when you've never gone through that.

I'm going to use the word “simple,” but you make this change with Roger, and it seems like staying on line in where you land is not great in the grand scheme of things. If it's not as simple as it outwardly seems, you can say so, but how does something that simple make that big a difference? When you think about all the work that goes into this, and all the scouting reports and all the preparation, the offseason and spring training, and it might be 2 inches making that big of a difference.

I think the best way to explain it is 2 inches back here [on the mound], 60 feet, 6 inches away, is a foot and a half difference down there when it's crossing the plate. That's a huge difference. That's a difference between throwing a pitch right on the black and throwing a pitch that's middle in, coming back toward the strike zone. It was tough, and it was something I kind of had to retrain my body and my delivery to be able to do it. But I've felt like we succeeded in doing it, and like I said, I've felt great this whole spring.

Growing up in the game

When you posted that you changed your number to Roy Halladay's [No. 34], you said a kid in Colorado doesn't really have a lot of influences to do what you were doing and end up on the path that you were on. Was he someone you'd look at and say, “This is Colorado, I don't have a lot else and I'm going to be another one of those?”

Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. I think it's really tough for a kid from Colorado once you start traveling to play baseball, you realize that everybody else is kind of further along than you. Team-wise and individual-wise, too. These kids from California and Texas and Florida, nothing against them but they get to play year-round. They can go out and play catch wherever they want, hit pop flies and ground balls. Kids from Colorado, I don't know how many bullpens I threw indoors on a turf mound. A lot of showcases in high school and middle school gyms, you know, in front of scouts and stuff like that. For me, it was awesome to watch not only a guy do it at that level but obviously be one of the best at his position.

Given all that, given you probably didn't see dirt from October to April, and not having too much of an infrastructure or influence, when did it become clear to you that it was working out almost despite that? At what age did it become something where all this now was a possibility?

I don't know. I've told people this before — I was always the worst player on all my teams growing up. I was the kid who was only on the team because my dad was one of the coaches. I'd get up to bat, and they'd ask me to bunt. I was the guy who just wasn't very good.

I think because of that, I worked a little harder than most. I had a passion for baseball, but I wasn't very good at it. It didn't come easily for me. It's something I really had to work at. More than anything, I just had an obsession with throwing things. I wanted to see how far I could throw a baseball. That intrigued me. My dad, We had a greenbelt right by my house, and he would hit pop flies as far as he could hit them. I'd catch them and run them down and try to throw them back to him. I'd do that a couple times a week, and my arm would just be shot by the time I got home, you know? Just dragging. I remember crying multiple times on the way home because I thought I'd really hurt my arm. It was just something that was my obsession. I liked throwing things, I liked throwing them hard and I wanted to have the best arm. I didn't really care about hitting. I was never a good hitter, so I was like, “All right, my thing is going to be throwing. My thing is going to be my arm.” I always had a good arm. I was a pretty good outfielder in high school, but my arm was always [good]. We'd take in-and-out before games in high school, and that was just my time to shine. I loved showing off my arm to everybody. I used to throw it up to the backstop. If I came in in relief, I'd throw it halfway up the backstop just to kind of let everybody know that I got it, you know? I can throw hard. I always threw hard, but I never knew where it was going until probably my like my junior year of high school.

That's when I started to get recruited. I started getting letters from colleges. I actually committed to go to the University of Nebraska my sophomore year and ended up decommitting a couple months later, but that was when I was like, “Man, I could go to college.” But for me, it wasn't like, “I'm going to go to college and then go to the big leagues.” When I first started getting recruited, it was, “All right, I can get my college paid for. This is great. I can help my parents out.” I'm the youngest, and they paid for my brother's college, my sister's college. My dad is a teacher, my mom is a nurse. So, money wasn't that available for us. Any way I could help. Then really, my senior year, the summer before my senior year, that's when I kind of realized that maybe I could get drafted, maybe go play professional baseball.

It seemed like it all kind of happened quickly. You're always throwing hard, but committing to a Big Ten school would be a big deal anyway. Then going from that to probably junior year, showcases, then LSU — it seems like that's kind of a quick progression for somebody who just wanted to throw hard.

My freshman year of high school, my grades were pretty bad. I remember going out, and our high school coach wouldn't even let me try out for the baseball team because my grades were so bad. I threw hardest out of anybody at my high school as a freshman, but I was on Freshman B because my grades were so bad. That really bothered me. I think that pushed me even harder to kind of work hard. I ended up pitching a game for JV in the playoffs, and then the next year, made varsity the whole year. But it was just another sign that I needed to kind of get my stuff together and figure out what was important.

Did you just not like school?

Yeah. I wasn't so engaged in class.

I understand. But that leads into the next question perfectly. Other than playing baseball, what was Kevin Gausman doing 10 years ago at 17 years old?

I played basketball all through high school — played varsity for three years in basketball, and I loved it. I loved playing basketball. I loved just being active. On the weekends, I'd hang out with my friends. We'd go to the movies or things like that. It really wasn't too crazy. I was always so busy with basketball and baseball, it kind of went right into each other, so I didn't really have much time to do anything else except sports, to be honest.

Did you have any off-field releases or hobbies that were just kind of you? I know you're part of a rotation now where if you don't walk in the door in camouflage every day, [you're shunned]. But was there anything like that for you?

I grew up snowboarding. I like to go into the mountains. I like going hiking — really anything outside. Colorado, the weather is so great there. It's pretty easy to get outside and have fun, but that was probably it. I didn't hunt at all growing up. It actually wasn't anything I got into until I went to LSU and met some guys and went hunting and thought, “Man, this is pretty sweet.”

Do you still snowboard?

No, I can't. Not allowed.

Were you a crazy snowboarder? Like, I could go down the hill, but could you do any jumps?

So, I was the worst out of all my friends, I'll tell you that. But my friends are pretty good. I could get down any hill — any run, double black diamond, it didn't matter. I could get down it. But it wasn't going to be that pretty. You weren't going to watch me and be like, “Wow, that guy's really good.”

You're making a pattern, it seems, of saying you're the worst at everything [you did], and then you're taken fourth in the draft and an Opening Day starter. Without being a psychologist, people seem to stay as what they were as a teenager. Is that something that you see influencing you now?

Especially when I was younger, and I still am this way now — I'm very goofy. I've got arms and legs going all over the place. Especially when I was younger, I didn't even know what my body was doing most of the time. For me to try to control my body was impossible. Basketball, if I wasn't in the air, I was on the ground. That's just kind of the type of player I was. It didn't come easily for me, just like baseball. I think it made me kind of work harder. I had a sports court in my backyard, and I was always out there shooting. During baseball season, I was throwing baseballs against the backboard. It was something that I just, I don't know, I just knew I wasn't very good at anything. So, I had to put the work in.

And last year, you made 34 starts, it's a grind. Everyone's got an [October] thing, whether it's traveling or anything. What do you do in October to kind of disengage?

Hunt. I went hunting with Wade this offseason, Wade Miley. I went up to his ranch and kind of helped him with some cattle, and I think that's really good for guys who do what we do. For eight months out of the year, we're in big cities and we're surrounded by millions of people. It's nice to go places where you know there's not going to be anybody for miles. No one is just going to walk up on you — and if they do, there's probably going to be a problem. It's just nice to get away and relax. I play golf in the offseason a lot. I like getting up early, and playing golf by myself. You kind of start your day off right.

Career retrospective

Your major league debut was five years ago this May, which seems like both a long and short time ago.

That's crazy.

What's the one word you'd use to describe your career so far?

Unfortunately, probably “inconsistent.” Yeah, “inconsistent.” I've had stretches of being really good, and even seasons of being really good, but overall, I don't think I've been the same guy every single season. So, as a starting pitcher, that's all you can try to gear it toward, being consistent, and being the same guy every five days.

It seems like some of that is out of your control. The first few years, you're up, you're down, you're starting, you're relieving. Ultimately, they were statistically successful despite the programs you were on, and painted a perception that influences how everything else is viewed. What stands out about those two years of being up and down?

It was frustrating, to be honest, especially when you're doing really well and you still kind of get sent out. I've said before that it's great because you want to be a good teammate, and it's all about protecting those guys out in the bullpen. Being able to give them an extra day and bring in another arm is great. When you're pitching well, it's really tough — especially when you're 22, 23 years old. You can kind of let it get to your head a little bit. I think it made me realize that I don't have to be so much in my routine, locked in, where I have to do the same thing every day I start. It gets thrown off. Sometimes we'll play extra innings and have a travel day the next day. There's things that just happen in the big leagues that you can't get prepared for unless you're here. I think that really kind of showed me, and pitching out of the bullpen taught me a lot, too. I used to think I needed a lot of time to get loose, then you realize, sometimes you go in the game after throwing six pitches and do really well. Obviously you learn things about yourself, and I learned a lot those first couple years.

It seems like by July 2015 was when you were up for good. At what point, though, were you able to stop looking over your shoulder when every time in that hour arriving at the ballpark or hour after the game, that every time that Buck [Showalter] or [Wallace] walked by that it wasn't to come get you?

I'd say probably 2016, probably after the All-Star break was when I realized that they're going to let me go this year. They're going to let me be here the whole year. But at the same time, I still have another option left and last year, there were times when I was like, “I wouldn't be surprised if they optioned me right now.” I was pitching really bad. I wasn't surprised, and I think also because I've been through that, I kind of know that things like that can happen. You try not to put yourself above it or anything.

And the whole time, you've been on two playoff teams, you've pitched with probably a dozen different big league starters from then until now of all different kinds of pedigrees and success levels ...

From different countries.

Different parts of the country, different worlds it seems like are put together in the Orioles rotation every single year. And the perception widely is that these are not rotations that are having a lot of success, whether it's individual components like some years or everybody for parts of last year. Is that contagious if you're pitching with guys who aren't pitching well? How does that carry over to individuals?

I think some of it is, but it's also contagious on the other side. I think if you have two guys really in a rotation that are pitching really well, everybody kind of jumps in. it's no mystery why we went to the playoffs the two years that we did. Really in the second half of 2014, we had the best pitching staff in baseball. We were really lights out. So, for people to say that, we haven't been as consistent but we've still had glimpses of being really good with a lot of different parts. We had [Wei-Yin] Chen and Miguel [González] and Ubaldo [Jiménez] and Bud Norris — so many different guys who came through but pitched really well for us. Looking at it now, for this team to do what we want to do, which is be the last team standing, it's got to start with the starters. It's got to start with the rotation. We have everything else. We've just got to be more consistent.

And on the flip side, I don't know if you watch “Game of Thrones” …

Oh yeah.

It seems like Orioles fans have their Arya Stark moments where they're like, Zach Davies, Jake Arrieta, Eduardo Rodríguez, listing off names that they can't get out of their head. You pitched with a lot of these guys at one point or another, whether it's spring training or coming up. What does it say to you that this organization has had all these pitchers, and whether it's you and Dylan [Bundy] who are trying to push through that next level or guys who make the next step elsewhere, what's it like being a part of that and one of the people who's left to symbolize this organization's pitching development?

I don't get paid to make those decisions, but obviously, we traded Eduardo to get Andrew Miller and he was great for us and I think we could have easily gone to the World Series that year. You take your chances like that. Davies, same thing. We got [Gerardo] Parra and we were ready to go there, and unfortunately it didn't work out the way we wanted to the rest of the season. That kind of shows that we can develop pitchers, and starting pitchers, too. Obviously, they did it at the major league level in other places, but I don't think that discredits what they did here and what we as a whole did together here. I know I played with Eduardo in Double-A and I played with Davies, too. Those guys were really good then, so you can't try to think that they just went there and had to fix them. They were always really good.

How do you balance being happy for these guys who are your teammates and you become friends with versus seeing them do all these things not in an Orioles jersey?

Obviously, I wish they were here. We'd be an even younger rotation if that were the case. That'd be pretty crazy. But I'm happy for them. I hope they succeed in their entire career, have great careers and play for as long as they want to play — but at the same time, do I wish they were here winning games for us? Yeah, absolutely. But when we play them, I want to beat them.

2018 outlook

Before I got down here, I read you'd been working with Andrew Cashner on a two-seam fastball. It cuts a little bit, and it struck me that there's always been a fair amount of adjustments with you, whether it's going from the slider to the curveball back to the slider; to going back and forth between the changeup versus the split and having similar results; and now this. This isn't to say that you're going to throw it a million times, but how confident are you that you can carry on the success that you've finally found while still adding and making these adjustments that weren't a part of the success you had before?

I feel confident. I feel confident in myself and in my athletic ability. I think if you tell me how to throw a certain pitch, if you give me enough time, I think I can figure out how to do it. Now, translating it into a game and doing it is completely different. That's obviously the million-dollar question — learning on the fly and being able to make adjustments and learn in a matter of one pitch during the game. I feel confident in being able to add and subtract. I didn't throw a circle change until I got to the big leagues. I realized that I needed to start throwing it because guys wouldn't swing at my split because I never threw it for strikes. Now I have a really good feel for that. I think it's just always taking it a step further and learning and getting better at your craft.

Writing about Hall of Fame stuff this year, everyone says Mike Mussina is the Orioles’ last homegrown ace. What does it take this year and going forward for you to take that title away from him?

Oh, man, you're talking about a Hall of Famer. I don't think there's anything I can do in one year.

But to be the next one?

Win ballgames, you know? You've got to win ballgames as a starter. That's what it's all about. The guys who were Hall of Famers and did it for a long time won a lot of ballgames and pitched a lot of innings. If I looked at a guy of his stature, he's a guy that's going to throw 220-plus innings every year and give you a sub-3.00 [ERA]. If you do that every year for the next 10 years, you'll probably by a Hall of Famer. It's just being more consistent, like I said. One thing I did really terribly last year was limit damage. I either gave up no runs or gave up five or six runs. There was no in-between there. And the starts where I didn't give up any runs were really good. The starts where I gave up five were really bad. There's got to be some kind of in-between there, where rather than giving up the double in a big situation to score two runs, you score two runs.

And team-wise, everyone's talked about what an addition Cashner is going to be for this team and this clubhouse. You have Tillman back for what everyone expects to be the 2016-and-before version of him. What's the vibe of your group and what does a good season look like for this rotation?

The vibe is really good. I think we all kind of fit in really well. I think bringing back Tilly was great. His leadership, his knowledge of being around this team and this club for a long time, I think it makes everybody feel way more comfortable. I know for me and Bundy, we've become pretty good friends with Chris, too. We're excited to have him back. We knew he had a rough year last year, but we know what he's capable of, and I think everybody in the AL East knows. He's been a pitcher that when he's healthy, he's really good. We're excited to have him back.

I think what it looks like, a good season for us, is every time giving at least five innings. Hopefully, that's six and seven innings. But if you consistently go out here and give your team at least five innings, you're going to keep the bullpen fresh. And when those guys are really healthy, they’re lights out. You know that the guys in the lineup are going to bang, too. When you're pitching, you feel confident in any ground ball that's hit. We have a lot of things that are really things to be excited about. We've just got to be more consistent and kind of be more [able to provide] more quality starts, really.

At the end of the season last year, there was a lot of analysis on the pre- and post-mechanical adjustment and what the real Kevin Gausman is. What do you say to people who don't want to have that faith one more year? What's your argument to say, “That was for real and this is going to be for real?”

I mean, I don't think I need to prove anything to anyone, to be honest. I've taken a step forward, and I feel really good about it. Especially this spring, my slider has been really good. And when you're facing guys like Manny [Machado] and Austin Hays [in simulated games] and they're giving you the feedback, “Hey, you need to throw that more.” And I've never been a breaking ball guy. I feel really good with it. I'm throwing some really good sinkers, and my body feels great. So, they can believe what they want to believe, but they'll see it.

And lastly, you mention Manny. This team is one that specializes in having one year left in their window. And especially this year, it seems like there's going to be some permanence when it's over with Manny, Zach [Britton], Adam [Jones], Brad [Brach], maybe Tillman again. You aren't far from that stage of your career. Does the way that the Orioles have handled players leading up to free agency make you think about what your future could look like?

I just try to take it day by day, start by start. If in a couple years, I'm in a different jersey, it is what it is. But I love Baltimore and I've kind of come to love it even more in the last year and a half. I've found my spots that I like to eat, that type of thing. I know some locals in the city that are really nice. So, I love Baltimore — especially Camden Yards. It's just so pretty. It's a pretty ballpark. But you think about it every once in a while. But I've got to get there first, and to do that, I've got to be more consistent like I've said. More than anything, I'm just focusing on this year, start by start.

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