Five Orioles stats that stand out: What's behind Kevin Gausman's rocky start?

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman has endured an, at best, uneven season so far. But regardless of results, he hasn’t been himself all year. Opening Day against the Toronto Blue Jays was a struggle. So was his next start against the New York Yankees, and after a turnaround last week in Toronto, Gausman imploded for a variety of reasons.

What has been behind his struggles, and how much of them can he reasonably be expected to correct? This week’s edition of five stats that stand out is on Gausman’s rocky start, with his command problems, lack of use of his splitter and a dose of bad luck all to blame. [All stats via FanGraphs.]

12.9 -- It doesn’t take much to see that Gausman is struggling with his command, and he said as much after his start Tuesday. But his 12.9 percent walk rate is by far the highest of his career, and through the first three weeks of the season is the sixth-highest among qualified starters in baseball. It’s all rooted in his fastball. But Gausman’s breaking ball, in any iteration, has never really been a strike pitch and hitters don’t often chase it, while his splitter is almost in hiding this year. All that means is when the fastball isn’t there, it’s hard for Gausman to stay in the zone.

8.8 -- The disappearing act of his splitter/changeup combination is bizarre. Gausman has thrown them a combined 8.8 percent of the time, which is less than half as often as the rest of his career. Game circumstances have a lot to do with that — he has faced 32 left-handed batters and 61 right-handers — and the break of that kind of off-speed pitch is much better against lefties. Gausman said in spring training that he typically doesn’t throw the pitch until his last start or two in Florida because it causes blisters once he starts. It’s fair to wonder whether he has ever really found the pitch as it flounders going on four starts running now.

-5.42 – This one is complicated, but bear with me. FanGraphs' pitch values measurement either credits or debits the run expectancy in a given count and situation to a certain pitch type, with the pitcher’s offering getting a positive rating if the outcome is in its favor, and negative if it doesn’t. Gausman’s splitter (and his circle change is likely in this category, too) is a minus-5.42 runs per 100 pitches thrown, which is way down from previous years and a huge problem considering it’s his best off-speed pitch. A few right-handed lineups have meant the pitch hasn’t been required this year, but Gausman needs it to be at its best.

.379 – One thing that will likely normalize is the .379 batting average on balls in play that opposing hitters are enjoying off Gausman this year, up from his career mark and 2016 level of .308. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop was responsible for no fewer than three hits on infield singles that he couldn’t get to Tuesday, and such “luck” was all ascribed to Gausman. BABIP is something that usually settles around .300, and that could make life easier for Gausman when it does normalize. But between the walks and the batted ball luck, there are a lot of men on base for Gausman this year.

2.94 – Gausman’s ERA (7.23) minus FIP (fielding-independent pitching) of 4.30 gives him the biggest gap in the majors between the two. That means there’s some serious regression coming when it comes to Gausman’s stats. FIP is an ERA proxy when using only what a pitcher can control — walks, strikeouts and home runs. Though Gausman’s strikeouts are down and walks are up this year, he has only allowed one home run, so that’s dragging down his FIP. He’s actually had a higher home run/fly ball rate than average recently, so stats that normalize home run rate don’t foresee as big of an improvement, but Gausman’s ERA won’t start with a seven for long either way.

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