Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman might be in the bullpen for the time being, but he's looking at the team's Opening Day starter as a reference point, having dusted off a curveball he hasn't used since college.
Making his first relief appearance of the season Tuesday night, Gausman used a curveball instead of his slider as his breaking ball against the Tampa Bay Rays. The 2012 first-round draft pick from LSU constantly has pointed to his slider as the breaking ball he hoped to develop, but late in spring training, he changed course.
"I just think it's a different look," Gausman said. "I think it's a little bit tighter spin than my slider. I think it definitely changes eye levels, and I think watching [Chris Tillman], what he does every fifth day, he's a big curveball guy with high, elevated fastballs. He's made a living doing that. It's one of those things [where] I think I can definitely ... elevate my fastball. It's one of those pitches that just feeds off of that. That was another big reason."
At every stop in the Orioles' minor league system, pitchers talk about the organizational mandate to be able to locate fastballs down in the zone. Manager Buck Showalter, however, believes Gausman could benefit from elevating the way Tillman does at times.
He referenced a FanGraphs.com piece from January that said Gausman would benefit from elevating his fastball. He rarely did so, which writer Jeff Sullivan posited as a reason for Gausman's relatively low strikeout rate. When Gausman does elevate, Sullivan wrote, he gets swings-and-misses.
Showalter said it has been a point of emphasis for Gausman this spring.
"I think he's learning, too, to elevate the ball some," Showalter said. "He's a guy who constantly is down, which is good, but he needs to pitch up some sometimes, too, at that velocity."
A curveball with a vertical, two-plane break would benefit not only Gausman as a third pitch, if he can't harness his slider, but also would make his fastball, which hit 100 mph on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network radar gun Tuesday, even more explosive. A high fastball and a curveball from the same release point makes the fastball play even faster, as hitters must wait a split-second longer to recognize it.
"It would be a good pitch for him here, something that changes planes and has a different speed to it," Showalter said. "His curveball, potentially, is as good, if not better, than his slider."
Gausman said he likely will use the curveball instead of the slider while in the bullpen, but could use both, plus his fastball and split-fingered fastball, upon his return to the rotation. Either way, he knows developing a reliable breaking ball is key to keeping a rotation spot once it's his.
"Kevin's leap is going to be if he can command the secondary stuff," Showalter said. "If he can do that, he's got a chance to be a quality starting pitcher down the road, but he's not going to sit out there and throw 96-mph fastballs by major league hitters if that's all he can do."