SARASOTA, FLA. — When Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman switched to a curveball as his primary offspeed pitch in 2015, it was seen as the next step in his ascent to be the frontline starting pitcher.
It turns out that when he finally made that leap late in 2016, an unintentional return to his slider as his breaking ball helped propel his ace turn. When Gausman takes the mound on Opening Day, he'll have both pitches in his repertoire.
"Just kind of towards the end of the season, my curveball kind of turned more into a slider, and so I started making it a little shorter and making it bigger when I wanted to sometimes," Gausman said. "So this offseason, I started messing with throwing a slider and getting back to the way I threw it in college and being really aggressive with it. So I've been working on that, and I think the curveball is going to be a good pitch."
Indeed, in the final month of the season, Gausman's PitchFX data at BrooksBaseball.com indicates he was using a different breaking ball. It started out the year averaging a shade less than 82 mph, got softer in the middle of the year, and got harder later in the year. While still categorized as a curveball, the pitch averaged four inches less vertical break by his final start in October than it did at the beginning of August. So the difference was there, even if not to the naked eye.
This spring, Gausman said he only started throwing the deeper curveball in his minor league outing Friday at Twin Lakes Park, but the breaking ball he threw all spring was the slider he had essentially shelved.
"I'm going back to the grip I threw in college," Gausman said. "Now, I'm throwing a slider and a curveball. Really, yesterday was the first day throwing my curveball in a game, so it was good — pretty inconsistent — but my slider has been really good this spring. I think that'll be a big pitch for me this season, for sure."
Especially in 2015, when Gausman began to primarily feature the curveball, the thinking was that the plane on his four-seam fastball meant a breaking ball that started out higher and had a deeper break would come in at the same sight line and fool hitters. Chris Tillman uses that type of approach, too.
But the pitch eventually morphed into something of a hybrid, more resembling a curveball than a slider, one he could make larger or tighter depending on the situations.
He still has an explosive fastball and uses his splitter and circle changeup with interchangably with equal marvelous effect.
Now, with the success that came down the stretch last year throwing his slider, Gausman believes he'll be even better equipped for the 2017 season, which begins Monday in the most cherished assignment a pitcher can get.
"One thing I always liked in college about having two pitches, two breaking pitches, was if one day my curveball is not working, usually the other one is," Gausman said. "You have more options, especially being a starter. That's always good."