Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman said he’s ready for his first Grapefruit League start Monday afternoon against the Detroit Tigers, more prepared for his spring debut than he’s been in years, and he’s entering this year potentially with a new weapon in his arsenal.
An early start to his season preparation has Gausman confident. He began throwing 10 days early, which doesn’t seem like much, but it allowed him two extra bullpen sessions to work on his pitches before reporting to camp.
Gausman realizes he’s always been a slow starter.
Last season, he had a 6.60 ERA in his first 15 starts. Opposing hitters batted .338 against him, and he had just four quality starts over that stretch. But Gausman finished strong, with a 2.79 ERA in his last 13 starts, including nine quality starts over that stretch while holding opposing hitters to a .233 average.
“You go through periods where you’re just trying to figure out what works the best,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s really your first full major league season, and you have a whole different feel for preparation and what has to happen. It is a game of adjustments and those are some of the things you have to adjust. You can’t put a blanket over them and have them all do it same way. I think he’s got a pretty good feel for what works and what doesn’t.”
He wants to avoid that seesaw path this season. So when he arrived at the Ed Smith Stadium complex two weeks ago, he was already throwing all his pitches.
“I like to think that every spring training I come in in great shape, but I think arm-wise and stuff-wise I feel better,” Gausman said. “Normally my first couple of ’pens here I’m throwing only fastball-changeup and before I even got here I was already throwing my breaking ball and everything, so just in that sense, I felt like last year it just took me a little while to get going and I think my numbers spoke to that. So I just think I’m trying to get a little head start.
“This is probably the best I’ve ever felt this early in camp, going back to my first spring training. I was really trying to show everybody what I really had. I feel really good with where I’m at mechanically and my arm feels really great. Everything feels great. I feel really good with my breaking ball right now, so I’m definitely going to focus on getting my reps with those in, and more than anything fastball command. I feel really good where my fastball’s at.”
And this spring, he’s experimenting with a new weapon, a different two-seam sinker grip he learned from new Orioles right-hander Andrew Cashner.
Cashner threw his sinker — which has a hard late break that comes in on right-handed hitters and tails away from lefties — more than any other pitch last season, about 40.7 percent of the time, and Cashner induced ground balls on it nearly 50 percent of the time when that pitch was put in play.
After watching Cashner’s first bullpen session last week, Gausman and right-hander Dylan Bundy came away amazed with the power of the pitch.
“I started tinkering with a different sinker grip and it’s been feeling really good. We also have a really good sinker guy right now in Cashner to kind of talk to and he has his ways that he does it. It’s nice to have a new guy to ask questions to.”
Gausman relies mostly on his fastball, splitter and slider — and last year, he abandoned his sinker altogether, according to FanGraphs data — – so if he could add pitch, it would give him an incredible advantage.
He’s a reverse-split pitcher, meaning he’s had more success against left-handed batters (.249 opponents batting average over his career) than right handers (.284), even though those splits moved more to the middle last season.
But developing a sinker would give Gausman his best weapon to get right-handed hitters out because it is pitch that breaks in on righties late and induces weak ground-ball contact. Gausman has been susceptible to the home run ball — he allowed 29 last season — and a transition to using the sinker more could help that number by keeping more contact on the ground.
“It’s just something we talked about a little bit,” Gausman said. “My last ’pen was the last time I threw it off the mound, and I’m feeling more comfortable the more I throw it. It’s a feel pitch, so it’s one of those things where if you don’t feel comfortable with the grip, I’m definitely not 100 percent comfortable with it yet, but off the mound I felt really good.”
This will be the first time Gausman will truly be able to experiment with the pitch against opposing hitters. He said he didn’t want to throw it when he was throwing to Orioles hitters this spring because he wasn’t entirely comfortable with his command of the pitch.
“I’m not going to throw sinkers in on my own right-handed hitters,” Gausman said. “If Manny [Machado} comes in and tracks me, I’m not going to throw that sinker. So those are the things I think in a game, it definitely gives you what you need to get ready for the season. You’ve got to be able to throw in on guys and make them feel uncomfortable. Obviously, I’m not going to do that with [Adam Jones] or Manny or any of those guys in there watching, so that’s probably a biggest difference.”