When Kevin Gausman changed his breaking ball from a hard slider to a curveball last spring, it was seen as the third pitch that would help fulfill all the potential the Orioles saw in his live right arm when they selected him fourth overall in 2012.
Equal parts frustration and progress ensued, but the latter reigned, to the point that Gausman believes the curve has been a major asset as he starts in the majors for a full season for the first time in his blossoming career.
"It's been good," Gausman said. "I think I'm kind of turning into more of a curveball pitcher. It's definitely taken strides toward being better and being more consistent just with the swings I'm getting on it. I'm getting more swings and misses, more weak contact, getting ground balls on it. I'm not really getting hit on it as much as before."
Before last season, Gausman featured more of a hard slider, a pitch that catcher Matt Wieters said Gausman had trouble commanding in the zone for strikes.
With a four-seam fastball that has averaged 96 mph over the course of his career, the thinking was that adding a curveball from the same arm slot could open up the top of the strike zone for Gausman. With those two pitches and his plus splitter, Gausman would have all the weapons to start every fifth game for years to come.
The change didn't come as easily as he'd hoped, though. The simple designation — was it still a slider, or was it a curveball? — ate at Gausman.
"I think the biggest thing is trying not to label it as something," Gausman said. "I think so many people get caught up in the fact that it's supposed to be a slider and it should be harder, or it's got to be a curveball and it should be slower. They're all breaking balls. In the last year, I've taken a step forward to just being like, 'Some nights, it's a little bit harder and more like a slider, and some night it's got a bigger break and a little slower.' I'm kind of learning how to throw which one I want to throw, so that's big."
The next and perhaps most important step is to throw it more consistently. The harder version, even now, is something Gausman acknowledges can be "almost not competitive," so far below the strike zone that no one would swing. That one comes out with two strikes, he said.
"That's something I still need to learn, how to be able to keep throwing the same one whatever the count is and not change how I'm going to throw," Gausman said.
Still, the intermediate progress has been a boon for his career. He entered Friday's start with a 3.93 ERA, down from 4.25 last season, though his peripheral rate stats are nearly identical. There's more upside to how he's going about it this year, Wieters said.
"The big thing is, I think the one thing that the curveball did, changing it to a curveball, was it freed him up to be able to throw it for a strike a little more," Wieters said. "I think the slider was a little bit hard for him to kind of command. The curveball, he feels comfortable with it being on the plate where he can keep his arm speed up, and really focus on keeping his arm speed up instead of where to locate it."
The results on Gausman's breaking ball have been much better this season, according to Brooks Baseball's PITCHf/x data. In 2015, he threw 201 total breaking balls out of 1,872 pitches (10.7 percent) — some classified by pitch-tracking software as curveballs, others sliders — but managed just 16 swinging strikes on them (8.0 percent).
Those rates have gone up this season. Entering Friday's start against the Seattle Mariners, Gausman has thrown 183 breaking balls out of 1,317 pitches (13.9 percent), with 25 swinging strikes (13.7 percent).
It's not all about swinging strikes. Though Gausman has given up some hits with the pitch, Wieters said the right-hander is learning when and how to use his breaking ball more effectively as his experience with it grows.
"I think every time he's able to throw it in a big situation, he's able to get more confidence in it," Wieters said. "I think he's more comfortable throwing it for strikes and being able to use it where it's a pitch where he can get back in the count, and not have to throw the 2-0, 2-1 fastball all the time."
"It's always a work in progress, but he feels more comfortable with it physically, and that's why you're seeing a lot of starters like that" switch, manager Buck Showalter said. "A slider for starters is hard on your arm, your elbow. It's also a good pitch. That's why you see so many relievers throwing it instead of starters. … I think he feels better about himself physically with it."