Since his debut in 2013, fantasy owners have dreamed on Kevin Gausman’s potential due to a plus fastball with excellent velocity. However, the secondary stuff has never truly developed as prognosticators once thought it would and he has fell victim to the AL East and Baltimore. That is not to say that Gausman has been terrible since 2013 – far from it, but he has never taken that leap beyond being interesting. Now, at 26 years of age, he will front the Baltimore rotation along with fellow top prospect Dylan Bundy. Despite his role, the question still remains whether Gausman can be a true frontline pitcher in fantasy and real life.
Gausman is presently being drafted on NFBC as a #3 starter as the 34th overall SP with an ADP of 144.56. He is going in front of two of the biggest breakout SP candidates in James Paxton (161.35) and Lance McCullers (162.01). Clearly, Gausman still has people’s interest, but is it warranted beyond the pedigree?
Last year, Gausman sported healthy 8.75 K/9 and 2.35 BB/9 rates, which were at the heart of his 3.61 ERA. His abilities to both miss bats and avoid walks allowed him to overcome a 1.4 HR/9. Although I acknowledge that there was a league-wide homer surge, Gausman’s 2015 HR/9 rate was 1.36 and for his career, Gausman has surrendered 1.19 HR/9. Simply put, Gausman has a homer issue, which is not entirely unexpected in Baltimore and the AL East.
Many Gausman fans look to the second half of last season as a turning point – across 93 second half innings, Gausman posted an impressive 3.10 ERA. There are fantasy prognosticators that believe the improved results were attributable to a change in his approach to throw the splitter more (from July forward Gausman threw the splitter 20% or more in each month). The issue with that conclusion is other than slight upticks in K/9 (up 0.38), BB/9 (up 0.74) and strand rate (6.4% higher LOB%), Gausman was largely the exact same pitcher in the first half as he was in the second half.
Admittedly, this change-in-approach could evolve further for Gausman. He could go the route of Matt Shoemaker and throw the splitter over 30% of the time. It could produce the results that we saw from Shoemaker over a 23 start stretch to end the year – from Mid-May until Shoemaker’s last start in September, he posted a 2.93 ERA, 8.38 K/9 – but part of the difference between Shoemaker’s and Gausman’s results were the HR/9. During this stretch, Shoemaker’s HR/9 rate was a mere 0.80. You can only attribute so much of that to the increased splitter usage before you acknowledge that Shoemaker has a much friendlier home park and division than Gausman. While the Shoemaker splitter increase may result in some improvements beyond Gausman’s 2016 results, it is insufficient to get Gausman into the next tier of starting pitchers.
With a path to only marginal improvement, how can Gausman take the next step in his evolution and become a SP2 level pitcher? The answer is, and stop me if you have heard this before, Gausman needs another pitch in his arsenal. With a mediocre breaking ball, perhaps, Gausman can experiment with his slow slider/curve into a tighter cutter. Although this possible solution exists, there is no guarantee that Gausman will able to throw the new pitch effectively or that Orioles, who loathe the cutter, will allow Gausman to throw it.
Absent a new pitch or a change of venue (exceedingly unlikely), perhaps, Gausman should be looked upon just as a suped up and expensive version of Ian Kennedy based on his results. In fact, if you look at them side-by-side, they are eerily similar:
Of course, the book has largely been written on Kennedy at this stage of his career, and at 26, Gausman still has time to develop as a pitcher. In the future, Gausman could also potentially spend some time in pitcher’s parks or in the NL, as Kennedy has, and greatly improve just based upon better surroundings. However, what we care about is 2017, and unless something drastically changes, Kevin Gausman in Baltimore looks an awful lot like Ian Kennedy (69th SP, 247.48).