2016 Breakthrough Candidate: Kevin Gausman

In 2015, there were fewer pitchers (74) qualifying for the AL and NL ERA titles than in any season going back to 1995 (70). In any given season, the number of first-time ERA qualifiers is about a quarter of that population. This last year was no exception, as 18 pitchers qualified for the ERA title for the first time.

What was unique about 2015 was the high quality of those first-time ERA qualifiers. AL first-timers included Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Taijuan Walker, Collin McHugh, Trevor Bauer and Marco Estrada. Their NL counterparts included Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. There are some heavy hitters on those two lists; you might have to go back to the Class of 1984, which boasted Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Oil Can Boyd among its members, to find a comparable group at the top.

This week and next, I’m going to attempt to reach into the large population of zero-time ERA qualifiers to identify the top breakthrough candidates for 2016 in both leagues. Today, it’s the American League, and the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman.

Gausman was the fourth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, my last year in the draft room with the Mariners. We picked third that year, and he was squarely in the mix for our selection. After much deliberation, our choices came down to two: the big LSU righthander and University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino. In Gausman we saw a potential top-of-the-rotation starter with a present plus-plus fastball and developing offspeed stuff. On the downside, he projected to take a little longer to reach his ceiling than you’d like for a third-overall selection from the college ranks.

In Zunino, we saw a long-term fixture behind the plate, a position that was a vast wasteland in our organization. His defense was advanced and polished, nearly major league ready, but while he had power at the plate, his approach suggested that we’d need to be patient for him to eventually become a viable #5-6 hitter at the major league level.

Ultimately, we went position player over pitcher, the way I generally tend to go when faced with college players of similar upside vying for a top selection. Slam-dunk college position players at premium positions are hard to come by, and the added injury risk of a pitching prospect is a major factor. Of course, Zunino was then rushed to the big leagues, sabotaging his offensive development, but that’s a story for another day; hopefully he’ll reboot his career at Triple-A Tacoma this spring while there’s still time.

The Orioles snatched Gausman with the very next pick. It’s taken a while for him to get to where he stands today, as a penciled-in member of the Opening Day O’s rotation for the very first time. He has only logged 164.2 innings total at the minor league level, posting an odd-looking 4-12, 3.33, mark with a healthy 160/40 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB).

Each season, I compile my own ordered list of minor league starting pitcher prospects, based on performance and age relative to league and level. Gausman qualified for my list in his first two professional seasons, with a peak ranking of #4 in 2013. This, along with his draft pedigree and his scouting measurables, identified him as the closest thing to a sure thing among pitching prospects.

Gausman has indeed shown flashes of excellence in his parts of three seasons at the major league level, which have included 42 starts. He’s posted a cumulative 240/80 K/BB ratio in 273.1 big league innings, with a pedestrian 4.21 ERA and somewhat more appealing 3.79 FIP. Simply looking at his stuff, his size, his 95.2 mph average fastball velocity, and his pedigree, he’s already a prime candidate for an upward move in 2016. A big key is the number of innings he’ll be able to add to his 2015 majors/minors innings load of 134.1.

What more can granular batted-ball data tell us about Gausman’s true talent level as the new season beckons? Let’s examine his plate appearance outcome frequencies and production allowed by ball-in-play (BIP) type data in order to get a better feel. First, the frequency info:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequencies, 2015
Metric % REL PCT
K 21.9% 110 71
BB 6.2% 85 30
POP 4.5% 124 72
FLY 33.6% 108 74
LD 17.1% 82 9
GB 44.7% 101 56

First off, Gausman has already constructed a fairly strong K/BB foundation for a young pitcher. We must remind ourselves how prevalent the strikeout has become in today’s game; AL ERA qualifiers combined for an average of 7.61 strikeouts per nine innings. The NL qualifiers’ average was even higher, at 8.06. For Gausman to rank in the 71st percentile with regard to K rate is no small feat.

Many young power pitchers struggle with their control in their formative years. Not so with Gausman. His 6.2% BB rate was also better than average, in the 30th percentile. This strong K-BB spread gives him plenty of room for error with regard to contact management, both in terms of frequency and authority.

There are a couple more eye-catching items in Gausman’s frequency profile. He generated plenty of additional free outs via the pop up, ranking in the 72nd percentile in that department. Such rates tend to correlate closely from year to year, so this is a very positive sign for his future. The other number that jumps out is his crazy low 17.1% liner rate, ranking way down in the 9th percentile. Liner rates, however, fluctuate quite wildly from year to year, so we can expect regression in the wrong direction moving forward.

His very low liner rate inflates both his fly and grounder rates a tad. It’s tough to project Gausman as either a fly ball or grounder-centric pitcher going forward based on limited data thus far, but if I had to guess, I’d say he’s more likely to gravitate in a fly ball direction. As long as the pop ups remain, this shouldn’t be a problem, provided he keeps authority in the air in check.

So we’ve got a nice K/BB foundation that could even better as he refines his offspeed stuff, a pop up tendency that should be a keeper, with some negative regression in his liner rate that could nick him in the short term. Pretty workable. Next, let’s examine his relative production allowed by BIP type, which will give us a better feel for the authority he yields:

Relative Production Allowed by BIP Type, 2015
FLY 0.308 0.923 285 179
LD 0.639 1.180 114 101
FLY + LD 0.487 1.062 142 113
GB 0.279 0.288 113 98
ALL BIP 0.324 0.568 114 97
ALL PA 0.248 0.295 0.435 98 85 4.25 3.90 4.10 3.36

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation. One quick note here: I have presented this type of analysis many times, but only recently have I begun to show fly ball and line drive line items both separately and combined.

Fly balls and liners are combined for one main reason: Statcast’s definition of a “fly ball” is quite narrow. Only the steepest three quarters or so of the previous measuring system’s (Sportvision) fly balls are now classified as such; the rest infiltrate the line drive category. Gausman allowed substantial damage on those higher fly balls in 2015, allowing .308 AVG and .923 SLG, for a loud Unadjusted Contact Score of 285. After adjustment for context, that drops to a 179 Adjusted Contact Score; still loud, but at least cleansed of some of the cheap long balls he allowed last season.

Once fly balls and liners are combined, Gausman’s Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores drop to more manageable levels of 142 and 113, respectively. To put that in some sort of perspective, only five of the AL’s 36 ERA qualifiers had a higher Adjusted Contact Score on fly balls and liners combined last season. Clearly, there is some risk here if Gausman develops a clear fly-ball tendency moving forward. That said, he’s definitely better than the homer-every-6.5 innings guy he was in 2015. To this point, he hasn’t been a particularly easy pitcher to pull in the air, which also should insulate him to at least some extent.

Once you bring all BIP types together, Gausman managed contact at a slightly better-than-average level last season, as evidenced by his Adjusted Contact Score of 97. On each BIP type, his actual results were worse than his context-adjusted results. Bottom line: there was a healthy dose of bad luck in his 2015 numbers. That slightly better than average context-adjusted result was enabled by his pop up tendency, which he can be expected to replicate, and his low liner rate, which he can’t. All in all, I consider Gausman an average to slightly below-average contact manager at present, not a bad place for a potential first-time ERA qualifier to be.

Add back the Ks and BBs, and Gausman’s 2015 “tru” ERA of 3.36 is markedly better than both his actual ERA (4.25) and FIP (4.10). Sure, that takes into consideration an unusually low liner rate, but it also gives credit to a pop up tendency that FIP ignores. Steamer conservatively projects Gausman for a 4.05 FIP over 161 IP in 2016, good for 2.3 WAR. I think that innings total will be close to right on, maybe a touch low, but I’m expecting a 3.60 “tru” ERA or so from the LSU alum. With upside for more if all goes well.

The Orioles project as one of the more interesting teams to watch, both for the rest of the offseason and for the duration of the 2016 campaign. They possess both stars and holes in spades. Corner outfield, bottom of the rotation, a lot can go wrong. For the O’s to contend, they will need the development of some of their young stars to accelerate. Gausman reaching his potential and becoming the true leader of their pitching staff would give the O’s a fighting chance in the competitive AL East. Look for him to hold up his end of the bargain.

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6 years ago

Do you have more faith in Tai Walker or Gausman figuring it out over the next three seasons? Facing that dilemma in trade talks this off-season for Fantasy.

Rational Fan
6 years ago
Reply to  RDBL2013

I trust Gausman’s body more. Walker is a great athlete, but he’s always felt mechanical on the mound.

The Orioles have managed Gausman about as poorly as a team can manage a young pitcher, and so far he’s made it through unscathed.

I am on team Gausman.

6 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Make that Future Cub Kevin Gausman…