Atlanta Is Betting on Kevin Gausman’s Upside

With the non-waiver trade deadline having passed — and, with it, all the sorts of analysis produced by sites like this one — it seems like a good moment to recognize what is sometimes missed in the rush to judge the merits of each trade for the two (or three or more) teams involved. Because, while it’s certainly logical to evaluate a trade based on the talents of the players changing hands, what’s sometimes overlooked is that “talent” isn’t static. Indeed, sometimes a club acquires a player not merely for what he has done but also for what, with some minor alterations, he could do.

For instance, after last summer’s trade deadline, the Dodgers got more out of Yu Darvish after pointing out to the pitcher some better ways in which to employ his arsenal. Gerrit Cole has made dramatic improvements with the Astros this season (as did Justin Verlander following his move to Houston). Corey Dickerson, meanwhile, has become a much more effective hitter in Pittsburgh.

From an L.A. Times story about what the Dodgers asked Darvish to do last August:

At the team hotel in Manhattan, Darvish met with general manager Farhan Zaidi, who advised him on how to attack that night’s hitters. Zaidi opened a laptop and revealed how Darvish could optimize his arsenal, altering the locations and pitch sequences he utilized during five seasons with Texas.

With major league players, teams aren’t just trading for recent history of performance and present skills of a player, they are digging in and seeing where they might be able to help a player improve.

While Kevin Gausman was not the biggest name dealt prior to the August 1 trade deadline, he is one of the more interesting change-of-scenery plays given Baltimore’s history with pitching development and where the Braves are in the NL East postseason chase. While the AL division races are all but decided, the NL is much more wide open, and no division is more contested than the NL East.

The Phillies lead the Braves by 1.5 games and have the lowest division odds (54.0%) of all division leaders, according to FanGraphs playoff odds. The Braves have 21.3% division odds and 39.3% playoff odds. FanGraphs still believes in the Nationals. The Braves were a team that could benefit more than most in making a trade deadline acquisition, particularly starting pitching. The Braves also are a team that believes they have a long contention window, and rightfully so, as the club is rich in young controllable major league talent and prospects yet to come. The Braves didn’t want to part with, say, Cristian Pache (Have you noticed the power breakout?), and certainly not for a rental.

In fact, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos told Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution prior to the deadline that the club was shying away from rentals, preferring to target players with control.

“We would prefer not to go after rentals unless the acquisition cost just makes so much sense for us. There’s a lot of pain that has gone into putting together this young talent. We’re not ready to throw that all away just because of one season. That said, I do think we owe it to the players and the fan base and the organization to make this team better, one way or another.”

Anthopoulos lived up to his word in acquiring Gausman, who is under club control through 2020. The Braves don’t look at Gausman as just a controllable asset, but they view the former fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft as an “upside play,” as Anthopoulos said on MLB Network Radio.

So what might the Braves see?

Let’s start with the fastball, which probably has a usage and a location problem. Opponents are batting .330 and slugging .531 against his four-seamer this season. According to linear weights, Gausman has the fifth-worst fastball amongst qualified starters (-9.8 runs below average). For his career, he’s allowed 70 home runs off the four-seamer and opponents have slugged .454 against the pitch with a .285 average.

Among his four pitches, only his slider has performed worse for his career, yet Gausman has relied on his fastball at a 63.6% rate. One simple fix for Gausman would be to simply go to the Rich Hill plan and throw his most effective pitch, his splitter (.196 opponent average and .329 slugging mark for his career), more often. Perhaps a lot more often. Certainly more often than his 18.3% usage rate for his career and his 21.5% usage rate this season. The pitch has the sixth-highest whiff rate among MLB splitters (38.1%) and is the top ground-ball weapon (5.0 GB/FB ratio) among all qualified splitters.

In his first start with the Braves, Gausman only threw his splitter on 7% of offerings and threw his changeup at a 20% clip, so perhaps the Braves see something else, or perhaps there was a labeling issue or another reason he mixed up his usage.

Gausman isn’t generating many whiffs with his fastball. It has a 2,169 spin rate this season and a 2,268 rpm rate during the Statcast era. In essence, it has league-average spin and is really below average when scaled to his above-average velocity. The pitch lacks the ability to generate swings-and-misses, as he ranks 100th out of 152 pitchers in four-seam whiff rate among pitchers to have thrown at least 200 four-seamers in whiff-per-swing rate (15.5%). The pitch ranked 219th in 2017.

Location is the other issue.

Consider Gausman’s fastball locations against right-handed hitters this season:

And left-handed hitters:

He’s not exactly hitting the corners with a fastball that is already not going to generate whiffs.

Still, his mid-90s fastball sets up his splitter and other offerings. But in an era when pitchers are trying to add spin and go above bat paths for swings-and-misses, Gausman might benefit from getting his fastball even lower in the zone and better tunneling it with his splitter locations, which he has located more away from danger against lefties:

And middle-down to righties:

Fastball location and usage might help him cure his home run problem — he ranks 11th among qualified starters in HR/FB ratio at 15.9% this season and 22nd since 2012 at 14.9% — and become more of a ground-ball pitcher.

Perhaps that will allow his splitter — his best pitch — to play up to an even greater degree.

Perhaps that will also allow Gausman to become the upside play the Braves believe he can be and become a difference-maker in the NL East.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Would like to see him put it together, he was an exciting prospect in the wrong system lol