Kevin Gausman is Learning to Elevate

There’s a lot going on with Kevin Gausman right now. He’s throwing a curveball, instead of a slider. I learned that from another baseball writer earlier today in my email. He’s working out of the bullpen, instead of the rotation. I learned that from general news, and from all the people who complain in our weekly chats. And, all of a sudden, he’s throwing high fastballs. I learned that accidentally through research of other stuff. This is of particular interest to me.

In January, I asked a simple question: should Kevin Gausman and James Paxton throw more high fastballs? The thinking was this: the Rays have been prioritizing high fastballs. An effective high fastball has a particular movement, with lots of rise as observed on PITCHf/x. Gausman and Paxton throw fastballs that qualify, but they also threw the bulk of those fastballs low. What if they didn’t do that? Could more strikeouts and success follow? I didn’t know, but I thought it at least worth wondering.

I was going to leave this alone for a while, eventually re-visiting, maybe in August or September. But my own accidental discovery forced my hand. And it didn’t take much Googling to stumble upon this, which came up as the first result for my query:

“I think [the curveball] definitely changes eye levels, and I think watching [Chris Tillman], what he does every fifth day, he’s a big curveball guy with high, elevated fastballs. He’s made a living doing that. It’s one of those things [where] I think I can definitely … elevate my fastball. It’s one of those pitches that just feeds off of that. That was another big reason.”

From the following paragraph:

At every stop in the Orioles’ minor league system, pitchers talk about the organizational mandate to be able to locate fastballs down in the zone. Manager Buck Showalter, however, believes Gausman could benefit from elevating the way Tillman does at times.

The seed was planted. Gausman, as everyone knows, has a big fastball. The Orioles organization likes to see fastballs controlled and low, but Gausman could be a worthwhile exception, and his fastball could really stand to improve not only itself, but also the splitter and the curve. As a hitter, if you’re thinking about a low fastball, a splitter, and a curve, you can focus on one area of the zone. If you’re thinking about a high fastball, a splitter, and a curve, then you’re more torn. Which could, in theory, lead to more swings and misses, and to more swings and partial misses.

It’s too early in the year to read into Gausman’s results. It is not necessarily too early, though, to read into Gausman’s process. He’s thrown more than 50 fastballs to date, and they’ve gone to different places, relative to his own career history. This .gif comes courtesy of Brooks Baseball, comparing 2014 Gausman fastballs to 2015 Gausman fastballs:


This might be easier to understand and make sense of. Here, you just see average fastball heights, measured in feet off the ground. Shown are fastballs overall, and fastballs in two-strike counts, when you might expect them to be more elevated:


The vertical center of the strike zone is usually around 2.4 – 2.5 feet off the ground. There’s no denying the upward movement here for 2015. Compared to last year, Gausman’s average fastball has been higher by six inches. Compared to last year, Gausman’s average two-strike fastball has been higher by very nearly eight inches. This isn’t one of those things that takes weeks or months to stabilize. How you pitch is generally how you pitch, and this is what Gausman is doing now with his heaters. His curveballs are staying down. His splitters are staying down. His fastball isn’t always up, but it’s up a hell of a lot more than it was a season ago, when Gausman was following organizational policy.

Let’s take a few recent plate appearances, from an outing against the Blue Jays. Gausman against Jose Bautista:

gausman-vs-jays (1)

Gausman against Edwin Encarnacion:

gausman-vs-jays (2)

Gausman against Russell Martin:

gausman-vs-jays (3)

The results haven’t yet been spectacular. There’s nothing automatic about generating spectacular results, and at the end of the day Gausman still has to be able to locate all his pitches. His high fastballs have to be good high fastballs; his low secondary stuff has to be good low secondary stuff. But it would appear that Gausman has embraced this change in approach. He’s showing a willingness to work up, inspired in part by a teammate, and while this won’t just turn Gausman into an unhittable menace overnight, this might manage to raise his own ceiling. As he makes improvements and polishes his delivery into something more consistent, Gausman now has hitters unsure where his pitches are going to go. With hard stuff up and softer stuff down, a hitter can sit on neither, and Gausman has the velocity to trim a hitter’s time to think.

Should Kevin Gausman throw more high fastballs? It seems he now thinks so. And that seems like bad news for opponents. But, you know, man, pitching is complicated. So let’s just see, then.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Gausman hasn’t looked good this season, even if he has been throwing high and hard (triple digits on several occasions). But I know: small sample, and no big deal. Modeling himself after Tillman is interesting, since they don’t seem to have the same repertoires, although if he’s scrapped the slider for a curve that does bring him closer. Gausman will still probably give up homers and fly balls (several of the O’s pitchers do this) but once he sort of straightens out he should be a serious weapon.