Quiet Brilliance, Loud Contact: The Duality of Kevin Gausman

Kevin Gausman
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Michael King proved that moving him to the rotation was the best maneuver the Yankees have made in the entire second half by striking out 13 Blue Jays over seven innings. Somewhat lost in the shuffle, as has often been the case over the past few seasons, was Kevin Gausman’s dominance opposite King.

Gausman, who was perhaps better known for his firm fastball as a prospect, has really only taken off since the heater and splitter entered into a timeshare. After only using the split at a 35% clip in one year previously, he’s turned to it at least that often every year since 2021. This season, its usage is at a career-high 38.5%.

The Jays’ right-hander actually out-whiffed King on Wednesday, 17–16, with 11 swings and misses on the split. In terms of balls in play, both King and Gausman allowed just three at an exit velocity of 95 mph or harder. While the whiffs are staples of both pitchers’ games, the hard hits are especially noteworthy; King’s hard-hit rate on the season — 31.4% — ranks fourth lowest among pitchers with at least 90 innings, and Gausman’s, at 11.5 percentage points higher, ranks a paltry 108th. If you prefer barrel rate, King (6.8%) ranks 22nd lowest and Gausman (9.8%) 110th.

The truth is, Gausman’s quiet brilliance has coincided with some rather loud contact. Including this season, he’s had a remarkable run of three years with at least 170 innings each, something only five other pitchers have done in that time. And among the 104 hurlers with at least 300 total innings since 2021, his 2.80 FIP is the second lowest (next to Spencer Strider, who also suffers from more hard contact than you might expect). But his 3.14 ERA, while still solid, pushes him down to 16th. That discrepancy can be chalked up to a .322 BABIP that belies the 21st-worst hard-hit rate and the 40th-worst barrel rate in the sample.

This year, the latter two metrics have reached new heights: both are at career-worst levels. And it’s largely because of the splitter, which is allowing at least a .400 wOBACON for the first time since Gausman’s rookie year in 2013. With a .361 xWOBACON, some of that is due to bad luck, but that number is still high, and the splitter’s whiff rate is also off; at 22.1%, it’s still elite, but it hasn’t been this low since 2018.

Gausman is throwing the split from a slot a few inches lower, giving it more armside run. The change in slot may be a side effect of trying to get more extension, perhaps in anticipation of a velocity decline that, though it hasn’t come quite yet, could be on the horizon as Gausman approaches his mid-30s. Here you can see how the tweaked delivery has altered both slot and extension, with this year’s splitter on the left:

He’s also getting behind the pitch more, with its highest average and active spin rates on record, both of which are cementing that extra horizontal run and, along with a career-high splitter velocity, negating the pitch’s trademark tumbling action. These shifts, with the exception of induced vertical break, which is actually slightly better this year, have occurred in a linear fashion. Concurrently, in case there was any confusion as to whether this was better or worse for the pitch’s shape, its Stuff+ has dropped from 124 in 2021 to 116 last year to 105 this season.

If Gausman doesn’t want to alter his delivery, where can he go in the face of a declining splitter? Furthermore, how has he managed to be successful this year despite his best pitch generating its lowest run value since 2019? He’s always had a gyro slider, a pitch that prospect hounds initially saw as more of a potential weapon than the splitter, which wasn’t in vogue at the time. But the slider has only returned a positive run value once (back in 2021), and if he’s getting behind the ball more now, that doesn’t bode well for a pitch that relies on a low active spin rate. He has tried out a sweeper a few times this year, and if he continues to spin the ball with more authority, that could develop into a weapon, but it’s still a work in progress.

Instead, the reason he’s been able to follow up a pair of dominant campaigns has actually been a successful heater. With a run value of 14, Gausman’s four-seamer is enjoying its best campaign ever. But unlike with the splitter, the slot change has altered the fastball’s movement very little. Instead, the major change has been with location:

This year (above left), Gausman’s been peppering the low arm-side corner more frequently. When you can locate a fastball with carry well, sometimes it plays at the bottom of the zone, too; as YES Network announcers pointed out in Wednesday’s telecast, hitters sometimes fail to realize a riding heater won’t drop out of the zone before it’s too late. Accordingly, the pitch has returned a career-high called-strike rate; never even eclipsing 22% prior, the CStr% is now at 24.1% this season after Wednesday’s tilt, when it notched an astounding 16 called strikes on 54 pitches (29.6%). Aaron Boone was tossed from that game for arguing the umpire’s strike zone, but even before the contest, Gausman’s four-seamer had a 23.1% CStr% on the year.

Yet the reason to spot a riding fastball at the top of the zone is that it plays well there compared to breaking stuff, which usually plays best at the bottom. That contrast is what flummoxes hitters. Could it be that the heater’s location improvement has been the real splitter-killer, and any worries about the split’s changing shape would be misplaced? Gausman hasn’t altered where he places the split-piece to accommodate the new heater location, after all.

The other explanation I can think of is that two-pitch pitchers are more vulnerable to hard contact since hitters have fewer options to choose from when they wager a guess as to what’s coming. In the sample of 104 300-inning pitchers from above, exactly half threw their two most-used offerings at least 65% of the time. Those more two-pitchy pitchers had slightly higher (0.8 percentage points) hard-hit rates and overperformed their FIPs by five points fewer (Gausman himself is built for the FIP Cy Young).

This isn’t enough to draw a firm conclusion about the nature of two-pitch pitchers, but we can still conclude that Gausman is looking more vulnerable to the blowup than ever. In addition to his career-high hard-hit and barrel rates, he’s had four starts this year in which he’s given up at least six runs, compared to just two of those starts in the previous two seasons combined. In the long run, a delivery tweak or an improved slider might be necessary to narrow his range of outcomes, or perhaps the removal of Erik Swanson so Gausman returns to being the chief splitter-baller on staff. But with the playoffs approaching, a better and lower-risk band-aid would probably be a return to the north-south approach that worked so well for him before.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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7 months ago

“Including this season, he’s had a remarkable run of three years with at least 170 innings each, something only five other pitchers have done in that time“