Toronto Catches Gausmania!

The clever introductions to early free-agent signings have all been used up. It’s November 30, and more than a third of the top 25 players on the market have already signed. That’s an unprecedented pace, one that ran me out of headlines sooner than expected. So, uh: Kevin Gausman is going to the Blue Jays, and that’s really neat! The deal is for five years and over $100 million:

I was wildly low on my prediction for Gausman’s contract when I previewed the top 50 free agents earlier this month. Why, then, would you want to read what I think of this deal? I’ll give you two reasons. First, you love reading about baseball; you’re browsing FanGraphs on November 30, like we covered up above. Second, I think that the solid market for Gausman says something about both him as a pitcher and the market as a whole, and who doesn’t like big sweeping pronouncements mixed with micro re-assessments? It’s a party for everyone.

The Gausman story is well-worn by now. A top prospect in Baltimore, he never quite put things together with the Orioles, sporting an ERA over 4.00 in parts of six seasons there. The Braves acquired him at the 2018 trade deadline, but when he and they both struggled in ’19, they put him on waivers despite retaining a year of team control. The Reds tried him on for size before non-tendering him in the offseason, which is how he began a stellar two-year run in San Francisco.

Gausman is a rare breed: a two-pitch starter who rarely throws a breaking ball. He leads with his four-seam fastball, follows with his splitter, and essentially dares hitters to beat him. Leaning on two pitches means you really need to make both count, and he absolutely does. What he and the Giants did that helped him take off was make one simple adjustment to his four-seamer: throwing the pitch higher in the zone. It paid off, to the tune of increased fly-ball rates and decreased line-drive rates, which is basically what you’re looking for when you spot the pitch high. That turned the fastball from a middling swing-and-miss pitch into a contact management gem. His results when opponents put four-seamers into play in 2021 were excellent: a .358 wOBA, solidly below the league’s production when putting fastballs into play.

Meanwhile, the splitter was its usual wonderful self. Gausman has always crushed lefties; his best pitch is a diving off-speed trident that he locates well, so that makes sense. His big change in 2020 and ’21 was using the pitch like a slider (or hard curveball) against righties, which sounds weird but mostly works. He did it less as the season wore on, potentially because batters started to catch on, but in essence, he was pitching high/low to righties and rock/hard place to lefties. Since 2020, he’s allowed a .270 wOBA against righties and .269 against lefties. Sounds good!

That’s a story for why each of those pitches hit a new level with San Francisco. Now, here’s my counter-story for why caution is reasonable. It’s the fastball, to put a fine point on it. Gausman has incredible results with it over the past two years, and as I mentioned above, it’s largely due to suppressing damage on contact. Among starters who allowed at least 150 four-seamers in play, he was 16th of 60 in contact suppression, and that in a group of good pitchers. He hadn’t shown any real previous skill at that; before 2021, he’d been slightly worse than average on contact.

His improvement came without an obvious reason. He didn’t start getting more pop-ups. He didn’t start getting more grounders. He didn’t lower his hard-hit rate. He didn’t lower his barrel rate. He just… well, basically, he started converting more batted balls into outs despite the batted balls looking roughly the same. That’s a neat trick, but it definitely feels tenuous.

That’s reason for concern, but I’m actually pretty in for the Gausman experience, even if I think that his fastball will be meaningfully worse (results-wise) next year. The biggest thing working in his favor? He stopped goofing around with worse secondaries and leaned on his two best pitches against righties. From 2013 to ’20, 19.2% of pitches that he threw to righties were something other than his best two offerings. In 2021, that number fell to 13.3%. Focusing more on what you do better is a great way to succeed, and Gausman’s splitter is so far ahead of every other secondary pitch he throws that there was never any need to get cute.

We think of two-pitch pitchers as strange starters, but here’s a secret: plenty of “three-pitch” starters throw mainly a fastball and an offspeed pitch when they don’t have the platoon advantage. That’s a two-pitch pitcher to opposite-handed hitters. Meanwhile, they throw mainly a fastball and a breaking ball to same-handed batting. That’s also a two-pitch pitcher; it’s just a different two pitches. Since what Gausman does against lefties doesn’t affect what pitches righties see, it’s more a matter of whether his two-pitch mix will suffer as batters get more looks at it.

Some neat research by Tom Tango showed that seeing more pitches early in the game gives hitters an advantage later in the game. There’s nothing obviously related to pitch types here, though it stands to reason that the seeing-more-pitches penalty would decrease if there are more pitch types to see. But the Jays don’t rely overly much on their pitchers to go three times through the order — they did so slightly less frequently than the Giants last year — and in any case, that seems like a small piece of the puzzle when you’re giving someone a hundred million clams.

In fact, I totally get what Toronto was doing here, even if I’m lower on the specific pitcher they signed. Those concerns of mine are pretty marginal, to be honest; sure, his fastball might play down, but there’s a lot of space to have a worse fastball and still be an excellent pitcher, given how effective Gausman was this year. It’s easy enough to say that he won’t repeat his 2021, but he’s still likely to be an above-average pitcher. Check out these ZiPS:

ZiPS Projection – Kevin Gausman
2022 12 7 0 3.62 32 31 181.7 160 73 24 44 196 124 4.0
2023 11 7 0 3.76 30 29 167.7 151 70 23 42 179 120 3.5
2024 10 7 0 3.87 28 28 160.3 147 69 23 41 167 116 3.1
2025 10 7 0 3.84 26 26 147.7 136 63 21 37 154 117 2.9
2026 9 6 0 3.95 24 24 136.7 127 60 20 36 142 114 2.5

I might have fished for more of a bargain, but this hasn’t been a bargain-seeker’s offseason. If you’re looking for a pitcher with a Gausman-ian distribution of strikeouts, walks, and run prevention, it was Eduardo Rodriguez or a $100 million contract for someone, and Rodriguez has been a Tiger for weeks now. Toronto badly needed a top-line starting pitcher and got one in Gausman. Would he have been my first choice? No, but I think I was too low on him going into the whole exercise, and I have him pretty close to the guys I like more anyway.

In light of this deal and Robbie Ray’s subsequent signing, I think it’s safe to say that the league is higher on him than Gausman but considers both top-shelf starters. That puts Toronto’s signing in perspective: It acquired a slight downgrade on last year’s ace in more or less a one-for-one replacement.

This offseason has been fast and furious. The Jays rose to the occasion and got a new partner for the recently extended José Berríos at the top of their rotation. Gausman got the big contract that seemed to have slipped through his grasp earlier in his career. Everyone’s a winner — except for teams hunting for pitching bargains, who are going to be raising their bids and gnashing their teeth for weeks to come.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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11 months ago

They traded the Death Ray for the Gaus Cannon.

11 months ago
Reply to  radivel

Not to mention the draft bomb they get to deploy because there was no QO attached to the Gaus Cannon and there was with the Death Ray