There is one major difference between the Kevin Gausman I saw last year and the one who started the last two games and that quite simply is fastball command. Now don’t confuse fastball command with throwing strikes, command is the ability to throw pitches for quality strikes.
In his last two starts, Gausman has been able hit the lower inside and outside portions of the zone much more frequently than last year and has stayed out of the middle of the plate with his fastball.
Last season, Gausman only hit the lower outside and inside portion of the strike zone 9% of the time with his fastball, but in his last two starts, that number has jumped to 15%. At the same time, he’s dropped his percentage of pitches in the middle or middle low portion of the strikezone from 14% last season to 12%. His biggest jump though is pitching down and away to right-handers with his fastball throwing 8% of his heaters for strikes low and away compared to just 3.7% last year. These may sound like small percentages but combined, you see a pitcher with better fastball command. The success of that command is showing up as batters are hitting just .200 of his 96-97 mph fastball compared to .313 last season.
It’s a good thing his fastball command has improved because his slider continues to be a well below average offering and he’s hasn’t throw his changeup/splitter for strikes very often. Last season batter hit .389 and put up a .667 SLG when the slider was put in play. This season only five of his 20 sliders have been put in play but two went for singles and he’s only gotten one swing and miss on the pitch (for a strikeout). Luckily for him, this season Caleb Joseph has caught him and he realizes Gausman is a fastball changeup guy so he’s called only 10% sliders to right-handed and left-handed batters in these two starts. Last season, Orioles catchers called for 19% sliders against right-handers and only 4% against left-handers.
Speaking of Joseph, and not to get off on too much of a tangent, but Joseph really does a fantastic job of mixing pitches and locations with his pitchers. On top of it, he does a superior job of framing pitches as well and although I’m not saying he’s reason pitchers like Gausman are pitching better of late, I believe he is a contributing factor.
Gausman’s changeup/splitter continues to be a plus offering though he’s only thrown 8 of his 40 changeups for strikes and the down and in or low and away to left-handers changeup that garnered a 40% whiff rate is only getting a 15% whiff rate this season (yes I know small sample size). Batters are hitting just .133 off the pitch so he’s getting outs with it, but if he doesn’t start throwing it for more strikes, batters will start laying off that pitch, if they can. Increased fastball command to that area will help the effectiveness of both pitches.
Overall, Gausman’s better fastball command and a better mixing of pitches by Joseph have contributed to his two solid starts. I’m still concerned over the lack of quality slider, but if he can command the pitch down and away to right-handers and down and in on left-handers occasionally he’ll have a much better chance of fulfilling his promise as a top of the rotation pitcher.