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Is Kevin Gausman bad luck?

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Is he awful or just the unluckiest pitcher of 2019?

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Kevin Gausman is now a shell of his league-average self. He was unable to get through three innings without giving up at least four runs over his last three starts. His 6.21 ERA does not reflect the 2.5-plus WAR that he averaged over the last three previous seasons. Plantar fasciitis or not, that’s not good. However, his xFIP is almost two runs lower and FIP is over two lower than that. His wOBA allowed is .023 higher than his xwOBA, which suggests a bit of bad luck. When one looks at the peripherals, it’s hard to see where it went wrong. Has he turned into a pumpkin or did he tick off the wrong witch?

I will readily admit that I didn’t really understand his game and how he was able to pitch so well. This is me in March:

ABsinceWayBack: Someone needs to explain Kevin Gausman to me. Not the reasons for acquiring him but his arsenal. I don’t know what he does well. A declining fastball and so-so offspeed pitches looks like Teheran to me. He will pitch past the All-Star break but expecting him to do well this season will cause disappointment. Hopefully I’m wrong here.

I felt that he would not last to the All-Star break in the rotation, but I pulled that back. But then again, I thought Sean Newcomb would be our ace this year and I completely missed on Max Fried. But nonetheless, I felt like I didn’t understand him. With a two-run difference in FIP and ERA, I feel like others are having the same reaction. So I will report what I have found.

Here is Gausman’s arsenal through 2018. He has a good fastball rolling in at 95+ MPH, a really good split, and an assortment of off-speed pitches centering around a slider. The fastball is really good when it’s high in the zone, and had played a part in his 22.6% strikeout rate.

The split is very nice, especially at the knees and when just off the plate.

Below is Gausman’s arsenal this year. Notice the splits are up, the curve is long gone, and the slider is rarely used. The fastball velocity is down about 1.5 MPH, and the split doesn’t move quite as much as in years past.

Brooks Baseball

His slider has never been has a positive pitch values for him (a positive pitch value means it gives up fewer runs than an average slider). In 2017, it gave up -1.26 runs worse per 100 sliders. So it’s possible the Braves asked him not to throw it much, if ever. Elias Diaz echoed this point.

So in 2019 he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher now. One is a hot fastball, the other that sexy split. No problem I guess, as long as he executes those. But location has been an issue this year. A 3.47 BB/9 rate won’t kill a lot of pitchers. It doesn’t hurt his FIP, especially when paired with a 9.24 K/9 rate. But hitters have to know what is coming now, a split or the fastball. I have identified two situations where Gausman underperforms his wOBA based on his xwOBA. (This is called a large xwOBA/wOBA split. A pitcher can have worse results , or wOBA, than can be measured by launch angle and exit velocity by hitters, or xwOBA. More explanation here and here.)

Here are results when Gausman throws his 83 MPH split in the 1-6 gameday batting zones (these are splitters over the plate from the top of the strike zone to about the middle of the thigh). The xwOBA/wOBA split suggests he is unlucky here. On this pitch and location his wOBA has underperformed by .129 to .256. That’s one way to look at it. Another way to see it is that it’s an slower pitch over the heart of the zone. Hitters have a much better chance at guiding it than other pitches. Those should land at a higher rate. But this has always been a problem, right? Why is that a problem now? Because he is throwing it 70% more often than last year. Either by choice or lack of control, his splitter is creeping up in the zone.

Here are the results when he throws his fastball in the gameday 7-9 zones (this is over the plate from about the middle of the thigh to the bottom of the knees). He has outperformed this in the past by .024 to .070. But this year this is reversed. You could call it regression, but I’m not sure. The scouting report on Gausman appears to be this:

Look for the hittable low fastball first. If the split comes high, you have time to adjust and poke it anywhere you like. If you see the slider and speak of him, speak well.

If this approach is truly what is going on, then he has become a reclamation project. But I will say that we has run into some terrible luck. Gausman lost his cool Tuesday when his poor throw to Dansby Swanson was mishandled. Dansby could have smothered it for one out, but he had a chance at two. Two starts ago in Pittsburgh, he had Elias Diaz struck out looking. The call was missed and Elias cashed in with a home run. Another ball was kicked by Austin Riley, who is doing a nice job but playing out of position. The opposing pitcher also picked up a hit in that game.

There are two ways to look at it. One is that a string of bad luck can happen to anyone. Another is that if the hitter can predict and time your fastball, it’s time for a rethink.