Over the offseason, Kevin Gausman signed a five-year, $110 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the biggest contracts handed out this winter. For a then-30-year-old with only a season and a half’s worth of ace-like production, it was a big commitment, but one that ought to be worth it if he can keep pitching as he has since 2020. So far this season, Gausman has more than held up his end of the agreement.
Through 31 2/3 innings, Gausman has struck out 33.6 percent of hitters, ranking seventh among all qualified starting pitchers.1 Perhaps even more impressively, he’s yet to surrender a walk or home run; he’s the only qualified starting pitcher who can say that. That, of course, won’t be the case for long — he’s still inducing a fair number of fly balls, and he has only so much control over where those land — but it goes to show just how dominant he’s been, and it seems to be evidence that he’s taken yet another step forward as a pitcher.
This year, Gausman has leveraged his fastball and splitter into a deadlier combination than ever while also using his slider more often. Hitters are chasing Gausman’s pitches out of the zone at an unprecedented rate, and this isn’t a one-off thing. Over the first five games of the 2022 season, he’s posted a 53.9 percent chase rate, much higher than his previous rolling five-game peak of 47.6 percent in 2019.
His slider has been better than ever, but his improvements in chase rate are coming disproportionately from his splitter, which hitters are chasing 68.9 percent of the time it’s outside the strike zone. The questions, then, are why, and is it sustainable?
To understand Gausman is to understand his repertoire. Given that he’s the starting pitcher most reliant on the four-seam fastball-splitter combo since 2020, his route to improvement was probably to make an adjustment to one of those two pitches. So if we’re to believe that he’s a legitimately improved pitcher, we ought to start there.
Despite having pretty middling fastball shape — its 16.1 induced vertical break (IVB) and -5.2 degree vertical approach angle (VAA) from 2019 to 2021 are that of a generic, fringe dead-zone fastball — Gausman’s fastball has been effective at delivering strikes for several years now. What initially gave it a boost was that, starting in 2019, Gausman started throwing his splitter more, and then in 2020, he started elevating his fastball more consistently. The two tweaks combined to create better pitch tunneling, helping keep hitters off of his fastball while turning both pitches into sharper weapons. That made him into the starting pitcher that he’s been for the past few years.
More recently, his fastball shape has improved, going from an IVB of 16.5 in 2021 to 17.7 this year and adding over an inch of arm-side run, but its VAA has only moved from -5.2 to -5.1 degrees. That means that it’s improved in a vacuum, but only marginally, so it’s also worth considering how it’s changed in relation to his splitter, which is the pitch that’s doing the bulk of the heavy lifting this year.
Although the numbers vary from game to game, Gausman has increased the spin efficiency of his splitter from 76 percent in 2020 and 73 percent in 2021 to 79 percent in 2022. The added active spin has helped him add 3 inches of arm-side run, relative to last year. Some of that is Magnus effect, or movement derived from the spin direction and efficiency of the ball. Some of that movement, though, seems to be from added non-Magnus movement, or seam-shifted wake (SSW).
To consider Gausman’s pitches by their raw movement is helpful but misses part of the point, which is that his secondary pitches perform better because of how he throws the ball. Here’s Gausman’s release point:
Gausman certainly doesn’t throw out of a Max Scherzer arm slot, but he’s releasing the ball closer to the third-base side than 88 percent of right-handed starters this season.2 That creates a unique angle to the plate, something that I recently wrote about with Andrew Heaney’s synthetic sweeper. So, rather than IVB and horizontal movement alone, we should also look at Gausman’s horizontal approach angle (HAA), or the horizontal angle at which the ball enters the zone. That, to me, has been behind his recent growth.
Here is a collection of pitch specs for Gausman’s 2021 and 2022 sliders and splitters:
The 3 added inches of arm-side movement on Gausman’s splitter means it’s entering the zone at a more horizontally neutral angle, which isn’t the case for many pitches. What’s surprising, though, is that, much like with Heaney, Gausman’s slider has lost about an inch of horizontal movement, and yet it’s gained sweep when you consider it by HAA. The way that the two interact with his fastball has made him impossible to hit, especially given how he’s deploying them.
Here’s his fastball location in 2021, versus 2022:
His splitter location:
And his slider location:
Gausman is keeping his fastball elevated to his arm side while mostly keeping his slider and splitter at or below either bottom corner of the zone. All three pitches are now about as optimally located as possible, and they make for strong tunneling. That’s been made more possible by Gausman changing the horizontal angles at which the pitches enter the zone, while the widened HAAs have made the slider easier to get glove-side and the splitter easier to work arm-side. Put another way, there’s a greater difference in the average horizontal pitch locations of Gausman’s slider and splitter than ever before.
More than ever, Gausman is keeping his slider to his glove side, and more than ever, he’s keeping the splitter to his arm side. It might be difficult to sustain, but Gausman has created pitch shapes that have furthered his ability to locate them where he wants, which helps already compelling pitches play to their potential.
Gausman got a lot of money this offseason because his results demanded a lot of money. For his contract to age well, he basically needed to not lose any of his recent gains, which mostly requires that he not hemorrhage fastball velocity. So far he’s done that, which would have been more than enough, but now he’s also optimally weaponizing his secondary pitches in support of a generic fastball. There’s a strong argument to be made that Gausman is more difficult to hit now than he’s ever been.
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