'Funky' numbers should improve, but Gausman’s focus is elsewhere

March 19th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In 2022, was either the second, fifth, 11th or 15th best pitcher in the American League. It all depends on which numbers you care about.

Gausman calls those numbers “funky,” and he’s right. His 3.35 ERA ranked him 25th among qualified AL starters, miles behind eventual AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (1.75) and teammate (2.24), who finished third in voting. But the fancy stats told a different story.

Take, for example, FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching), which removes results on balls hit into play and focuses solely on the events a pitcher has most control over, like strikeouts, walks, hit batters and home runs. Gausman’s 2.38 FIP ranked first in the AL, which brings us to his astronomical BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .363.

When applied to pitchers, the stat measures their allowed batting average exclusively on balls put into play, excluding outcomes not affected by the defense (such as home runs and strikeouts). The league average for BABIP is around .300.

Forget bad luck. A .363 BABIP goes beyond that, ranking Gausman second in the live-ball era (since 1920).

The short version of this is that, when the ball left Gausman’s hand, he was a top-three pitcher in the AL. Once that ball was put in play, though, and started sneaking through infield holes at an unusual rate, it skewed his ERA far more than it should have. The end result was Gausman receiving a lone, fifth-place vote for the AL Cy Young Award. Like he says, it was all rather funky.

“To be honest, it sounds bad to say, but I don’t really care about those things,” Gausman said, reflecting on his 2022 ahead of the Blue Jays’ 1-0 loss to the Rays on Sunday. “I just want to go out there and give this team a chance to win every five days. If I’m the worst pitcher in the league and we win the World Series, I’m going to be happy.”

Another start similar to 2022 will help with that. Gausman struck out 45 batters over his first 35 1/3 innings last season before issuing his first walk on May 7. It was a remarkable run, given that he’d barely faced opponents in spring, instead doing most of his work on the back fields against Blue Jays Minor Leaguers. When the season started, Gausman was still focused on just hitting his pitch count.

“Then I got lucky in my first couple of games, because I was super efficient,” Gausman explained. “I was just throwing a lot of strikes and that was the biggest thing. For how good my command was to start the season, even I was impressed myself. I had some question marks in my head going into last season just because of how spring was. It was the first time I’d only pitched in one [spring] game.”

This spring, we’ve seen more of the same. Gausman is in full control of his own game, his splitter still one of the best pitches owned by a starter in Major League Baseball. With him at the front of the rotation, whether that be on Opening Day or Game 2, the Blue Jays are in fine shape.

These Blue Jays don’t look like the 2022 version, though. There are new faces, including and in the outfield, who should have something to say about that bizarre BABIP. There’s also a new level of focus – or “maturity,” as some players are putting it – that the organization expects to make the biggest difference.

“Some of that comes with some tough times, right? The way that we lost last season, it’s pretty humbling pretty quick,” Gausman said. “Everybody had to look in the mirror and figure out what needed to be better. The overall consensus was that there needed to be more attention to detail, and that’s what we’ve done this spring. The attention to detail has been tenfold what it was last year.”

This won’t always show in big, loud, obvious ways, but veterans like Gausman know it can make all the difference for teams near the top.

“That gives me even more confidence going into the year that we can come out guns blazing and ready to take the division like we want to.”

Toronto is talented enough to do just that. With a stacked lineup, vastly improved defense and a rotation that could be among the AL’s best if rebounds, the Blue Jays have it all laid out in front of them. It’s just a matter of executing, and even if Gausman cares more about winning than numbers, there’s no reason he can’t have a scoop of each.