Gausman returns home as first-time All-Star

July 12th, 2021

vividly remembers the first time he pitched at Coors Field.

Gausman attended Grandview High School in Aurora, Colo., about 20 miles from the site of the 2021 All-Star Game. In exchange for selling tickets for the Rockies, Grandview's baseball team was allowed to play its season opener at Coors each spring. During his senior season, Gausman was tapped to start the first game of the year for the Wolves, giving him an early taste of the big leagues -- sort of.

"I remember the grounds crew telling us that we couldn't step on the dirt and the grass at the same time," Gausman said. "It was just a high school game, so they were like, 'Don't mess up the field. Don't even try to dig out the mound.' We couldn't warm up in the bullpen before the game, actually. I was the starting pitcher, and I had to warm up on the outfield. It's crazy to think about that now."

Gausman has come a long way since then, but his journey will come full circle when he returns to Coors Field this week as a first-time National League All-Star for the Giants. Two years after being waived by the Braves and non-tendered by the Reds, Gausman has emerged as one of the most dominant pitchers in the Majors, going 9-3 with a 1.74 ERA over 18 starts to help spur the Giants' unexpected rise to the top of the National League West this season.

Only Jacob deGrom, who is in the midst of a historic season with the Mets, has a better ERA among qualified pitchers than Gausman, who is also tied for fourth in fWAR (3.4) and ranks fifth in FIP (2.56) and innings pitched (114 2/3).

"He's dominated," left-hander Alex Wood said. "Literally as good of a first half as you could possibly have. If there wasn't a guy named Jacob deGrom on the East Coast doing what he's doing, Gaus has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He's been absolutely lights-out.

"When he gets the ball every fifth day, we know we've got a chance to win. We feel like he's going to go out there and dominate. You can kind of sense it in his presence and his attitude in between starts and the day of. He knows he's going to go out there and he's going to kick ass. To have a guy like that at the top of your rotation, it's been a blast to watch."

After closing out the first half against the Nationals on Sunday, Gausman isn't expected to pitch for the NL on Tuesday, a mild disappointment considering the 30-year-old right-hander plans to have approximately 20 friends and family members in the stands to watch him participate in his first Midsummer Classic. While he isn't expecting to see action on the field, Gausman still plans to stay busy during this week's festivities in Denver.

"There are a lot of people to see in a short amount of time, so I'm trying to coordinate it," Gausman said. "I've got an itinerary. My wife is all over it. She's got everything lined up to the minute. It's going to be fun. It'll be a lot of tickets, but it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. It's at home, let's blow it out. Let's do it big."

It wasn't a rapid or straightforward ascent for Gausman, a former top pitching prospect for the Orioles who is finally realizing his full potential nearly a decade after he was selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2012 Draft out of LSU. Over his first six seasons with Baltimore, Gausman logged a 4.22 ERA over 763 2/3 innings and recorded an ERA+ of 100 -- the definition of league average.

At the 2018 Trade Deadline, the Orioles dealt Gausman to the Braves, a move that he's admitted he didn't handle well because he viewed it as a sign of Baltimore giving up on him. A year later, he hit another nadir when he was cut after recording a 6.19 ERA over 16 starts for Atlanta. Gausman ended up being claimed off waivers by the Reds, who used him out of their bullpen over the final two months of the 2019 campaign before non-tendering him that offseason.

Even after being cut loose by two organizations, Gausman continued to view himself as a Major League starter, though he mostly drew interest from teams who wanted to convert him into a back-end reliever. He eventually found an ideal landing spot with the Giants, who were one of the few clubs who were willing to give him an opportunity to pitch out of the rotation entering 2020.

"The Giants from Day One were like, 'We want you to start,'" Gausman said. "'We just want you to do what you did with Cincinnati as a starter.' I was like, 'All right, I think I can probably do that.'

In San Francisco, Gausman has developed into a bona fide ace, posting a 2.37 ERA over 30 appearances over the last two seasons. The secret to his success? Gausman has worked to refine his fastball command in recent years, but he's also increased his reliance on his devastating splitter, which has been one of the best pitches in baseball this year.

Gausman first learned his splitter from Chris Baum, his pitching coach during his freshman year at Grandview, but it took him several years to realize that he should be throwing it more. His splitter usage topped out at 20.7% during his first five seasons in the big leagues, but that figure began to spike during his brief stint in the Reds' bullpen and has now climbed to 37.6% this year. Opposing hitters are batting only .109 against his splitter, which has generated a 50.1% whiff rate and resulted in 95 of his 133 strikeouts this year.

"It's definitely a pitch that I've had to learn over time," Gausman said. "It's been frustrating, for sure, over the years trying to learn it. Sometimes it's sort of had a mind of its own. Sometimes it goes left when I want it to go right. But usually if it moves, it's all right."

Angels star Shohei Ohtani, who also throws an elite splitter, was certainly impressed after facing Gausman at Angel Stadium on June 23.

"He's a great pitcher," Ohtani said through an interpreter afterward. "His splitter was moving in a way that I haven't really seen recently. He got the best of us."

Gausman still has a slider and a changeup that he mixes in on occasion, but he's essentially become a two-pitch starter in 2021. His splitter has become his go-to secondary pitch to pair with his mid-90s fastball, which has held opposing hitters to a .192 clip this season.

"He has a really good feel for his split," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who knows Gausman well from their days in the American League East. "I think that is what's separating him right now. Obviously, he's always had 95 to 100 [mph] when he needs it, electric stuff, but in this league, you have to be able to pretty much command two pitches well, or have one that's just so good that nobody can hit it. There are very few guys that can do that.

"I think for him, obviously, his fastball command is really good. He throws it all over the zone and fills it up, and then the split has become an elite pitch for him. It's a pitch that he can put guys away with. It was there, but he didn't really have the feel for it back then like he does now. It was mainly an under-the-zone strikeout pitch that he was kind of wanting guys to chase. Now he can get a strike with it when he needs to, and he can make it really, really nasty and go for the strikeout when he needs that, too."

After finding a home in San Francisco, Gausman is returning to his native Colorado as one of three All-Stars for the Giants, who will also be represented by shortstop Brandon Crawford and catcher Buster Posey. It'll be a fitting homecoming for Gausman, as his circuitous path ultimately made the destination all the more rewarding.

"It's been weird just talking about it," Gausman said. "It's really the first time you take a step back and realize from Day One of making my debut like, 'Where have we gone since then?' It's been a bumpy ride. It hasn't been smooth. But I'll take all those calluses. I kind of deserve everything. I feel like I've put in the work. You can't say that I didn't work for it and I didn't put in the time and the effort. It definitely feels a little bit better that way."