How 2 pitches explain this ace's resurgence

May 19th, 2021

There’s only one pitcher in the Majors who has two of the 12 most valuable individual pitches so far this season. It’s an NL West ace, but not one on the Dodgers or Padres, the two teams that were expected to battle it out for the division title in 2021. No, the pitcher with two of the top-12 most valuable pitches in MLB this year is , who has led the surprising Giants’ rotation.

Gausman was the fourth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft by the Orioles, the top pitcher taken in that Draft. But Gausman never fully lived up to expectations for the Orioles, posting a 4.22 ERA in six years with the club before a midseason trade to the Braves in 2018. A year later, he was designated for assignment after making 16 starts with a 6.19 ERA that year and claimed on waivers by the Reds. When he hit free agency entering 2020, Gausman signed with the Giants, and after a solid ‘20 campaign with a 3.62 ERA, he took the qualifying offer to remain with the club for this year.

Now, he has a 1.84 ERA in eight starts entering Wednesday and is anchoring the rotation of a first-place club. He’s become a strikeout machine, especially since partway into the 2019 season. He’ll face his former team in the Reds on Wednesday, the site of where much of his turnaround began. Here’s a look at what he’s been doing this year to make good on his top-five Draft pick potential from 10 years ago.

Increased splitter usage

Historically, Gausman’s split-finger fastball has been his best pitch, and he’s using it 35.7% of the time in 2021, which would be his second-highest usage rate on the pitch in his career. That usage rate is up eight percentage points from 2020, when it was clear that the pitch was his best: Opposing batters went just 7-for-72 in at-bats ending on Gausman’s splitter, an .097 batting average.

After Gausman’s fourth start of 2021, he mentioned how good that pitch had been for him in ‘20 and alluded to why he was using it even more now.

“I joked with Andrew Bailey, our pitching coach -- I was like, ‘I should just throw that pitch every time,’” Gausman said. “It’s a big pitch for me.”

Thus, in 2021, we’ve seen him use it even more, and still get good results -- with a .134 opponent average in at-bats ending on the pitch thus far. Accordingly, that’s one of his two highly valuable pitches: According to Statcast’s run values, Gausman’s splitter is tied for the eighth-most valuable pitch in any pitcher’s arsenal this year.

The only season where Gausman used his splitter more frequently than he is now was 2019, when he used it 37.7% of the time overall. It’s worth zeroing in on that season, though -- the one where he pitched poorly for the Braves, then joined the Reds and pitched primarily out of the bullpen. It was when he got to Cincinnati -- the team he faces Wednesday -- that his splitter usage really spiked. In his 22 1/3 innings for the Reds, Gausman used the pitch 41.9% of the time, tapping into what had been best for him.

When the Giants first signed Gausman entering 2020, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi cited his adjustments with the Reds.

"The plan is for him to start," Zaidi said. "He had success as a reliever, but we think some of the adjustments he made and better locating his split late in the year, that's something he can carry over to the starting role. He's been a starter his whole career and that's obviously a need of ours, too."

Those starts have been exactly what the Giants needed, especially this year, and Gausman has racked up 39 strikeouts on his splitter, to go along with 20 on the four-seamer. He already has two games this year with 10 or more strikeouts, the first time any Giants pitcher has done that since 2017. He’s induced a 49.4% whiff rate against his splitter this season, tied for the fourth-highest whiff rate on a single pitch type this season (minimum 75 swings at pitch type).

Leading to a more effective four-seamer

Gausman’s splitter is his best pitch, and using it more has been a logical next step that’s led to good results. But part of the reason it’s worked so well is how that increased splitter usage has helped his four-seamer become more effective. This is where that second pitch among the top 12 most valuable comes in: Gausman’s four-seamer is tied for the third-most valuable pitch this year, with a -10 run value.

Part of how his splitter usage has helped his four-seamer is simply a lack of overexposure. Prior to 2020, Gausman had never used his four-seamer less than 57.0% of the time. He topped out at 68.3% four-seamer usage in 2014, and was at 67.5% in 2015. All of this meant that opponents were seeing plenty of the pitch from him, which doesn’t make it too difficult to catch up to. By increasing his splitter usage, he’s throwing fewer four-seamers -- at 51.0% of the time this year -- meaning neither pitch is out there so much as to become expected from Gausman.

The other tangible improvement he’s made with the pitch is elevating it more. This year, 37.8% of the four-seamers Gausman has thrown have been elevated, a mark that’s second only to last season, when it was at 46.0%. The trend towards elevated fastballs has been pronounced across the Majors in recent years, and with good reason: league-wide, players are hitting .211 against elevated four-seamers this year, and .280 against them anywhere else in or out of the zone.

For Gausman, that’s another change that traces back to the 2019 season, and specifically the tweaks he made while pitching for the Reds -- he elevated his four-seamer 38.5% of the time for the club that year, up from his rate when he was on the Braves earlier in the season. He said in Spring Training this year on MLB Network Radio that he turned to archery to work on his command, specifically with his fastball, crediting the increased focus on his target to his time with Reds’ pitching coach Derek Johnson.

What’s next

Now, with two top pitches in tow, Gausman will face the Reds in Cincinnati, where the path towards the arsenal he has today began. The Giants lead the Majors in starters’ ERA at 2.64 and have the best record in baseball -- and Gausman’s contributions have been a big reason why.