Although Kevin Gausman’s outing against the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday was overshadowed by yet more Welington Castillo heroics, the Orioles right-hander took steps toward salvaging his so-far brutal 2017 season.
If you had to make a list of the Orioles’ biggest disappointments during their otherwise strong 25-16 start, Gausman would likely be at the top. Coming into the season, many expected him to take up the mantle as the Orioles’ ace in Chris Tillman’s early absence. When five BaltimoreBaseball.com staffers made their preseason predictions in April, four of us tabbed Gausman to have the most wins and best ERA on the club. (Dean Jones Jr. opted for Dylan Bundy, which so far has proved to be an inspired pick.)
There were plenty of reasons to expect a Gausman breakout in 2017. After all, he was the Orioles’ best starting pitcher down the stretch in 2016. Beginning in August, he was 7-4 with a 2.83 ERA, with nine quality starts in 12 outings. He struck out 75 batters in 76 1/3 innings and showed major improvement on his offspeed pitches.
But instead of busting out, Gausman has busted. He entered Saturday with an AL-worst 7.19 ERA and just two quality starts in nine games. His 1.86 WHIP was nearly 60 points worse than last year. His hits per nine innings rate has skyrocketed from 9.2 to 12.2 and walk rate from 2.4 to 4.6.
Gausman has particularly struggled with his slider. Not only has he had trouble commanding it — throwing 58 balls and 57 strikes with the pitch this year — but when he has gotten it in the zone, it’s been hit hard. Opponents entered the game batting .474 with a 1.184 OPS on Gausman’s slider. Without a useful offspeed weapon to complement his fastball, Gausman hasn’t been fooling many hitters this year.
And Gausman’s outing Saturday was, frankly, a mixed bag.
Let’s start with the bad news. Gausman was tagged for a season-worst 10 hits in his six innings of work, and Blue Jays hitters made solid contact off him all night. The damage might have been worse if not for some sparkling defensive work, including Manny Machado’s diving stop of a Russell Martin smash that started a double play in the fourth. Gausman allowed a baserunner in every inning, giving up eight singles in the first five frames and a homer and double in the sixth.
Now, for the positives. Despite the many men on base, Gausman gutted through six innings and held the Blue Jays to two runs, notching his third quality start of the year (and second against Toronto). When he got into jams, Gausman seemed to kick it into another gear. Three times — in the first, third and fifth — Gausman racked up an inning-ending strikeout to strand a runner at third, ratcheting up his fastball to the high 90s. Gausman also induced three double plays in the first four innings. He flashed good control, too, as he threw 71 of his 110 pitches for strikes.
“Obviously I gave up a lot of hits, but I always kind of base my outing on how hard the ball got hit off me, and I felt like they didn’t really hit the ball too hard, especially early in the game,” Gausman said. “My defense came up huge. I got some big double plays when I needed them, and I think the biggest thing was just being able to throw strikes consistently and kind of put the pressure on them.”
Gausman felt he was able to mix his pitches more effectively than usual.
“Fastball command [was the key], more than anything,” he said. “I had a real good feel for my split changeup, and threw some real good sliders, too. I was happy with that. When I can be able to have those three pitches, and then also be able to throw my curveball for strikes, that can be tough on hitters.”
Gausman didn’t garner a win for his efforts, as the Orioles bullpen let the lead slip away before the club rallied back to win. But his outing Saturday could be a jumping off point all the same.
“Yeah, definitely,” Gausman said. “Mechanically I feel great, and this is probably the best I’ve felt to start off a season, health-wise. So that’s good, but I’ve just got to be a little bit more consistent.”
The Orioles’ win Saturday vaulted them back in front of the Yankees for first place in the AL East. But if they hope to stay there, they’ll need Gausman to continue to work his way back to 2016 form.