This time of year, every baseball column you read is tinged with a hint of sample-size-related doubt. You seemingly can’t get more than a paragraph into a column without reading that “it’s early” and that while the topic at hand might be interesting, we can’t yet draw any conclusions. Look, we just did that here, and we haven’t even introduced the topic. The it’s-early-disclaimer epidemic spreads every April, only to recede once we’ve put the Kentucky Derby and Mother’s Day in our rear-view mirror, offering us about seven weeks of current-season data to consume.
If you can’t wait until the middle of May for answers, though, I have good news for you. There are some stats that don’t need large sample sizes to be predictive, and we’re going to focus on one of them to kick off this week’s Pitching Report. Usage rates tend to normalize quickly. Sure, it’s possible that a pitcher may draw a matchup early in the season against a team that is particularly susceptible to one specific pitch in his repertoire, leading him to throw that pitch more often than he typically would, thus skewing his usage rates. Generally, however, they remain flat over a full season. A pitcher’s best offering in April is still his best offering in July. The pitch he feels most comfortable with when he’s ahead in the count in May will likely be the same one he turns to in plus-counts in September. Pitchers are in control, and while some adjustments are necessary, they aren’t going to completely change their stripes in the middle of the season.
With that, let’s turn our attention to the mid-Atlantic, where Kevin Gausman has made a noticeable change three starts into the 2017 season. Courtesy of Statcast, here are Gausman’s usage rates the last two years. The first is from 2016, and the second is for his first three starts of this campaign.
Gausman is throwing more sliders this year, coming entirely at the expense of his four-seam fastball and his previously little-used sinker. He has scrapped the latter pitch and cut back on the former, with all of those pitches funneled to his only breaking ball. The splitter remains the linchpin of Gausman’s arsenal, and that’s not going to change. The offering drives his ground-ball rate and featured a 24.2% whiff rate last year. It’s an out-pitch that Gausman feels comfortable throwing in any count. The slider, however, is raising its profile within Gausman’s repertoire.
Intuitively, this is a necessary move for Gausman. We’ve seen starters with fastball-changeup or fastball-splitter combos, and not a whole lot else, succeed in the majors. A few recent examples are Rich Harden and Lance Lynn. They are exceptions to the rule, though. Not only do most pitchers need a breaking ball in their arsenal, they want one present. A breaking ball, no matter if it’s a slider or curveball, is typically a pitcher’s best weapon against same-siders, as Gausman found out last year.
Since Gausman used his slider sparingly, it’s no surprise he had extreme reverse splits in 2016. While the splitter helped him hold lefties to a .232/.272/.387 slash line, righties hit .288/.345/.467 with 17 homers in 414 plate appearances against him last year. For the sake of comparison, Buster Posey hit .288/.362/.434 with 14 homers a season ago. In other words, every righty turned into Posey when he faced Gausman.
Thus far, the slider is having its desired effect. Righties are 14-for-48 with four walks against Gausman, but only three of those hits have gone for extra bases, and all of those were doubles. As for the slider specifically, five have been put in play, with hitters going 2-for-5 with two singles. A plurality of Gausman’s sliders have been balls, but he has gotten 12 called strikes, five whiffs and eight foul balls with the pitch, as well. The numbers suggest that the pitch hasn’t been particularly sharp, but has given hitters, specifically righties, more to think about than just four-seamer/splitter when they’re in the box.
Two of Gausman’s three starts this season have come against the Blue Jays. Jose Bautista is the ideal hitter to explain the increase in Gausman’s slider usage. Gausman has always gotten the better of Bautista, holding him to a 1-for-13 line coming into this season, but power-hitting righties have always given the 26-year-old trouble. Gausman clearly understands this, evidenced by a Bautista at-bat last week. He threw a slider for every pitch of the three-pitch at-bat, inducing a popout to Chris Davis.
The first slider in the at-bat was a ball inside, an offering on which Gausman missed his spot by the width of the plate. The next two sliders, however, are instructive for different reasons. The first, which Bautista took for a strike, was a great pitch.
The next slider, on the other hand, was not a good one. Gausman was trying to get it down, but it backed up to the point where it is off the plate inside and about belt high. It’s a spinner without much break, and the sort of offering that gets pitchers in trouble. Gausman was lucky to handcuff Bautista, who popped the ball up weakly to the right side.
Why is this obviously bad slider notable? It’s an example of the pitcher being in control and why he doesn’t need to be perfect if he’s unpredictable. We can’t be in Bautista’s head, but given Gausman’s history, and the past the two have with one another, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Bautista were sitting splitter in this count. Even a bad slider like this is effective against a hitter looking splitter. That’s the value in Gausman widening his repertoire. Not only does he get Bautista out with a bad slider, but the next time the slugger comes to the plate, he’ll have this at-bat in the back of his mind.
Of course, Gausman can’t live on bad sliders. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see him break off one like this, to Kevin Pillar.
Or one like this, against Matt Holliday.
Gausman’s splitter is his best pitch. It’s the centerpiece of his repertoire, and always will be. Gausman’s four-seamer, meanwhile, sits 95-96 mph, a power fastball in the truest sense. And yet, if he’s going to take the next step this season, it’s his slider that will be the pitch that puts him over the top.
Pitchers to watch this week
Matt Harvey, Mets
Last week, we looked at Harvey’s increased slider usage. We might need another column for his two-seamer soon. After Sunday’s start, Harvey’s two-seam usage rate is up to 14.2%. Before this season, he never had a single-season usage rate for the two-seamer higher than 14.4%. Last year, he threw his two-seamer 6.8% of the time. This is further proof of Harvey adapting to his new reality after two arm surgeries, and that’s good news for everyone invested in him. He makes one start this week, taking on the Nationals on Saturday.
Amir Garrett, Reds
The 24-year-old Garrett is off to a great start in his rookie season, allowing two runs on seven hits in 12 2/3 innings, striking out nine while walking two. He was great at Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville last season, totaling a 2.55 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 132 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings between the two levels. Garrett features a fastball-slider-changeup repertoire, leaning heavily on the change to offset the platoon disadvantage against righties. He has done that quite well thus far, holding righties to a 6-for-36 line, with just two extra-base hits. Garrett has a tough two-start week ahead, facing the Orioles on Tuesday and Cubs on Sunday
Luis Severino, Yankees
Forget about the six runs and two homers he has allowed for a second. The 23-year-old Severino has fanned 17 while waking two in his first 12 innings this season. His four-seamer is sitting 96-97 mph, and his slider is just shy of a 20% whiff rate. Severino has the stuff to be a top-tier strikeout pitcher, and still has thrown just 145 1/3 innings in his career. If the early returns this season are any indication, he’s only going to get better and better as the season progresses. He next takes the ball on Tuesday against the White Sox.
Jake Arrieta, Cubs
You’ve probably read that Arrieta’s velocity is down this year. After Saturday’s start against the Pirates, Arrieta’s average fastball velocity sits at 91.8 mph, which, accounting for the new method of measuring velocity this season, is a four-mph reduction from last season. Ask the Cubs or their fans or Arrieta’s fantasy owners if they care. Arrieta may have given up three runs in 5 2/3 innings, but that owed almost entirely to an unseasonable easterly wind that turned a couple of would-be fly outs into homers. Early this season, Arrieta succeeded with diminished velocity. He’ll make one start this week, taking the ball against the Reds on Friday.
Josh Hader, Brewers
Hader is the leading man on the next wave of Brewers youngsters set to break through to the majors. Hader, who turned 23 the first week of April, had a great 2016 season, split almost evenly between Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs. He amassed a 3.29 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 161 strikeouts in 126 innings, putting him on a course to make his MLB debut this season.
Hader entered this season as a top-40 prospect according to all three of the primary prospect evaluators, peaking at 19th on Baseball Prospectus, He has started two games this season, allowing three runs, all on solo homers, in eight innings. The bigger issue early on is that he has fanned six batters while issuing seven free passes, but the sample is far too small to get worked up about that just yet.
We’re not going to see Hader in a Brewers uniform for some time, but it would be a surprise if he didn’t make his way to the majors this season. When he does, he will be of immediate interest in all fantasy formats. He has the brand of power fastball-slider combination of a frontline dominator. If the changeup comes along, giving him a weapon to neutralize righties, he’ll project as a true ace, in both real life and fantasy. Keep an eye on his development at Colorado Springs this year. This is the sort of pitcher you’ll need to be early on if you want him on your roster.
GIF of the Week
Yu Darvish struck out 10 Angels across seven shutout innings last Thursday, picking up his first win of the season. Cameron Maybin was a victim on this slider that had already cleared his bat, and then appeared to dart away even farther.