With the division still up for grabs late last year, the Braves went out an acquired a young, controllable starting pitcher from the Orioles in Kevin Gausman. A former 4th overall pick out of LSU, Gausman made his debut with the O’s in 2013 as a 22-year old. From there, his results have been a bit of a mixed bag highlighted by his inability to avoid giving up the long ball.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Gausman started over 30 games each season and gave up 83 home runs in that span. That’s almost a home run per start, and he still managed to keep his ERA hovered around four over those three seasons. In his ten starts last year with Atlanta, he was able to limit his homers allowed to five which led to his career-low 2.87 ERA.
The promising news is that for a younger, inconsistent pitcher walks have never been a major issue. He has a 2.7 BB/9 innings rate throughout his career and has only recorded one season over a 3.0 in that category (3.4).
When Gausman was a rookie, he was viewed as a power arm that could throw 95-97 mph and possibly one day be at the top of the rotation. Those expectations have since changed, as Gausman has tweaked the way he pitches to a more contact-first approach. He wants fewer strikeouts, fewer walks, and more balls in play so he can go deeper into ballgames. Last year Gausman put up his fewest strikeouts per nine innings (7.3) and second fewest walks per nine innings (2.5) of his career over a full season.
That’s more the type of pitcher the Braves are hoping for as he enters his second year for the team. With the Orioles, Gausman had his ups but could never garner any consistency. That probably had a little bit to do with the coaching staff that was around him. The Orioles aren’t exactly known for developing their quality young arms. In fact, they are known for the exact opposite (Example A: Jake Arrieta), whereas starting pitching has been a staple for the Braves organization for over 20 years.
Gausman talked about how the Braves have continued to aid that contact-first approach, saying, “That’s one of the biggest things they said when I got here, ‘We’re big believers in getting ahead.’ They showed me the numbers when you don’t. It kind of makes you want to throw up. I kind of took that into [account] tonight and just tried to pound the zone.”
Like most organizations, the Braves have had their fair share of miscues, but grooming pitchers and putting them in positions to be successful has been their forté.
It also cannot be emphasized enough the impact of pitching in the AL East can have on any pitcher, let alone a young pitcher attempting to get his feet wet in the major leagues. Gausman has spent his entire career navigating the ridiculous offenses of the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, which will do a number to even the best pitcher’s statistics. The NL East does not have near the firepower offensively. They also don’t have a DH in the National League. Both should serve as a pillar to lean on as he continues into the next stage of his career.
After putting up just a 1.3 WAR in 21 starts with O’s before being traded, Gausman had a much improved 1.9 WAR in ten starts with the Braves. Projections, courtesy of FanGraphs, show Gausman reverting to his averages in 2019. That may be the case, but it all hinges on one thing, his ability to prevent giving up home runs.
Outside of one outlier (his second-year with the Orioles in 2014), Gausman has never given up less than 1.3 homers per nine innings. That’s a detrimental stat, and one that did not define him in his ten starts with Atlanta where he was giving up homers at a 0.8 clip every nine innings. Playing under the Braves and in another division will help that number significantly, but whether or not Gausman will be able to keep that number low will determine how much success he has in year two with the Braves.