Kevin Gausman entered Thursday leading the American League in both FIP and WAR, but any shred of hope that he had of winning this year’s AL Cy Young award flew out the window faster than the ball left the bat on Yandy Díaz’s three-run homer on Thursday afternoon in Toronto. For the second outing in a row, Gausman served up two homers and was touched for five runs en route to an 11–0 trouncing by Tampa, leaving him with numbers likely to be overlooked by awards voters.
In recent weeks, while writing about a few AL Cy Young contenders, I quickly dismissed Gausman’s candidacy. But even before the Rays knocked the 31-year-old righty around, I resolved that at some point I’d dig deeper into his campaign — which, to be clear, has been a very good one — to explore the reasons why.
Gausman entered the season surrounded by high expectations and, for the first time in his career, long-term security. The fourth pick of the 2012 draft by the Orioles hasn’t always lived up to expectations; some years he’s pitched well enough to lead a rotation, and in others he’s been trade fodder and even waiver bait. On the heels of a solid (if abbreviated) 2020 campaign with the Giants, last year he fully broke out, earning his first All-Star selection and placing sixth in the NL Cy Young voting following a 14–6 season with a 2.81 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 227 strikeouts, and 4.8 WAR with the 107-win Nl West champions. That set him up for a huge payday, and just a few days before the lockout began, the Blue Jays opted for Gausman via a five-year, $110 million deal.
Thanks in part to the fact that he didn’t allow a walk or a homer in any of his first five starts — he actually didn’t serve up his first homer until his seventh start and his 50th inning — Gausman has led the league in FIP and WAR since mid-April and still does, with marks of 2.41 and 5.2 despite his recent bumpy ride. Among qualifiers, he additionally owns the league’s lowest walk rate (3.8%), third-highest strikeout-walk differential (24.3%), and fourth-highest strikeout rate (28.1%). That’s impressive stuff, and it certainly suggests a viable Cy Young candidate.
On the other hand, Gausman is now 12–10 with a 3.45 ERA. Leaving aside his rough showing against the Rays opposite Shane McClanahan (who was returning from a 15-day absence due to a shoulder impingement) and that he’s still got time to make three more starts, it’s worth noting that only one pitcher in the past 14 seasons has won a Cy Young with an ERA above 3.00, and that five of the six pitchers who have done so in this millennium led the league either in wins or winning percentage:
Cy Young Award Winners Since 2001 with ERAs of 3.00 or Higher
The only pitcher above who did not lead in either wins or winning percentage is Sabathia, who ranked second behind Josh Beckett (20) in wins and tied with Chien-Ming Wang for third in winning percentage behind Beckett (.741) and Justin Verlander (.750). Not that the electorate is paying as much attention these days to won-loss records, but leading either category is out of reach for Gausman. So is getting his ERA below 3.00 unless he channels Zac Gallen and reels off 24 consecutive scoreless innings over those final three starts.
Without that, here’s how he stacks up against the other pitchers I’ve included in my previous Cy Young breakdowns, with the additions of Framber Valdez and Shane Bieber (whom Dan Szymborski highlighted earlier this week), as both have been making late pushes.
AL Cy Young Candidates
Yellow = best in group.
Verlander, who still leads the AL in wins and ERA following an 18-day IL stint for a right calf injury, remains the frontrunner for the award, with Cease, McClanahan, and Ohtani the top alternatives if he falters and one of them gets hot. Bieber has been exceptional lately but still has the highest ERA of the bunch this side of Gausman, and Valdez isn’t likely to steal votes away from his more famous teammate.
Gausman is on the outskirts of the award race because of the massive gap between his ERA and his FIP; at 1.04 runs per nine, it’s the widest of any AL ERA qualifier and one of only two in either league that’s above 1.00. Patrick Corbin (1.24, via a 6.11 ERA and 4.87 FIP) is the other, and the next largest gap after that of Gausman belongs to Aaron Nola (0.68, via a 3.31 ERA and 2.63 FIP). The second-largest gap among AL qualifiers belongs to Gausman’s teammate, José Berríos (0.39, via a 5.07 ERA and 4.68 FIP).
For Gausman that gap exists because of an astronomical .365 BABIP. Not only is that the majors’ highest this year (six points ahead of Corbin), but it’s also the highest of any pitcher qualified for the ERA title since 1901 — since before the earned run became official (1913), in other words.
Highest BABIPs Among ERA Qualifiers Since 1901
Excludes 2020 season.
I left out a pair of Nationals from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Corbin (.362 in 65.2 innings) and Max Scherzer (.355 in 67.1 innings), and could have excluded pitchers from the shortened 1918, ’81, and ’94 seasons as well, but decided their campaigns were substantial enough. Elsewhere on the list, guys like Rusch, Sele, and Snell are reminders of debates over DIPS theory that go back over 20 years. If there’s good news for Gausman, it’s that his BABIP dropped six points on Thursday; maybe he can escape the top spot before season’s end.
In the time before Statcast, we often described pitchers with high BABIPs as unlucky, especially if they were stuck playing in front of bad defenses or good ones that seemed to time their bad days with the given pitcher’s appearances. Even these days, that’s still not uncommon, but we have more sophisticated tools to remind us that not all contact is created equal. And while Gausman is among the best in the game when it comes to defense-independent outcomes, his stats on contact leave something to be desired:
Kevin Gausman Statcast Pitching
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Gausman’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate haven’t deviated much over the past three seasons, but his barrel rate has risen, and his percentiles for all three have grown less impressive. He’s currently in the 46th percentile for hard-hit rate, 33rd for exit velo, and 28th for barrel rate, the last down from the 59th percentile last season. His xERAs have remained quite consistent, and have been very close to his ERAs in both 2020 and this season; it’s last year, the one that helped him reap his windfall, that’s the outlier.
Looking a bit more closely, there’s a 29-point gap between Gausman’s xBA and his actual batting average allowed (.274). Note that this isn’t BABIP; this is inclusive of his walks, strikeouts, and homers. Those extra hits are falling in somewhere, and while some of the blame is on Gausman’s contact stats, some of it also has to be on the Blue Jays’ defense. The unit rates well by DRS (43 runs, sixth in the majors) and RAA (7 runs, 11th) but less so by defensive efficiency (.693, 17th, and 10th in the AL). The last of those is the rate at which fielders turn batted balls into outs, basically the inverse of BABIP but with reached on error and sacrifices thrown into the mix. While the Blue Jays aren’t standouts in that area, they have backed Alek Manoah (.248 BABIP) and Ross Stripling (.258) very well, Berríos (.320) less so, with Yusei Kikuchi (.300) somewhere in the middle. Stripling and Kikuchi are the most groundball-oriented of the group (44–45%), so we’d expect their BABIPs to be higher than the other three, who are in the 38–40% range (Gausman’s at 38.6%), but that’s not the case.
Take a look at how the Jays have performed behind each starter when shifting:
Blue Jays Starters and the Shift
|Pitcher||Shift%||Shift AVG||Shift SLG||wOBA||All BABIP||Shift BABIP||Dif|
As it turns out, Gausman is getting torched on the shift; not only is he giving up singles, but he’s also giving up doubles galore (26) as well as triples (four). No pitcher in the majors with at least 200 batters faced on infield shift ball-in-play outcomes has allowed a higher batting average those plays; Corbin is a distant second at .359. The Pirates’ JT Brubaker (.472) and Corbin (.453) are second and third in slugging percentage allowed on shifts within that group. In terms of BABIP, Gausman has a .308 mark without the shift, and .385 with it; if you’re wondering, last year he was at .276 with, .277 without.
Understandably, Gausman has voiced some ambivalence about infield shifts. From a July 15 piece on SportsNet, referring back to a June 21 start against the White Sox (six innings, seven hits, two runs in a loss):
“You usually only notice the negative things and you don’t notice the line drives that are right at somebody. You kind of forget those things,” Gausman said. “You only notice and remember the times when a single turned into a double and they scored a run.
“Before my game in Chicago, I was like, ‘These guys are doing a really good job of beating the shift (in the first game of the series). I was kind of like, let’s just go play baseball, straight up, and see what happens.’
“The first play of the game Vladdy (Guerrero) made a diving play. I don’t know if he’s in there if I don’t say that before the game.
“There was also maybe a couple of times where I could have had an out, where I gave up a base hit. It’s just a tough situation. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just dependent on if it’s working or it’s not.”
And here’s Gausman after his loss to the Red Sox on August 25:
“I try to focus on the contact I’m getting. But obviously you want the results and the soft contact. You just feel like you’re not getting beat. They’re not necessarily earning it. And they are, it’s still a hit. But there’s been a lot of ground balls that seem to be finding their way into the outfield,” Gausman said. “All I can really focus on is making better pitches before that happens, you know? Strike a guy out. That’s kind of where I’m at. A lot of the bad stuff that happened tonight, I could’ve done things earlier in the AB to maybe keep that from happening.”
Statcast’s Outs Above Average and Runs Above Average leaderboard actually separates out the numbers for the performance of the defense behind each pitcher while accounting for infield positioning. In light of what we’ve learned, this isn’t all that surprising:
Ouch. If we could magically knock those eight runs off Gausman’s ledger while crediting him with 10 more outs (3.1 innings), he’d be carrying a 2.91 ERA — and if I looked and acted like Brad Pitt, maybe I’d get paid tens of millions to star in major motion pictures. That’s not the way the world works, however, and in this case, Gausman still wouldn’t be out in front of the AL Cy Young pack, but his numbers would at least make a bit more sense.
I suspect there’s more to learn here, whether it’s about Gausman’s pitch selection and execution in front of shifts or Toronto’s tendencies behind him, but that will have to wait. The good news is that Gausman has pitched well enough to help the Blue Jays hold on to a playoff spot; at 81–63, they’re in a virtual tie with the Mariners (80–62) for the first AL Wild Card, half a game ahead of the Rays (80–63), with the upstart Orioles (75–67) 4.5 games behind the latter. Suffice it to say that it will be worth keeping an eye upon Gausman for what happens behind him the rest of the way.