As far as pitchers that Cincinnati acquired over the last year go, Kevin Gausman sort of flew under the radar. He was brought in right after the team made a blockbuster deal for Trevor Bauer, at a time when the Reds were still toiling several games under .500 in the first week of August. His recent performance also communicated little reason for excitement — in 16 starts with Atlanta, he’d been knocked around for a 6.19 ERA in 80 innings, leading the team to put him on waivers. The other pitchers Cincinnati had brought in over the last year had either garnered serious Cy Young consideration in the not-so-distant past (Bauer and Sonny Gray), or had proven themselves to be both durable and versatile over their careers (Tanner Roark and Alex Wood). Compared to them, expectations for Gausman were rather low, the fanfare surrounding his arrival subdued. He just wasn’t going to be a difference-maker in the rotation.
But the Reds didn’t ask him to be. Instead, they moved him to the bullpen, where his numbers improved in exciting ways. In 22.1 innings, spanning 14 relief appearances and one start, Gausman held a 4.03 ERA, alongside a much more impressive 3.17 FIP, which was down from a 4.20 FIP he owned when starting for the Braves. After joining the Reds, Gausman’s K/9 went from 9.6 to 11.7, his BB/9 fell from 3.0 to 2.0, and his HR/9 fell from 1.4 to 1.2. Take away the one start he made for Cincinnati, and the differences are even more pronounced.
Kevin Gausman SP/RP splits, 2019
These are two completely different pitchers, and if Gausman hadn’t been subjected to some poor batted ball luck, there’s a good chance more people would have taken notice of his turnaround. He allowed a .340 batting average on balls in play after joining the Reds, a serious uptick from his career .314 rate. He was bitten by even worse by luck on balls in the air — 25 percent of the fly balls Gausman allowed in Cincinnati left the yard, up from a career rate of 13.5%, and a 13.3% rate starting in Atlanta. He maintained a sparkling FIP in spite of this bad luck, and if we use xFIP — which estimates HR/9 by normalizing his HR/FB rate to league average — he suddenly stands out in a major way. Here were the best xFIPs in baseball from Aug. 8, when Gausman made his Cincinnati debut, and the end of the season (min. 20 IP):
xFIP rankings, Aug. 8-Sept. 30 (min. 20 IP)
Strip away all the luck and leave it to things most in Gausman’s control — how many strikeouts, walks and flyballs he allows — and his production looks genuinely elite. That might be a surprise to a Reds fan who watched the last couple months of another losing season with their eyes glazed over, wishing he or she could fast forward between Aristides Aquino plate appearances, but think hard about the games he pitched in, and you might remember a few gems. Of the 14 relief appearances he made, seven of them saw him strike out at least two batters without allowing a run. In one such outing, he struck out all six hitters he faced — in just 23 pitches.
It’s pretty hard to imagine that same guy allowing a total of 15 runs on 20 hits over a span of just two starts with Atlanta less than three months prior, but as Dan Szymborski wrote about over at FanGraphs when the Reds claimed him, there was always more to Gausman than his woeful results let on. His strand rate was a disaster with the Braves, something that was bound to regress to the mean and make him a closer-to-average pitcher. He was also allowing a higher batting average and slugging percentage than Statcast believed was expected, based on the contact he was allowing. He wasn’t a secret ace, but he was a smart buy-low guy for anyone willing to pay his salary.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a slam dunk to turn into a shutdown reliever, though. If you’re trying to determine whether a struggling starter could be more effective out of the bullpen, one of the first things that’s helpful to look at is the way he performs against opponents in his first time through the order, compared with his second, third and fourth trips. If a pitcher is substantially better the first time a hitter is seeing his stuff, it could mean that not allowing him to face the order a second time could result in his numbers playing way up. For Gausman, however, that isn’t the case. In games he started, he allowed an .833 OPS to hitters the first time through the order, an .862 OPS the second time through, and a .749 OPS the third time through.
He also didn’t stand to benefit from dropping a third, ineffective pitch from his arsenal and focusing on his two best offerings. Gausman virtually abandoned his slider when he was still in Atlanta, using either a four-seam fastball or a splitter for more than 98 percent of his pitches. After moving to the bullpen, however, he actually brought the slider back, using it for 16 percent of his pitches in September, the most he’d thrown it since July 2018. His fastball velocity, meanwhile, barely budged out of the bullpen, hovering in the same 94 mph range it has been for the past two seasons.
Gausman, then, wasn’t a pitcher who was getting burned by hitters seeing him multiple times, and his stuff didn’t find another gear when he used it in shorter bursts. Yet, somehow, he became unhittable.
The difference for Gausman after moving to Cincinnati wasn’t in his stuff, but his location, especially with regards to his off-speed pitches. He’s always had a strong splitter, including in 2018, when it was the fourth-best pitch of its kind in baseball. It’s a very tough pitch to square up, but with the Braves, he was bailing out hitters by throwing the pitch in the strike zone, where it could be hit easier. After joining the Reds, he did a much better job of starting the pitch at the knees and forcing it to tumble low out of the zone, which is how he attained a ton of whiffs and weak contact.
It probably isn’t by chance that this change coincided with Gausman arriving in Cincinnati. After all, this is the team that got one of baseball’s most exciting breakouts of 2019 with Luis Castillo, who made enormous strides thanks in part to him making this exact kind of change with his own change-up.
Gausman’s average fastball location moved, too. It isn’t as noticeable of a change, but it is there, shifting from an emphasis on throwing it to the armside part of the zone to elevating it more to the gloveside.
We don’t know whether it’s the Reds or Gausman himself that deserve the most credit for the pitcher’s reinvention, but we do know that to continue the experiment won’t be cheap for Cincinnati. The right-hander is about to enter his last year of team control, and 2020 will be his age-29 season. That leaves the Reds with a difficult choice to make. They could choose to hold onto him at arbitration cost, which MLB Trade Rumors projects to be about $10.6 million. Even given all the reasons for optimism I’ve covered here, eight figures is a hefty price tag for someone who probably shouldn’t be in contention for a rotation spot, and who’s (very good!) bullpen effort in 2019 only spanned about 20 innings. The team’s other option, then, would be to non-tender Gausman, where they could have an opportunity to re-sign him at a lower rate, but would also run the risk of another team sweeping in and initiating a bidding war — a legitimate risk, given the fact that he’d be young for a free agent, and did post 8.1 fWAR between 2016 and 2018. What shouldn’t be a difficult decision, though, is whether the Reds should make a serious effort to bring him back for next season. Toss his ERA aside, and there’s simply too much to like about what Gausman offers to let him slip away.