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Kevin Gausman: From Back-End Starter to Cy Young?

If the name Kevin Gausman was not familiar to you before the 2021 season, do not be ashamed. After all, before this season, he has not had a very noteworthy career. Despite being drafted with the 4th overall pick in the 2012 Draft and making the Majors the very next year, it looked as if this RHP would be a barely above-average No. 3 or No. 4 Starter for the remainder of his time in the league. But, that has not been the case. With Jacob Degrom seemingly sidelined for the foreseeable future, Gausman’s amazing season has now put him in competition for the 2021 NL Cy Young Award. So, how has a back-end starter turned into a Cy Young candidate?

After being brought up in 2013 with Baltimore, the best words to describe him were average; reliable. Producing a career fWAR of 15.1 through 8 seasons (not including 2021), he hasn’t been a major force to be reckoned with in the MLB. In his arguably best season in 2016, through 30 Games Started, he had a 4.10 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching), 8.72 K/9, as well as 3.1 fWAR. His ERA- (Adjusted ERA) that season was 85 (on a scale of 100), or only 15% above the MLB average. Even in his best years, he did not exactly shine. After leaving the team that drafted him in the middle of the 2018 season, Kevin’s best years seemed to be behind him. Although he did better in the second half of the 2018 season with the Braves, producing a 3.78 FIP and 70 ERA-, he began to struggle again in early 2019. This led to the Reds acquiring him off the waivers as a reliever, where he shined in the second half yet again, having a 11.69 K/9 and 3.17 FIP. The Reds did not resign Gausman,

While 2021 has appeared to be a turnaround year for the veteran RHP, that is not exactly the case. Gausman’s skill truly began to escalate in the 2020 season. Signing as a starter for San Francisco with a 1 year / $9 million deal, then the highest projected AAV (Average Annual Value) of his career, the Giants had high aspirations after his incredible end to the 2019 season. And even though COVID-19 and the shortened season caused lots of players to struggle, he went out and vastly exceeded expectations. Through 12 appearances and 10 games started, Kevin managed to set career bests (at the time) in K% (32.2%), FIP (3.09), and ERA- (84) among several other statistics not mentioned. While at first these numbers may seem invalid with a lower amount of appearances and the fact that they took place during the 2020 season, some stat cast figures prove otherwise. Primarily, it had been through Gausman’s improved development of the splitter. Between 2019 and 2020, he averaged a 1-inch increase in the vertical movement of this pitch. This had an astronomical significance, as the opponent’s wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) on it went from .274 to .126 and Whiff %, as well as K%, grew by a large margin. Shown below is the evolution of his splitter based off opponent wOBA. Mixed with the increased use of this newly retrofitted weapon, his 2020 performance was highly plausible, especially knowing his future success in 2021.

To put it simply: as of right now, Kevin Gausman is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Resigning him to another one-year deal for $18.9 million, he holds a 2.94 FIP, 57 ERA-, 10.62 K/9, and 3.4 fWAR through 23 starts and 137.1 IP. In relativity to the rest of his career, he has already produced more WAR than any other season with roughly 25% fewer starts. On his Baseball Savant page, Gausman’s 82nd percentile xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-Base Average), 75th percentile xBA (Expected Batting Average), and 81st percentile Whiff % prove that he carries some of the nastiest stuff in the MLB. And the Giants, yet again, are having a highly profitable return on their investment. If one goes by Fangraphs The Cost of a Win In Free Agency in 2020 evaluation of $9.1m/WAR, he would be worth at least $30.94m/yr if he stopped playing today. Not only has he been a great pitcher, but an unexpected asset in contributing to his team’s high levels of success.

While Kevin is a contender for the Cy Young, he faces stiff competition from players like Walker Buehler, Corbin Burnes, and Jacob Degrom. Their production is as follows:

  • Buehler: 3.12 FIP, 9.26 K/9, and 3.8 fWAR through 23 starts (147.2 IP).

  • deGrom: 1.25 FIP, 14.28 K/9, and 4.9 fWAR through 15 starts (92 IP).

  • Burnes: 1.52 FIP, 12.79 K/9, and 5.6 fWAR through 20 starts (121 IP).

Although Gausman does trail in several categories to his competition, a late effort could spring him into first place. Gausman may have less WAR than Buehler, but his overall statistics arguably prove to be outright better. If deGrom continues to fail at staying healthy, many writers will deem him as unfitting to win the award, opening up a possibility. Though Burnes may lead in every category following deGrom, the Giants still have 47 games to play, making a comeback possible for this late-blooming star. Only time will tell in this exciting Cy Young race.

In the end, even if the San Francisco ace fails to win the NL Cy Young, or place in the Top 3, this season is still one to marvel at. At age 30, Kevin Gausman is not only defying the odds, but the built-in nature of baseball. In theory, his performance should be on a linear decline as he gains age, not exponential growth. And while most of his major competition is hitting their strides in overall velocity, Gausman proves that offspeed pitches can be just as effective in making an elite pitcher. With his team currently holding the best record in the entire MLB, he will now gain the opportunity to excel in the most exciting time of the year for fans: postseason baseball.



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