When you look back at the 2019 season for the Atlanta Braves it is notable to mention that they won 97 games despite some subpar performances from players that they came into the season counting on. Kevin Gausman came into the season looking like a solid middle-of-the-rotation option that could be relied upon to eat innings. However, he would end the season as a reliever for the Cincinnati Reds.
What went right in 2019?
Gausman’s season got a delayed start as he dealt with shoulder soreness early on in Spring Training. He made his debut on April 5, where he allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings against the Marlins. Through his first 10 starts of the season, Gausman posted a 4.33 ERA while allowing 45 hits in 54 innings. He held opponents to a .228 average. His peripheral numbers would suggest that he had been unlucky which in some sense is true. Even allowing for that, he had been to that point a solid but not spectacular option.
He had one brief, shining moment prior to his eventual removal from the team — in a return from injury on July 21, he dominated the Nationals in a rout: seven innings, five hits, zero walks, eight strikeouts, and just one run allowed. In some ways, it was his best start all season, though he allowed a lot of hard contact that just happened to find his fielders’ gloves.
Despite everything else below, Gausman also figured out how to get a bunch of strikeouts in 2019, posting his highest-ever strikeout and whiff rates as a starter.
What went wrong in 2019?
On May 29, Gausman was tagged for eight hits and eight runs in just one inning in a loss to the Nationals. That would begin a stretch where he allowed a total of 17 earned runs in just 8 1/3 innings spanning three starts. He was placed on the injured list due to plantar fasciitis on June 11.
We will never know how much his foot was actually bothering him but placing him on the IL allowed him the opportunity to mentally reset. One thing that was heard as he progressed through rehab starts was how he was attempting to incorporate a slider and change up back into his pitch arsenal.
Per Baseball Savant, Gausman relied mainly on his four seamer (58%) and split finger (27%) combo in 2018. His slider was used enough (14%) to at least be a distant thought in the back of hitter’s minds. Fast forward to 2019 and Gausman’s split finger percentage jumped to over 40 percent while his slider sunk to just (3.5%). While this wasn’t necessarily a bad adjustment in and of itself, given the poor quality of his slider, it’s hard to say that it worked out for him in the end.
He returned to the majors on July 21 as noted above, allowing five hits and one run over seven innings against the Nationals. However he was tagged for nine hits and six runs over six innings in his next outing in a loss to the Phillies. The slider was still missing when he returned as he essentially scrapped the pitch for 2019.
Gausman was claimed off of waivers by the Reds on August 5 which saved the Braves paying the final month and a half of his salary. He made one start for Cincinnati but mostly worked out of the bullpen appearing in 15 games while posting a 4.03 ERA and a 3.17 FIP in 22 1/3 innings. Like Chris Martin, he threw an immaculate inning with his new team.
In the end, Gausman’s tenure with the Braves was marked by a wild gap in his ERA and FIP. In 2019, only two starters with 80 or more innings had an ERA two points higher than their FIP: Gausman was one, Jordan Zimmermann was the other. Every other starter had a gap of 1.38 or lower. Since the start of 2010, this phenomenon has only happened five times — by this measure, Gausman had the fifth-least-lucky pitcher-season in the decade. Even going back to the start of 2000, he only drops to ninth, out of 2,972 pitcher-seasons. On the other hand, he didn’t manage contact particularly well (a .333 xwOBA-against, which is a little below average). But, even that didn’t warrant his terrible run prevention, which came about due to bad luck in multiple ways, including ball-in-play outcomes (a .344 wOBA-against) and sequencing (a strand rate below 60 percent).
None of this was likely much consolation for the Braves, who moved on in lieu of trying Gausman as a reliever or trying to get some kind of return for him. After all, even one stretch of 20 hits and 15 runs in six innings allowed could be too much for a team to stomach. And it’s not like Gausman wasn’t prone to the occasional implosion even before his season went off the rails, either — the April 23 start against the Reds stands out here, as he allowed two homers and then unraveled in the sixth after his team battled back to take a lead from a 3-0 deficit, leading to an eventual one-run loss.
What to expect in 2020?
Gausman is arbitration-eligible for the final time this offseason. He would appear to be a non-tender candidate given his projected $10.6 million salary. Even if he hits the open market, he shouldn’t have a hard time finding a job. While his overall numbers were ugly in 2019, he posted a FIP of 3.98 while increasing his strikeout rate. Given his two-pitch arsenal, Gausman looks like a solid relief candidate, but it wouldn’t be surprising if someone gives him another opportunity as a starter. He was very good in a relief role with the Reds (70 FIP-, 56 xFIP-), so perhaps a multi-inning relief or bulk innings opportunity could be in the cards for him.