Two years ago, the thought of starting the exhibition home opener might have created butterflies for Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman.
But after starting Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium last September and pitching to a 1.13 ERA out of the bullpen in the 2014 postseason, you’ll forgive the 24-year-old if he’s unmoved by what’s expected to be a one-inning stint at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on Wednesday. Now, familiarity is on Gausman’s side as he’s in the midst of his third spring training with the Orioles.
“I don’t know if I feel like I have less to prove, but I just feel more comfortable being around the guys,” Gausman said. “It’s just kind of knowing everybody. When you have that type of relationship where you can just go up and talk to anybody, obviously you feel more comfortable.”
Of course, Gausman hasn’t surprised anyone to this point as he was immediately labeled one of baseball’s best prospects upon being selected fourth overall out of Louisiana State in the 2012 amateur draft. After spending most of his major league time in the bullpen in his rookie season two years ago, Gausman blossomed into a dependable member of a rotation in 2014 that finished fifth in the American League with a 3.61 starter ERA.
In 20 starts, Gausman went 7-7 with a 3.57 ERA, but his 3.41 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark that measures only the factors a pitcher fully controls — strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit batsmen — was the best among the Orioles’ six regular starters. His success last season at the age of 23 as well as a high-90s fastball and devastating split-changeup are reasons why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was repeatedly predicting a breakout 2015 campaign for Gausman this winter.
Counting the postseason and his minor-league work, Gausman pitched 166 2/3 innings last year and is aiming to approach the 200-inning mark this season. The overwhelming sentiment shared by teammates and coaches alike is that it’s only a matter of Gausman gaining experience and being himself to realize his full potential that many believe is becoming a top-of-the-rotation starter one day.
“He’s got a great head on his shoulders and he’s got the arm,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “It’s just a matter of trusting the process and letting it all play out. I think we get in trouble when we try and force things and then some anxiety sets in. As long as you keep letting the process play out and trust what you’re doing, he’s going to have a good chance to succeed.”
Gausman acknowledges not yet being a finished product as he’d like to improve a slider that’s been little more than a “show-me” pitch in his first two major league seasons. Often picking the brains of teammates about how they throw their own versions of the pitch, Gausman is sticking with the same grip he used last season and feels he’s had some success with it when working in relief the last two years.
Primarily relying on throwing his power fastball down in the zone while mixing in a wicked split-change, Gausman threw his slider just 7.2 percent of the time last season. Some also believe the right-hander needs to mix in more high fastballs to induce more swinging strikes — his 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings rate in 2014 was rather ordinary for a pitcher with his impressive stuff — but Gausman allowed only seven home runs in 113 1/3 innings, an improvement from the eight he allowed in 47 2/3 innings in 2013.
The continued development of a third pitch — either the slider or a circle changeup he mixed in 3.7 percent of the time last season — would go a long way in not only cementing Gausman’s place in the Baltimore rotation but establishing him as one of the better pitchers in the AL.
“One thing that nobody realizes is I don’t throw [the slider] very much, so I don’t get those reps as much as I should,” Gausman said. “That’s one thing I wanted to focus on this [spring] is throwing it a little bit more and kind of get that feedback from hitters. This is when you get your work in and your bullpens. You get to work on stuff that normally during the season you’re not going to work on. Just refining those things and making sure that I’m as ready as can be for Opening Day and beyond that.”
Gausman hopes he’s landed in the major leagues for good — his performance in 2014 supports that argument — but a crowded starting rotation that includes Ubaldo Jimenez and the three years that remain of his $50 million contract could complicate matters. No stranger to the Baltimore-to-Norfolk express over the last two years, Gausman and fellow starter Miguel Gonzalez both have a minor-league option remaining, which means either could land in Triple A depending on how manager Buck Showalter elects to handle his pitching staff.
Either pitcher could also land in the bullpen to begin the season while the Orioles try to maximize their return on Jimenez, who lost his rotation spot in the second half of 2014 despite making $11.25 million in his first season in Baltimore.
Even if Gausman heads north as a member of the staff in April, he knows there’s a good chance he’ll find himself optioned to Norfolk at some point during the season. It’s just the way Showalter and the Orioles operate in trying to keep their bullpen healthy for a 162-game marathon even though the young pitcher credits being able to get into a regular routine of pitching every fifth day as a major reason for his success in the second half last season.
“It’s just a part of it. Talking with other guys – [Chris] Tillman, [Brian] Matusz, guys like that – they’ve all gone through it,” Gausman said. “I don’t take it personally at all. At first, I kind of used to, but then I realized it’s a business and it’s all about winning and protecting those guys out of the bullpen. If we have everybody throw in one game and go into extras and we need to option somebody to bring up a healthy arm, it’s probably going to be me. That’s just something I’ve come to realize. The more you kind of just deal with it yourself, you don’t have to deal with it when it comes up.”
As many pundits have pointed to the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and top reliever Andrew Miller as reasons why the Orioles won’t succeed in defending their AL East title, Gausman and others have taken exception to the way the pitching staff has been overlooked after finishing third in the AL in team ERA last season.
The Orioles remind doubters that they already had one of the best bullpens in the league and were in first place before they acquired Miller at the end of July.
But Gausman blossoming into a top starting pitcher this season would go a long way in improving Baltimore’s chances of advancing to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
“People forget how good we were before Miller got here,” Gausman said. “Our bullpen was one of the best in baseball before we even had him. We’re very confident in that. Us starting pitchers, we had a great season last year.
“I think we kind of finally put ourselves on the map — maybe put a little bit of a target on our back now. But that’s just something you deal with when you have success.”
Based on the success he’s already had in his young career, Gausman will be perfectly fine with that target.
You can listen to my entire chat with Gausman from Sarasota HERE.