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More comfortable Gausman primed for breakout season

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More comfortable Gausman primed for breakout season

Posted on 03 March 2015 by Luke Jones

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.

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Fixing Jimenez one of Orioles’ biggest challenges this spring

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Fixing Jimenez one of Orioles’ biggest challenges this spring

Posted on 21 February 2015 by Luke Jones

It was exactly what the Orioles had envisioned when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract seven months earlier.

With a chance to clinch their first division championship in 17 years last Sept. 16, the Orioles sent the right-handed starter to the hill against Toronto and Jimenez pitched solidly — two earned runs allowed in five innings — to earn the victory. Of course, it was one of the few bright spots of a disastrous season in which Jimenez eventually lost his spot in the starting rotation and was left off the American League Championship Series roster.

Spring training breeds optimism and hope for transformation, and there would be no bigger breakthrough than the Orioles getting Jimenez on track as they try to defend their 2014 AL East title. Pitching coach Dave Wallace believes confidence was as big a problem as any as Jimenez tried to prove himself worthy to his new club. Jimenez acknowledged Saturday that he didn’t follow his normal offseason routine last year as he didn’t sign with the Orioles until after spring training had already started, and it likely led to problems in being able to repeat his complicated delivery.

In 25 games (22 starts) and 125 1/3 innings, Jimenez went 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA and posted a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings.

“Who knows what was going through his mind last year? New team, new contract, all that stuff,” Wallace said last month. “Hopefully, that’s all pushed aside. He actually came up with a couple things last year that he made changes with in September that helped him a little bit. We’ll see if we can continue that.”

It’s hardly the first time that Jimenez’s unorthodox mechanics have come into focus as Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway was credited for rebuilding the veteran starter after a career-worst 5.40 ERA in 2012. Jimenez rebounded in the second half of 2013 to finish with a 3.30 ERA, his best season since his 2010 All-Star campaign in Colorado.

Jimenez previously brought his hands high above his head in his windup, which he believes created too many moving parts in his mechanics that hindered his control. In September, Jimenez abandoned that approach, keeping his hands quieter and in front of him as he pitched to a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings with 12 strikeouts. His seven walks reflected that his control was still a problem, but the small sample size brings a glimmer of hope that Jimenez can bounce back in 2015.

He wouldn’t be the first Orioles starter to adjust his windup in recent years as ace Chris Tillman has credited a simpler motion for the success he began enjoying in 2012 and Kevin Gausman has also quieted the movement in his windup since being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft. Jimenez hopes his adjustments will lead to similar results.

The Dominican pitcher estimated that he threw five bullpen sessions and live batting practice this winter in preparation for the start of spring training after the disruptive offseason last year. Manager Buck Showalter was impressed with the pitcher’s first bullpen session in Sarasota on Friday as he continued the simplified approach he used late last year.

“It was all about not going over the top of my head because I was going way too far and that makes my mechanics go everywhere,” Jimenez told reporters in Sarasota on Saturday. “Right now, I’m able to simplify everything by grabbing the ball and just going straight to home plate. Once I saw everything was working, I was staying with it and I’m not changing anything.”

With Showalter and Wallace needing to choose among six starters for five spots in the rotation, Jimenez will need to pitch effectively this spring, but just under $39 million remaining on his deal mean he’ll receive every opportunity to prove last year was a fluke. Historically, Jimenez’s fastball velocity has been the key in determining whether his mechanics are right as his average of 90.6 miles per hour last season was the slowest of his career and continued a steady decline since 2010 when his fastball averaged 96.3.

Much of that can be attributed to wear and tear, but an increase closer to his 2013 level (92.1 miles per hour) would indicate he’s on a better track. Opposing hitters also made contact on 80.8 percent of their swings a year ago, up from his career mark of 78.3 percent. Jimenez still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings a year ago — the same as his career mark — but hitters were more patient than ever (4.15 pitches per plate appearance) against him as he struggled to throw strikes.

It’s easy to say the Orioles regret their rich investment in Jimenez after one season, but his track record suggests better results are likely in order for 2015. Whether that improvement will be enough to justify a spot in the rotation is the real question after the Orioles’ other five starters each posted an ERA of 3.65 or lower a year ago.

“Hopefully, everything changes and I’m going to be able to compete better and be able to give the team a chance to win,” Jimenez said. “Last year was a disappointing year. It was a really bad year. There’s no doubt about it, but just changing my mechanics makes everything better. I’m going to be able to compete.”

For the price they’re paying Jimenez over the next three seasons, the Orioles certainly hope so.

 

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How to be a Baltimore Sports Fan: Issue One

Posted on 23 April 2014 by WNST Staff

Baltimore sports fans are irrational, unrealistic, unforgiving, and hard-to-fool.  Baltimore sports fans are unlike any other sports fans, because they’re–as Toyota used to say–“simply the best.”

Every Wednesday, over the next 40-years or so, I’m going to author a semi-regular feature entitled “How to be a Baltimore Sports Fan.”  The idea behind this stems back to a conversation I had with some college students during my time as an English professor at a local community college.

The conversation went something like this:

Me:  “This season might be another ‘Why Not’ year.”

Student #1:  “Why not what?”

Me:  The “Why Not” season in 1989; the year the O’s went from worst to ‘almost’ first.

Student #2:  I was born in 1992.

Me:  Don’t you know any Baltimore history?

Student #3:  Ain’t this English class?

Me:  It is.  But you’re clearly struggling with speaking the Queen’s language–and you’re from Baltimore.

Student #3:  How you know dat?

Me:  I can tell by your accent.  I’m from Dundalk.  I could pick out a Bal-murr accent halfway around the world in a room full of people screaming Chinese expletives.

Alas, it’s this conversation that has sparked this column.  Some people–local youth, sheltered stepchildren, non-local-Ivy-Leaguers-of-the-“local media”–need some help on understanding what it means to be a Baltimore sports fan.

Without further ado.

How to be a Baltimore Sports Fan…

#1 Be Irrational: Fire Dave Wallace and release the entire starting rotation.

Miguel Gonzalez went five-and-two-thirds last night.  Wei Yin Chen went five the night before.  Ubaldo Jimenez hurled five-and-a-third on Sunday.  All three pitchers topped the 100 pitch mark.  It’s impossible, yes impossible, to win more than you lose when your starting rotation consistently throws a full-game worth of pitches at the half-way point in the game.

Show me a team who has a rotation that consistently gives way in the 6th and I’ll show you a sub-.500 record.

Perhaps we’re starting to see why Dave Wallace has been away from the Major Leagues since 2007.  Even though he’s still been around baseball, you have to wonder if his tactics and his style are working, some seven years later.

Think about it, what were you doing seven years ago?  Me, I was finishing college and chasing girls around Canton and Fed Hill.  If my wife ditched me tomorrow and I jumped right back into the bar scene, I’d be as effective as water-logged firewood.

 

#2 Be Unrealistic: The Wizards are 2-0 in the NBA Playoffs, build an arena and give Baltimore the ball!

The Wizards look legit.

Down in the fourth-quarter of both games in Chicago, the Wiz–coincidentally, that’s my name too–have come out on top and carry a 2-0 series lead back to the Mid-Atlantic region–Baltimore sports fans refuse to use the word that describes the area in which Congress meets to discuss their vacation plans and fantasy football teams.

All this Wizards’ success means that Baltimore should definitely build a new arena and focus on attracting an NBA team.

 

#3 Be Unforgiving:  Jonathan Schoop doesn’t belong in the Big Leagues.

He can hit.  He’s got some talent.  But he doesn’t understand the game of baseball and desperately needs to return to a slower-pace at Norfolk.

 

#4 Be Hard-To-Fool:  The Ravens aren’t looking for character guys, they’re looking for cheap talent.

Like it or not, the Baltimore Ravens have shifted their focus.  There was a time when the organization steered clear of troubled players–think of all the receivers they passed on during a time when the roster was devoid of anyone with play-making ability.  Brandon Marshall was a head-case, Chad Ochocinco-Martinez-Wong-Abdullah-Kazamakos-Johnson-Smith was a jerk, and so on.

If the flirtation with Rolando McClain proved anything, it’s that the Ravens have given in when it comes to looking past a players’ off-the-field issues or personal flaws.

Maybe it’s just the state of the NFL and society, but if you told me that this organization would have allowed itself to be yo-yoed around and attached to the negative press that Rolando McClain created, I’d have bet you’d first see Peter Angelos doing the Wild Bill O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer atop the Orioles’ dugout in game seven of the World Series.

 

#5 Be The Best:  Ubaldo Jimenez needs some love.

This Friday night, in Baltimore, Jimenez will make his fifth start as an Oriole.  It’ll come against a spry and aggressive Kansas City lineup.  He’s ranged from horrendous to decent thus far.  If you’re at the Yard on Friday night, get behind Baltimore’s $50Million man.  Give him some love.

But if he gets chased after giving up more than five runs in less than five innings, boo him like he’s the lovechild of Billy Cundiff and Mark Teixeira

 

 

 

 

 

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Orioles name Wallace as new pitching coach

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Orioles name Wallace as new pitching coach

Posted on 29 October 2013 by WNST Staff

TEAM RELEASE

The Orioles announced Tuesday they have named Dave Wallace as their new pitching coach. Wallace brings a decade of experience as a major league pitching coach to his new role, including the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and 2000 National League champion New York Mets. He has worked as a pitching coach for four major league teams – the Houston Astros (2007), Red Sox (2003-06), Mets (1999-2000) and Los Angeles Dodgers (1995-97). Overall, Wallace has worked in professional baseball since 1981, serving as a major league coach, minor league coach and front office executive with six organizations.

Wallace spent the past four seasons as Minor League Pitching Coordinator for the Atlanta Braves, overseeing the progress and development of the organization’s minor league personnel. Prior to joining the Braves he worked for two years (2008-09) as a Special Assistant to the General Manager of the Seattle Mariners.

A former right-handed pitcher who made 13 major league appearances with Philadelphia (1973-74) and Toronto (1978), Wallace spent 20 years in the Dodgers organization from 1981-97 and 2001-03. He spent his final three seasons in Los Angeles as the Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, overseeing the club’s minor league operations and consulting on major league baseball operations.

A graduate of the University of New Haven in 1969, Wallace signed as a free agent with Philadelphia after posting a 24-6 record in college and helping UNH to the NAIA Eastern Regional Championship and a spot in the 1966 national tournament.

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