Kevin Gausman has had an outstanding first season as a Toronto Blue Jay. After signing a five year, $110 million free agent contract last offseason to take 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray’s spot in the Jays rotation, the lanky right hander has gone 12-10 with a 3.45 ERA and 2.41 FIP (the lowest among qualified AL starters) over 28 starts and 159.1 innings, with a 1.24 WHIP and 186 strikeouts versus only 25 walks.
His cumulative fWAR of 5.2 leads American League starters. So why isn’t he a part of the AL Cy Young conversation along with betting favorites Justin Verlander, Dylan Cease, Shane McClanahan, Shohei Ohtani, Alek Manoah and Framber Valdez?
Could it be that the Blue Jays’ defensive shifts have killed Gausman’s 2022 Cy Young hopes?
As per FanGraphs,
"Thanks in part to the fact that he didn’t allow a walk or a homer in any of his first five starts — he actually didn’t serve up his first homer until his seventh start and his 50th inning — Gausman has led the league in FIP and WAR since mid-April and still does, with marks of 2.41 and 5.2 despite his recent bumpy ride. Among qualifiers, he additionally owns the league’s lowest walk rate (3.8%), third-highest strikeout-walk differential (24.3%), and fourth-highest strikeout rate (28.1%). That’s impressive stuff, and it certainly suggests a viable Cy Young candidate."
He’s allowed a minuscule 0.79 home runs per nine innings pitched and only 1.41 walks per nine, a career best. Those numbers were even better prior to his last seven starts since August 14th. Since then he’s gone 4-2 with a 4.97 ERA and 3.62 FIP over 41.2 innings, with 48 hits allowed, including a whopping eight home runs (1.73 HR/9) relative to only the six he’d allowed over his previous 21 starts this season (0.46 HR/9).
Why isn’t Kevin Gausman in the 2022 AL Cy Young conversation?
While that slump over his recent seven starts may have helped to dim any chance for the Cy Young, it’s worth noting that only one other qualified starter has a higher gap than Gausman’s 1.04 earned runs per nine between their ERA and FIP; Patrick Corbin has a 6.11 ERA versus a 4.87 FIP, for a 1.24 run differential. Of the 46 qualified starters (innings pitched > games played by their team) in MLB this season, only six have an ERA more than 0.3 earned runs higher than their FIP: Corbin, Gausman, Aaron Nola, Carlos Rodon, German Marquez and Jose Berríos. Only Corbin and Gausman are above one run.
In fact, Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs questions how it is that Gausman can lead the American League in both FIP and WAR, but doesn’t appear to have high odds of winning this year’s AL Cy Young award? Recall he finished sixth in the NL Cy Young voting last year, following a 14–6 season with a 2.81 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 227 strikeouts, and 4.8 WAR with the 107-win NL West champion San Francisco Giants.
Jaffe cites three reasons:
1. “Only one pitcher in the past 14 seasons has won a Cy Young with an ERA above 3.00”;
2. “The massive gap between his ERA and his FIP; at 1.04 runs per nine, it’s the widest of any AL ERA qualifier and one of only two in either league that’s above 1.00. Patrick Corbin (1.24, via a 6.11 ERA and 4.87 FIP) is the other… For Gausman that gap exists because of an astronomical .365 BABIP [batting average on balls in play].”; and,
3. “Gausman is getting torched on the shift… No pitcher in the majors with at least 200 batters faced on infield shift ball-in-play outcomes has allowed a higher batting average (.386) on those plays; Corbin is a distant second at .359… In terms of BABIP, Gausman has a .308 mark without the shift, and .386 with it.”
Tough Luck? Or has the defensive shift hurt Gausman?
So has Gausman just been very unlucky, or is something else going on? As Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic noted last month,
"Outside of his ERA, other metrics suggest Gausman could have better results with better luck and more plays made behind him. FIP — fielding independent pitching — measures a pitcher’s performance by removing the role of defence, luck and sequencing for a more stable indication… No [AL] pitcher has a greater difference in ERA and FIP than Gausman."
As McGrath points out, “Gausman does what FIP values very well”: he strikes batters out at an elite clip, with a 28.1% K rate that ranks 8th among qualified starters in MLB. His walk rate of 3.8% is the 2nd lowest after Aaron Nola’s 3.4%; and, he’s allowed only 14 home runs, tied for 4th in the AL with Dylan Cease, and trailing only Framber Valdez, Martin Perez and Justin Verlander.
So why is his ERA 3.45?
On balls put in play, Gausman’s been hurt by a combination of bad luck and defensive mistakes. His batting average against on balls in play (BABIP) is .365, the highest among qualified starters. The league average is .290. So, far more balls are dropping in for hits against Gausman.
And as per Statcast, the defence behind Gausman has allowed eight runs that could have been prevented, not to mention -10 outs above average; in other words, the defence has not been very good behind him which has translated in to 1.04 runs per nine relative to his own fielder independent pitching (FIP). If the Jays’ defence had, in fact, prevented those eight runs and made those ten outs (which equates to 3.1 more innings pitched), Gausman’s ERA would be 2.93.
But Statcast also breaks down how many times the Jays defence has shifted versus batters behind Gausman:
Against right-handed hitters, they’ve shifted 127 times in 391 plate attempts (32.5%). This is well above defensive shifts vs. RHB in Gausman’s prior seasons, with a previous high of only 15.4% in 2018, and just 4.4% in 2021.
Against left-handed batters, the Jays’ defence has shifted 149 times in 271 PAs (55%). That compares to 58.9% last year. Recall that his overall BABIP this season is .365, which is awful; however, in terms of infield shift ball-in-play outcomes, Gausman has allowed a higher batting average on balls in play (.386) on those plays versus a .308 mark without the shift.
Stop the shift?
Perhaps the solution is to stop shifting so much behind Gausman when he’s facing right-handed batters? He’s got Matt Champman and his platinum glove behind him on the left side of the infield at 3B, and while Bo Bichette isn’t great defensively (-2 runs prevented, -3 outs above average, -12 defensive runs saved), letting him play straight up behind Gausman might allow him to be more consistent with his footwork and accuracy on throws to first base?
In fact, Statcast shows the Blue Jays rank 9th overall in MLB in terms of OAA at +10, and are tied for10th on runs prevented at +7.
Gausman himself seems to endorse that strategy. In a late June interview with Sportsnet ONE, he discussed how he feels about a shift defence being played behind him:
"You usually only notice the negative things and you don’t notice the line drives that are right at somebody. You kind of forget those things. You only notice and remember the times when a single turned into a double and they scored a run. Before my game in Chicago, I was like, ‘These guys are doing a really good job of beating the shift (in the first game of the series). I was kind of like, let’s just go play baseball, straight up, and see what happens’… There was also maybe a couple of times where I could have had an out, where I gave up a base hit. It’s just a tough situation. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just dependent on if it’s working or it’s not."
There’s also some talk that he may have pushed back in June against former manager Charlie Montoyo on the defensive shift. As a veteran, newly arrived from a 107-win team last year, he may have been allowed some input on tactics and fielding strategy. For example,
2023 MLB Ban on Defensive Shifts a Good Thing for Gausman?
In the very least, Gausman will likely be a fan of the rule change starting in 2023 which will ban defensive shifts. As Shi Davidi of Sportsnet recently wrote, the Blue Jays defensively have “employed shifts in 54.4% of all plate appearances, per Statcast data, more than any other team in the majors and well above the average of 34.3%. They also shifted right-handed hitters a big-league high 47.6%, more than double the average of 20.3%.” So the Blue Jays will have to adjust as well to playing straight up defence.
Kevin Gausman’s stuff remains elite, but there are lingering concerns that defensive shifts and lapses behind him have increased his ERA and dimmed his Cy Young chances. He continues to be elite on chase rate and walk rate, and he’s able to generate a 43.9% whiff rate with his dominant 85 mph split finger pitch, which he throws 35.2% of the time. That helps to keep hitters off balance when they’re looking for his 95 mph four-seamer, which he throws 49% of the time. All of that has helped generate a 5.2 fWAR so far, which leads all Blue Jays. Perhaps the ban on defensive shifts will help Gausman finally win a Cy Young award next year in his age 32 season?