Our 2023 season preview series continues with starting pitcher Kevin Gausman.
First, here's a refresher on the projection systems we're looking at:
STEAMER: 31 GS, 13-9 record, 3.45 ERA, 196 SO and 39 BB in 181 innings
ZiPS: 28 GS, 12-7 record, 3.66 ERA, 184 SO and 33 BB in 162.1 innings
THE BAT: 31 GS, 12-9 record, 3.76 ERA, 193 SO and 44 BB in 176 innings
2022 stats: 31 GS, 12-10 record, 3.35 ERA, 205 SO and 28 BB in 174.2 innings
Gausman, 32, found a home in Toronto last season after signing a five-year deal to help lead the rotation. He started his Blue Jays career off on the right foot and showed fans how far he has come since pitching as a division rival with Baltimore from 2013 to 2017.
The former fourth-overall pick made a claim as the staff ace with his 2022 season, notching 205 strikeouts in 174.2 innings, good for a 10.56 K/9, which put him seventh in the majors among qualified starters. Combine that with a minuscule 1.44 BB/9, good for third overall and it's mind-boggling how he ended up with a 12-10 record and a 3.35 ERA.
The projections don't think he'll improve on those marks and call for fewer strikeouts, more walks, and a higher ERA. That's fine, we don't have to agree with those predictions. Wins and losses and ERA aren't the be-all and end-all for pitchers, as there's so much that happens out of their control once the ball is put in play and after they leave the game.
So where can we look for validation that Gausman can repeat a similar stellar season and get better results in 2023? Well, he logged an impressive 2.38 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) last year, second among starters, and an incredibly unlucky .363 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), the highest among starters. All three projection systems predict a lower BABIP, ranging from .288 to .305.
In his analysis of Gausman's 2022, Chris Black of Sportsnet breaks down how the righty was unlucky and adversely affected by shoddy defense and poor shifting strategies for his pitches. These, among other issues, explain why the results didn't always match up to the quality of pitching. Black also points out that Gausman gave up the most base hits on balls with an expected batting average under .200 than any other pitcher ... yikes.
Gausman's biggest weapon is his fearsome splitter. In 2022, he threw the pitch 34.8% of the time but used it 52.6% of the time in two-strike counts. He generated a 44.5% whiff rate, a 43.2% strikeout rate, a -14 run value and 126 of his 205 strikeouts with the pitch. This was on top of the weak contact he induced with the pitch, producing an xBA of .169.
Jays fans who watched Gausman last season know how dominant he was for much of the campaign. There's no reason to doubt that he can produce a similar performance in 2023, and he should have better results. With an improved defense behind him, some positive regression and better luck on batted balls, we may see another Jays pitcher in the Cy Young conversation.