Kevin Gausman is a free agent. Should the Toronto Blue Jays sign him to a fair market value contract?
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The Baltimore Orioles selected Kevin Gausman with the fourth-overall pick in the 2012 June Amateur Draft. Gausman made his debut with the Orioles in 2013 and posted a 4.18 ERA and 4.08 FIP throughout the 2013-2017 seasons. During the 2018 campaign, he recorded a 4.43 ERA and 4.58 FIP for the Orioles, who traded Gausman to Atlanta on July 31, 2018. Atlanta placed Gausman on waivers on August 5, 2019, after generating a 6.19 ERA for the 2019 Braves. He finished 2019 with the Reds, became a free agent at seasons-end and signed a one-year deal with the Giants on December 10, 2019. In November of 2020, Gausman accepted the Giants’ USD 18.9 million Qualifying Offer.
Gausman has been one of the better MLB starters during his tenure with San Francisco. In 251 innings, he recorded a 3.00 ERA, 3.02 FIP and 6.4 fWAR. On their Top 50 free agents list, FanGraphs ranked Gausman as the fifth starter behind Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman and Eduardo Rodriguez.
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various pitching metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Gausman
- The arguments for and against signing Gausman
The 100th percentile means the best among the starters; the 1st percentile is the worst—for example, the lower a pitcher’s ERA, FIP, xERA and BB%, the better. Therefore, the starter with the lowest ERA would have the 100th percentile ranking. The 100th percentile grade in K%, K%-BB% or fWAR means the pitcher scored the highest value in one of those metrics.
Generally speaking, I will use standard rankings when the sample size is less than 100. For example, the 2021 Blue Jays had the third-lowest starter ERA of the 30 MLB teams from July to October. When the number of data points exceeds 100, I utilize percentiles—a case in point. Gausman’s 2021 K% was 91st percentile among the 180 MLB starters, with a minimum of 50 innings pitched.
During the 2015-2019 period, Gausman was solid. Among the 213 MLB starters (minimum of 200 innings), Gausman’s K%, BB%, K%-BB%, ERA and FIP were 62nd, 68th, 65th, 46th and 54th, respectively. Ray’s corresponding percentile rankings were 96th, 3rd, 89th, 67th and 74th. Ray was better than Gausman during the 2015-2019 campaigns.
However, the Gausman-Ray tables turned in the 2020-2021 period. Gausman’s percentile rankings in K%, BB%, K%-BB%, ERA and FIP were 91st, 74th, 92nd, 91st and 95th, respectively. Ray’s related percentile rankings were 94th, 19th, 89th, 72nd and 53rd, correspondingly.
For details of these metrics by season, please refer to Table 1.
Table 2 shows that in 2021 Gausman was essentially a two-pitch pitcher: 88.1% of his pitches were 4-seam fastballs (52.7%) and splitters (35.3%). He has mainly been two-pitch dependent his entire MLB career; Gausman’s usage of 4-seamers and splitters averaged 84.8% during the 2014-2020 period. Most starting pitchers have a more balanced arsenal than Gausman. However, some of the top starters in 2021 had similar dependency upon two pitches.
- Carlos Rodon: 4-seam fastball (58.6%) and slider (27.2%)
- Trevor Rogers: 4-seam fastball (57.7%) and changeup (27.4%)
- Ray: 4-seam fastball (59.4%) and slider (30.8%)
In a perfect world, a repertoire with more effective pitches than fewer is preferred. Why? On days when one of their high-usage pitches is not working, a starting pitcher with a more balanced arsenal is more likely to succeed than a two-pitch starter. (All other things being equal).
However, Gausman’s highly-concentrated pitch usage was excellent in 2021. Due to a combination of velocity, spin rate, location and sequencing, Gausman’s 2021 Statcast Run Value (-22) for his split-finger pitch was the best. (Of the 14 starters and relievers who threw the splitter to a minimum of 100 batters). Concerning his 4-seamer, Gausman’s 2021 Run Value was (-12) tied for 17th best of 137 pitchers who threw the 4-seamer to a minimum of 150 batters.
Readers should note that the Run-Value stat is descriptive, not predictive. In other words, it can be reliably used to determine what has happened but not what will happen.
In my opinion, baseball observers should acknowledge the performance risk associated with Gausman’s two-pitch arsenal approach but not give undue weight.
Three Times Through The Order (“TTO”)
Table 3 illustrates the TTO results for Gausman and the 2021 Blue Jays starters. Gausman’s wOBA percentile ranking among MLB starters (minimum of 80 plate appearances in the TTO situation) was the 73rd percentile. When Gausman faced batters for the first time in a game, his wOBA percentile ranking was 81st; it was 93rd when batters were up for their second plate appearance.
Therefore, for the season, Gausman’s TTO record was very good. However, his second-half performance, including TTO, requires some further analysis.
The Second Half of the 2021 Season
Gausman’s second-half performance was not nearly as impressive as it was in the first half of the 2021 campaign. The metrics of note are as follows:
- Gausman’s OPS, xOPS, ERA, and xERA were no lower than the 93rd percentile during the April-June period. However, in the July to October time segment, his OPS, xOPS, ERA and xERA were 48th, 48th, 56th and 52nd, respectively.
- Although his TTO percentile ranking was good overall, Gausman’s first and second half relative standing differed. In the first half of the season, his wOBA ranked in the 93rd percentile. However, his wOBA ranking during the second half of the 2021 campaign was 27th.
- Gausman’s average Game Score for the 2021 season was 60, the same as Ray’s. However, Gausman’s average Game Score during the April to June period was 68; it was 52 in the July to October time segment. A Game Score of 50 is the MLB average. On the other hand, Ray posted a 54 Game Score in the first half of the season, a 64 in the second.
Another second-half performance matter to address is the success that batters had hitting Gausman’s four-seam fastball.
During the 2021 campaign, MLB decided to crackdown on pitchers using sticky substances; pitchers began to curtail their use of prohibited materials starting on June 3. However, there was no significant change in the Bauer Units of Gausman’s four-seam fastball after June 2. For a more detailed account of sticky substances and Bauer Units, please refer to Sticky Fingers: The Rolling Stones, MLB and The Toronto Blue Jays.
Before the sticky substance police arrived, hitters posted a 0.475 OPS and a 0.692 xOPS against Gausman’s four-seamer. I would argue that the pre-June 3 OPS-xOPS difference suggests that Gausman benefited from a bit of luck. The good luck factor was not evident in the post-June 2 period. Hitters recorded a 0.862 OPS and a 0.863 xOPS after June 2. The 2021 MLB average OPS and xOPS against the four-seam fastball were 0.800 and 0.803, respectively.
One possible explanation of Gausman’s fastball being less effective after June 2 is due to pitch location. After June 2, there was a five percentage point increase in the percentage of four-seam fastballs thrown by Gausman into the Heart Zone, and there was a corresponding decrease in the rate of four-seam fastballs that landed in the Shadow Zone.
For a pitcher whose fastball usage exceeds 50%, the below-average four-seamer xOPS should be a red flag.
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 4 presents the calculation of a contract for Gausman. The highlights are as follows:
- There is some divergence between my estimated contract value and those of others.
- My 5-year, USD 113.4 million figure is in-line with Jon Becker’s Median (5-year, USD 114.0 million) and Spotrac (5-year, USD 112.4).
- FanGraphs’ 3-year, USD 54.0 million is an outlier.
Before concluding upon a reasonable contract for Gausman, I will address the arguments for and against signing him to a long-term deal.
Arguments for and against signing Gausman
- Teams should be more open to spending more dollars per fWAR when they are a playoff-calibre ball club.
- Gausman has been relatively durable, and he missed only 128 days with injuries during his career. Concerning shoulder, arm or elbow injuries, the breakdown is as follows: 2015 – 46 days; 2016 – 23 days; and 2019 – 9 days.
- The 2022 campaign will be Gausman’s age-30 season. On average, a pitcher’s performance declines during their age 31 to 37 seasons.
- There are the two-pitch arsenal, TTO and second-half performance issues to consider, which I noted earlier.
Final Contract Estimate
In my opinion, there are numerous red flags concerning Gausman.
- His excellence is a recent development. Before 2021, his best ERA was 2016’s 73rd percentile ranking.
- Gausman’s 2021 second-half OPS, xOPS, ERA and xERA, were median-ish.
- Furthermore, his Game Scores during the post-June 30 period averaged just a tick above average.
Given these concerns, I would apply a significant discount to my original five-year, USD 113.4 million estimate. The reduction would affect both the term and the AAV.
In my opinion, Gausman’s 2022 fWAR performance will be closer to Steamer’s 2.5 fWAR projection for Steven Matz (2.5) than it will be to that of Ray (3.6). Therefore, if I use a 2022 2.9 fWAR for Gausman, a three-year, USD 57.6 million deal is fair given the noted performance risk issues. Based upon the much higher contract estimates listed in Table 4, I think Gausman would reject such an offer.
As an art dealer once said to a potential client, “I shouldn’t say this, but another picture will always come along.” In free agency terms, another Ray-like pitcher will come along.
The last word
The Toronto Blue Jays will enter the 2022 MLB season as a favourite to contend for a playoff spot. One of the strengths of the 2021 Blue Jays was the quality and depth of their starting rotation. If the Blue Jays are unable to re-sign Ray, Gausman is not a comparable replacement. Gausman is a late-bloomer who showed signs during the second half of 2021 that he may not replicate the excellence displayed during the past two seasons.
Get Back is the newly released film that chronicles the making of the Beatles’ Let It Be album. Concerning Toronto and the potential signing of Gausman, Let It Not Be the Blue Jays.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.