San Francisco Giants: Kevin Gausman, Cy Young contender?

Kevin Gausman fidgets on the mound in the late afternoon Cincinnati sunshine, taking in his surroundings at Great American Ball Park, home of the Reds. Gausman, the San Francisco Giants’ ace pitcher, actually used to call this place home, for a brief time in 2019.

He toes the rubber, pulls down the brim of his cap, and stretches his arms above his six-foot-two frame in anticipation of this, his ninth start of the 2021 season.

With one out already recorded, Gausman stares down Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati’s powerful slugger. Castellanos has been punishing pitchers this year and has pushed Gausman into a 3-2 count. Seemingly unaffected, Gausman casually chews his gum, looks for his sign from legendary Giants catcher Buster Posey, and sets himself. From his windup Gausman unleashes his signature splitter, low and inside to Castellanos. The Reds right fielder can only wave at the pitch as it breaks by him, nestling comfortably into Posey’s glove behind the plate.

Strikeout number one is in the books, a dangerous opponent put away, and Gausman is nonchalant about it. No fist pump, no scream of joy, no ridiculous strut. Just a casual tug on the shoulder of his jersey and Gausman moves on, already thinking about the next hitter, the next out.

Thus far, it has been a tremendously successful year for the 30-year-old veteran pitcher. Through nine starts Gausman has shown himself to be one of the top pitchers in the National League: in 59⅔ innings he has a 1.66 ERA and 2.46 FIP, with 67 strikeouts and a minuscule 0.80 WHIP, all ranking in the upper echelons of the NL. Over the last five years, the Giants hadn’t had a starter pitch six or more innings in nine consecutive starts but Gausman has done exactly that. Not since the days of Madison Bumgarner have Giants fans seen such consistent dominance. Gausman now joins that elite and beloved company.

His admirers have quickly become accustomed to Gausman’s excellence. He regularly puts on a show, rarely disappoints, and has been everything you could want in an ace pitcher for your ball club.

Few of us could have foreseen this however. Gausman’s success in San Francisco was in no way a sure thing.

Despite being the Orioles’ number 4 pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, Gausman never quite hit the heights expected of a top prospect and the hype to go along with it. Over five years in Baltimore he was a solid but unspectacular part of their rotation, before moving onto Atlanta in a 2018 midseason trade.

Gausman looked reborn with the Braves in his 10 starts after relocating and displayed hints of his ace potential, with a 2.87 ERA to show for it. But the following year the wheels suddenly came off and Atlanta had seen enough (6.19 ERA in 16 starts), cutting ties with Gausman, who was claimed off waivers by the Reds.

Between the Braves and Reds in 2019, Gausman started 17 games and pitched in relief in another 14 (all with Cincinnati). He recorded a decent 3.10 ERA out of the bullpen over 22⅓ innings but what caught the eye was Gausman’s excellent 11.7 strikeout and 2.0 walk rates. Many were prepared to write him off, his days of leading a rotation over, but he had his admirers, particularly on the west coast.

Farhan Zaidi was among those who had a good feeling about Gausman. Zaidi, the Giants’ President of Baseball Operations, saw a diamond in the rough, a pitcher his excellent coaching staff could mould and craft into a winner. In December 2019 Zaidi got his man and San Francisco signed Gausman from free agency to a one-year, $9 million contract.

It proved to be a shrewd signing. Gausman enjoyed a revelatory 2020 season, shortened of course by the global pandemic, but no less impressive. Over 59 ⅔ innings he logged a 3.62 ERA and a 3.09 FIP (a career-high), with an insane 79 strikeouts, good for a 11.92 K/9 rate. He impressed teammates, staff and fans alike.

There was no doubt San Francisco wanted to keep Gausman around and thankfully the feeling was mutual. After such a successful 2020 showing, Gausman accepted the Giants’ one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer, with the notion that a long-term offer could be down the road in the near future. Gausman cited that his admiration for the Giants’ clubhouse culture, his experience in the city of San Francisco, and the prospect of working with a catcher of Posey’s quality were all reasons to recommit.

In 2021 Gausman has done everything to validate the Giants’ faith in him and their desire to keep him by the Bay. What’s behind this significant improvement these past couple of years?

Well, that splitter he’s so fond of has seen even more action this year, to devastating effect. In 2020 Gausman used the pitch 27.7% of the time but so far this season he’s leant on it with more frequency, throwing it 35.7%. This has come at the expense of his changeup, thrown just 5% in 2021, but it’s clear the extra movement on the splitter has flummoxed hitters more than his changeup ever did. Gausman and the Giants’ pitching coaches recognised this from his 2020 results: His changeup had a 35.8% whiff rate last season but the splitter was even more effective, at an incredible 49%. It’s become his best pitch, his biggest weapon, and opponents can’t deal with it.

There’s still a big chunk of the season left, of course. A lot still to play for. Gausman will need to keep this up if he wants to be in line for personal silverware come the end of the year. A Cy Young award would look pretty terrific on his mantlepiece I’m sure he’d agree.

The Giants have their sights set on the ultimate silverware, another championship, and thanks to Gausman and his rotation mates like Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood, they appear primed to legitimately put up a fight. Many never foresaw San Francisco to be in the race, yet they’ve sat atop the ridiculously competitive NL West throughout May and have regularly held the best overall record in the majors.

How far they ultimately go will depend largely on guys like Gausman. It’s been a great ride so far, that’s for sure, and we have plenty more to look forward to.

Ash Day is covering the San Francisco Giants as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29

While you’re here, can we encourage you to check out the latest Bat Flips & Nerds MLB review podcast? Mr Tony La Russa gets one or two mentions. Click on his partially-masked face to get to the pod.

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