BALTIMORE – Maybe Kevin Gausman would have embraced the question years ago, when he was a brutally honest young pitcher with a truckload of talent and a slight chip on his shoulder.
But not now. Not at age 32, with a world of experience behind him.
Gausman smirks momentarily when asked if he’s one of the best pitchers in the American League and, more pointedly, whether he should be getting more attention in the 2023 AL Cy Young Award race. That trace of a smile is all the affable Gausman is revealing.
“I’m never gonna put myself in that conversation, especially with six weeks left, a lot of things can happen. It’s honestly not my focus right now,” said Gausman, the Toronto Blue Jays ace. “My focus is trying to win every game that I start right now, because that’s what we need to do. We are trying to play into October.”
So Gausman won’t throw his own hat into the Cy Young ring, but his fellow Jays aren’t hesitant to offer their support.
- Kevin Gausman stats (2023): 3.24 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .238 batting average allowed, 31.7% K-rate
“He should be firmly in that conversation, I think, just based on the consistency,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “The numbers speak for themselves, obviously, with the strikeouts, what he can kind of do single-handedly and get guys out.”
By striking out eight Orioles at Camden Yards on Wednesday, Gausman regained the AL lead with 195. After allowing two runs in six innings against the Orioles in a 7-0 loss, Gausman’s ERA dropped to 3.23, tied for seventh in the AL among qualifiers. He’s also first in strikeouts-per-nine and 12th in WHIP.
Advanced metrics paint a more muddled picture. Gausman is first in the AL among pitchers with a 4.4 WAR in Fangraphs’ calculation which includes FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). But he’s tied for 10th with a 3.3 WAR when Fangraphs uses RA9 (Runs allowed per nine innings). He’s 28th with a 2.1 WAR as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com, less than half of the 4.7 WAR posted by New York Yankees star Gerrit Cole, who is currently the AL Cy Young favorite.
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“I’m not a big numbers guy. I don’t really look at WAR and all that other stuff. But I want him to have the ball every five days. And when he goes out there, he gives us a chance to win,” Blue Jays outfielder George Springer said. “His numbers probably should be a lot better because us, as an offense, hasn’t scored a lot of runs when he pitches. I’m part of that. I can own that.”
In his 25 outings in 2023, Gausman has registered 17 quality starts and lasted at least six innings 18 times. Yet the Blue Jays have only scored four runs or more five times while Gausman was in the game while scoring two or fewer 14 times. Only Oakland’s JP Sears has worse run support in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 starts.
Consequently, Gausman’s record is a mediocre 9-8 this season, which may be a primary reason why there’s little buzz around his Cy Young candidacy – assuming wins and losses are still a factor in voters’ minds these days.
Gausman, though, has another theory as to why he’s been a bit under-the-radar the past few years despite compiling a 35-23 record and 3.47 ERA since 2021.
- Kevin Gausman career stats: 3.87 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 1,553 strikeouts in 1,496.1 innings pitched
“I think people kind of hold early in my career against me, per se. I think I kind of had to prove a little bit more than maybe some other guys,” Gausman said. “I just had to do it a little bit longer for people to respect it and forget about the early years and the early struggles. And that’s warranted, right?”
Gausman was selected by the Orioles with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Louisiana State University, a hard-throwing, ultra-competitive right-hander with a fun and quirky side; he was known for eating powdered donuts in between innings while he pitched in college.
Gausman blew through the minors, and made his debut at 22 in May 2013, less than a year after he was drafted. He joined an Orioles club on the rise which, in retrospect, was bittersweet. He was pitching in the playoffs at 23, but he also had no established role, bouncing between the minors and majors and bullpen and rotation repeatedly. It was difficult for Gausman to establish a rhythm, and the yo-yo he rode arguably stifled his development in Baltimore.
“I was like one of two guys that had options, so I can’t be mad about it. At the time, it was definitely frustrating. But what can you do? You can’t do anything but go down there and try to be ready for when you are called back up,” Gausman said. “It’s funny to hear guys complain about getting sent down now and it’s like, ‘You guys have no idea.’ I think I got optioned close to 30 times. It was crazy for sure, but it was all part of my journey, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
When the Orioles decided to fully rebuild in 2018, Gausman was traded to the Atlanta Braves and thrived, pitching to a 2.87 ERA in 10 starts. That next season, however, Gausman struggled, amassed a 6.19 ERA in 16 starts and was designated for assignment by the Braves.
He was claimed by the Cincinnati Reds and rebounded enough to sign a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants the following winter. He began to throw his split-fingered fastball more while commanding his four-seam fastball more effectively. Gausman’s career took off, transitioning from a potential draft bust to landing a five-year, $110 million free-agent deal with the Blue Jays in November 2021.
“That’s kind of the running joke on the team. I’ve done pretty well for myself since I was DFA’d,” Gausman said, laughing. “I tell guys that are in similar situations, you never know what’s gonna happen. You can get DFA’d and there are 29 other teams. One organization might not feel very strongly about you, but there might be 10 out there that absolutely love you and would love to have you.”
When Gausman reflects on his career, he said he now believes he wasn’t ready for the advanced talent of the big leagues so early. It’s not like something suddenly clicked for him. It was a matter of improving his command and understanding what worked for him over time.
“The hype didn’t help when I struggled. But to be honest, I just think I needed more time to get used to this level,” Gausman said. “Being from Colorado, I didn’t really play much high-level baseball and got called up really quickly. I was kind of forced into a situation. Stuff-wise, I was probably ready for it, but mentality and all those things, pitchability, I definitely wasn’t ready.”
Given what it’s taken for Gausman to get where he is, it’s conceivable that postseason awards aren’t on his radar. Because he’s finally pitching the way so many thought he would years ago.
“He’s been who we expected him to be,” Springer said. “He’s been everything that we need him to be.”
That compliment from Springer, Gausman said, is the kind of reward that he most cherishes.
“I think as a starter that’s all you want,” Gausman said. “That’s a big compliment from a guy that I respect a lot. It’s cool that you have guys on your own team that say things like that about you.”
Dan Connolly is an MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.