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This is why the Pittsburgh Pirates are interested in Kevin Gausman

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates remain interested in acquiring Baltimore Orioles SP Kevin Gausman. This is why.

A couple of weeks ago I had received some news that the Pittsburgh Pirates had been scouting Baltimore Orioles games pretty heavily. I soon after learned that they were interested in veteran Kevin Gausman.

Early yesterday morning, I was told from a source that I trust that talks had progressed on a deal centered around Gausman, with reliever Brad Brach being included in early iterations of the deal to bring the Pirates more in tune with paying the prospect price the O’s were asking for: namely, Shane Baz.

As we all know, Brach was dealt to the Atlanta Braves later in the day, likely due to the Pirates’ reluctance to deal Baz, one of the team’s four Top 100 Prospects as per MLB Pipeline. However, the club’s interest in Gausman is still strong, as per my sources and Rob Biertempfel’s as well, apparently:

Anyway. It’s been an interesting couple of days!

But today I’m going to tell you why the Pittsburgh Pirates are interested in the right-handed veteran.

Good “shit”

Any talk about Gausman needs to start by looking at his stuff, which has been colorfully described recently:

How good is this stuff? (This is a family website after all.)

That depends on who you ask, but you can bet that Miley was referring to Gausman’s split-finger fastball.

There are only 13 starting pitchers that have thrown at least 100 splitters in 2018. Gausman ranks first in volume (511) and second in percentage (24.6%). He ranks seventh among those 13 in xwOBA with a .244 mark. Oh, and he also ranks third on average exit velocity against the pitch with an 84.2 mph average, which is a very sturdy stat considering he has given up the second most batted ball events (96) among this group.

In plain terms, hitters are hitting .178/.200/.329 against the pitch, which includes a 38.8 percent whiff rate. And that whiff rate is actually less than the 43.9 percent mark he posted last year. One last note - the offering carries an average spin rate of 1482 rpm, allowing for classic splitter movement.

Gausman has an ability to mix and match locations with the pitch:

But, he does not do it very often:

Indeed, the pitch is his go-to against left handed batters. I grabbed Gausman’s pitch-pairs info from Baseball Prospectus and the split finger is rarely seen against RHBs:

Gausman Top 3 Pitch Pairs - RHB/LHB

Batter Handedness Amount 1st Pitch Type 2nd Pitch Type
Batter Handedness Amount 1st Pitch Type 2nd Pitch Type
L 256 FA FA
L 148 FA FS
L 118 FS FA
R 259 FA FA
R 109 SL FA
R 89 FA SL

Why does Gausman not trust his split finger against right handed bats, especially when most of the splits are pretty close in some key metrics?

Gausman L/R Spliter ..Splits

Metric vs. LHB vs. RHB
Metric vs. LHB vs. RHB
xwOBA 0.252 0.232
SLG 0.337 0.316
Avg. EV 82 mph 90.2 mph
ISO 0.146 0.158
Whiff % 42.20% 18.30%

All things being equal, is it as simple as right-handed hitters making contact a bit more, and better contact when they do? Yeah, probably.

But some see it differently.

“To me, it all boils down to fastball command,” a current AL East pro advance scout told me. If you look at Gausman, he is a little wilder with left-handed hitters. Sometimes he’s wild against right side bats too, but against lefts he’s up, down, side to side. So I think he has to go to his split finger more to get himself back into at-bats, even though it’s a pretty damn good pitch regardless.”

A quick look at Gausman’s statcast data on four-seam fastballs backs this up:

So, if he is being forced to throw his best out-pitch at any time in the at-bat against left-handers due to so-so four seam fastball control, this chart of Gausman’s pitch selection by count against left-handed hitters suddenly makes a ton of sense:

In the end, the splitter works against left-handers. If Pittsburgh can tighten up his fastball a bit against left-handers, Gausman can guard against the pitch losing effectiveness. Of more interest to the Pittsburgh Pirates is getting the pitch to play better against right-handers.

The splitter is considered an offspeed pitch, so perhaps the Pirates just need to convince Gausman to buck conventional wisdom and throw it against same-sided batters more often. Perhaps having Gausman come inside a bit more with the four-seam could allow the splitter to play on both sides of the plate as seen above against Jose Abreu. Wait a minute. Did someone say fastballs inside? I’m sure the club would enjoy that.

It’s a big ask, but if the Pittsburgh Pirates can coax that out of Gausman, while bringing along his slider (32.9 percent whiff rate overall) to the party as well, he can bring a new dynamic to a staid Pirates rotation.