Why Blue Jays' Kevin Gausman could be a legitimate Cy Young candidate in 2023

The 32-year-old is entering the second season of a five-year deal he signed with Toronto as a free agent in 2021.

Kevin Gausman was one of the best pitchers in the AL in 2022, but an improved Blue Jays defence could see him extend his dominance even further this season. (Getty Images)

Kevin Gausman was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball during his inaugural campaign with the Toronto Blue Jays, and he has a chance to perform even better in 2023.

Many Blue Jays fans remembered Gausman from his five-and-a-half seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, which saw the right-hander struggle to produce quality results. But he hasn’t been that pitcher for a long time and proved as much last season.

The 32-year-old, fresh off signing a five-year deal worth $110 million, was worth every penny of his lucrative contract as he treated the fan base to a sensational performance almost every time he took the mound. And that put him among the league leaders in multiple categories.

Gausman posted the second-best FIP (2.38) among qualified major-league starters, leading the American League in that regard. He also finished tied for first with Shohei Ohtani in FIP- (58), fourth in fWAR (5.7, career-high) and fifth in strikeout-to-walk rate difference (24.4 percent).

Few starting pitchers were as effective at generating swings and misses as the Blue Jays' hurler, whose strikeout ability was as advertised, ranking his strikeout (28.3 percent), whiff (29.4 percent) and chase rates (39.8 percent) in the 75th percentile or higher.

But as dominant as Gausman was in his first season north of the border, a few aspects could help him take his craft to another level in Year 2 with the Blue Jays, starting with his availability.

The 6-foot-2 righty made 31 starts in 2022, two fewer than during his final season with the San Francisco Giants. Part of that was because he missed time due to an ankle injury after being struck by a 100-plus-m.p.h. comebacker against the Tampa Bay Rays on July 2.

Injuries, of course, are unpredictable and can arise when you least expect them. But for the most part, Gausman has avoided extended absences throughout his career and will hopefully continue that trend during his age-32 campaign.

If successful, the veteran should be on track to increase last season’s innings total (174.2), which finished nearly 20 innings shy of his 2021 workload. He could also achieve that goal by pitching deeper into games more consistently — an area where he’s likely to enjoy more success next season.

After completing seven innings or more in nine of his 2021 outings, Gausman accomplished that feat just seven times a season ago, mainly because opposing hitters — particularly lefties — began adjusting to his fastball-splitter combination. As a result, that led to higher pitch counts and shorter outings.

These instances mostly occurred in May and June, with Gausman witnessing a significant decline involving his strikeout total during that span, registering five punchouts or fewer in six of his eight starts between May 7 and June 21.

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

Left-handers proved the most troublesome for Gausman, striking out 20.5 percent of the time across the first three months of the season, whereas right-handers did so at 31.3 percent. But things started clicking for the 2021 All-Star following a mid-season adjustment.

Early on, the hard-throwing righty utilized his four-seamer at the top of the strike zone, while locating his splitter at the bottom or below it. The issue, however, was that lefties caught on to his game plan and eventually started laying off his elite swing-and-miss weapon completely.

That is until Gausman countered with an adjustment of his own, increasing his splitter’s in-zone percentage as the season progressed. It also helped to disguise his top two offerings by throwing more fastballs down in the zone.

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

At which point, Gausman’s swing-and-miss output versus left-handers received a massive boost throughout the second half, resulting in a 31.7 percent strikeout rate, with his splitter producing a season-high percentage (53.1) in July.

As with any season, subsequent adjustments may lie ahead for the fourth-overall selection from 2012. That’s just the nature of the business. But after having a full season to adjust to the AL East, he is better prepared to thrive against the game’s superior hitters — both lefties and righties.

Gausman was among the unluckiest pitchers across the majors last season, as evidenced by his MLB-worst .363 BABIP, which also impacted his overall effectiveness. It was responsible for the 0.97 gap between his ERA and FIP, the largest among big-league starters.

What caused that disparity? One of the main culprits was Toronto’s poor defence, as Gausman finished with the third-worst pitcher’s Outs Above Average (-11), according to Baseball Savant. In comparison, the Giants supported him with a plus-three OAA in 2021.

The positive news is the Blue Jays’ defence should be much improved next season, especially in the outfield, following the additions of Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier. Whit Merrifield should also make an impact during his first full campaign with the franchise.

A few of MLB’s new rules, which include banning defensive shifts, should also benefit Gausman after enduring batted-ball misfortune throughout last season. The BABIP gods deserve most of the blame, though they aren’t solely responsible for his woes.

Toronto’s coaching staff loves shifting, but probably a little too much, as the club’s defenders were over-shifted at times with Gausman on the mound. Though, part of the reason behind that was to make up for their ineffective outfield defence.

Still, that decision ended up hurting Gausman more than it helped him, especially versus right-handers, who faced a defensive shift 29.3 percent of the time, up 24.8 percent from San Francisco’s 2021 defensive alignment. And yet, righties still registered a .333 wOBA in those situations — fifth-worst among qualified Blue Jays pitchers (min. 200 plate appearances).

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

By stacking the left side of the infield with three defenders, the Blue Jays converted several batted balls into outs. But at the same time, a considerable amount of soft contact snuck through the infield via the opposite side, prompting an eventual philosophy change.

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

In the end, Gausman featured the fewest amount of shifts (38.1 percent) on the team among qualified pitchers but still finished significantly above his previous career-high. He won’t encounter a similar trend in 2023, though.

As part of these new rule changes, every play must begin with two infielders positioned on each side of second base, with both feet touching the dirt. That will upset some people. For Gausman, however, righties will likely record fewer hits against him.

Surrendering less contact should correct the Louisiana State University standout’s BABIP concerns from last season. And along with the other aspects mentioned above, it could also help improve his chances of winning the 2023 AL Cy Young Award.

Gausman placed ninth in AL Cy Young voting last season, with teammate Alek Manoah finishing third behind Justin Verlander, who captured his third career Cy Young Award. But this year’s race will look a little different with the future Hall-of-Famer playing in the NL with the New York Mets and Jacob deGrom — a two-time Cy Young winner — joining the Texas Rangers.

There should be healthy competition for this season’s trophy, though if Gausman improves his 2022 performance, he’ll have a pretty strong argument to be considered among the sport’s top arms.

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