At the time, some might have figured the San Francisco Giants to be insane.
The reasoning, of course, came in the form of Kevin Gausman.
Not in the way you would think, though. After all, many might have pegged the franchise with genius-level intellect the moment they signed the LSU Tiger alum to a one-year $3.3 million deal on Dec. 10, 2019. Even in a shortened season, the Giants still came out ahead from the bargain-bin flyer – the right-handed hurler went 3-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 59.2 innings of work over the course of the 2020 season. Not to mention he tallied in his best strikeouts per nine innings pitched (K/9) total in his career (11.92) and his best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark (3.09), too.
Where many thought the Giants might have flummoxed themselves came in what they did over the following offseason. With the idea of several giddy teams poaching away their newfound starter, the Giants offered the 29-year-old a qualifying offer worth $18.9 million.
Sure, offering the qualifying offer to the likes of Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto and Co. made sense. But Kevin Gausman? Arguable career year aside, it would not have been completely preposterous to state that $18.9 million would be seen as quite a lot for a starter who, up to that point of his career, had been a roller coaster of a player during his time with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. If he accepted, the Giants would be on the books for a good bit of coin, even if it was for one year.
And accept it Gausman did.
Now, San Francisco was in a predicament. If Gausman was unable to perform at the level his 2019 season showed, the move to offer him the one-year deal would blow up in their face. However, if he was able to continue his positive production, it would be a steal by all names of the imagination.
Luckily for the Giants, the move has been more of the latter as opposed to the former.
How so? Let’s look into it.
Through June 19 action, Gausman has played in 14 games (14 GS). Over the course of those 14 games, Gausman has failed to pitch into the fifth inning only once – he pitched 4.0 innings against the Washington Nationals on June 12. This, however, was a seven-inning doubleheader game. The most earned runs Gausman has conceded in a start this season has been five (Apr. 13 against Cincinnati). In all other starts, Gausman has conceded two earned runs or less.
Enough about the game logs. What do the numbers say? Over his 14 games started, Gausman has compiled an 8-1 record with a 1.51 ERA in 89.2 innings pitched. His 2.38 FIP is currently a career high.
This is only the start of where Gausman has succeeded. While his 10.34 K/9 is not up to snuff when compared to his 11.92 K/9 from 2019, it still currently ranks second in his nine-year career. Among 63 starters to pitch a minimum of 70.0 innings this season, his K/9 additionally ranks 19th.
What does currently rank the best in his career, however, is his walks per nine innings pitched (BB/9) – his 1.91 BB/9 is not only his highest mark of his career but laps his next best year (he maintained a 2.41 BB/9 in 2019). His 1.91 BB/9 ranks 13th among 63 starters to pitch a minimum of 70.0 innings.
But wait, there is more. While the home run ball was a huge problem going into his stint with San Francisco, Gausman has been able to limit it to a much more consistent level. After he maintained a 1.30 HR/9 from 2013-19, Gausman has since dwindled it down to a much more sustainable 0.80 HR/9 in the 2020-21 seasons combined. In fact, his 0.60 HR/9 mark so far through the 2021 campaign ranks second in his entire career (Gausman possessed a 0.56 HR/9 in 2014 while with the Orioles). Among 63 starters to pitch a minimum of 70.0 innings this season, Gausman’s 0.60 HR/9 ranks fourth.
At this point, the question is simple: what changed? Easy – his split-finger usage. Although the pitch was always a mainstay in Gausman’s arsenal dating back to his Baltimore days, his reliance on it fluctuated. 2021, however, has seen a resurgence of the pitch, as Gausman has utilized it 37% of the time, his highest mark for the pitch since 2019 (37.7%). The increased usage of this pitch has allowed the now-30-year-old to rely less on his four-seam fastball (he has used the pitch only 50.4% of the time, the lowest mark of his career).
This usage (or lack thereof), however, has been a blessing in disguise, as his four-seamer has now kept batters much more off-balance. Opponents have maintained a .306 slugging percentage (SLG) on the pitch this season, a career-best dating back to his 2013 season, when opponents collectively averaged a .415 SLG against the pitch.
Giving Gausman the option of accepting an $18.9 million one-year deal might have seemed reckless on the surface, but for the Giants, it was a no-brainer. Whether it be the slight shift in pitch usage to the one-the-field results, Gausman has been much more refined, calculative and on-point with his presence on the mound. And both the team and player have benefitted.