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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Kevin Gausman

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While Kevin Gausman might seem like an intriguing option for the Yankees to consider this offseason, his splits tell a different story.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Drafted fourth overall in 2012, Kevin Gausman languished in the AL East as a member of the minor league organization known as the Baltimore Orioles before finally hitting his stride with the San Francisco Giants this past season. Although the former top prospect has not had a particularly good career, he enters this offseason as one of the most intriguing pitching options on the market, and is likely looking for a decently big payday as a result.

Let’s start with the reasons why the Yankees might consider signing him. Gausman’s overall numbers since joining the Giants are really quite good. In 251.2 innings pitched, he’s thrown to a 3.00 ERA, 3.02 FIP (3.22 xFIP), 30 strikeout rate, 6.5 percent walk rate, and has been worth 6.4 fWAR. Given how poorly he performed as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, those are excellent results. Additionally, his Statcast data is particularly intriguing:

That’s a decent amount of red for someone who would likely slot in as the number two or three starter (depending on how carefully the team treats Luis Severino) behind Gerrit Cole. In particular, Gausman’s 92nd-percentile chase rate and 85th-percentile strikeout rate are likely the values that will stick out to the Yankees front office.

Digging a bit deeper, the majority of Gausman’s success comes from his elite splitter, which he threw more frequently than in any other season. Armed with 37 inches of drop and 12.3 inches of break — both of which place it in the upper echelon of splitters across the league — his splitter was one of the very best pitches in all of baseball in terms of run value, sitting at -23.

Similar to what I mentioned in my discussion of Marcus Semien’s free agency case, though, track record — both in terms of overall stat lines and Statcast data — needs to be seriously considered. For instance, Gausman’s previous career-high in run value was -9, also with his splitter, in both 2018 and 2020. While that is an above-average grade, it pales in comparison to what he was able to do this year. Is the level of performance that Gausman was able to find this season sustainable? Or should we expect him to revert back to the norm? The Statcast data makes me inclined to agree with the latter.

Then there’s the issue of his performance prior to joining the Giants. Across seven seasons, he threw 925.2 innings for three teams and pitched to a 4.30 ERA, 4.12 FIP (3.98 xFIP), 21.7 percent strikeout rate, and 7.1 percent walk rate, accruing 13.5 fWAR. In other words, his career prior to 2020 was not very good.

While it is entirely possible that he’s rediscovered the talent that once made him a high draft pick, I don’t know how much I trust that possibility. To put it as bluntly as I possibly can, Gausman has thrown 1,177.1 innings across nine professional seasons. Of all those frames, 925.2 have been of the not-particularly-good variety, while the most recent 251.2 innings have been quite good. Is that one-and-a-bit seasons of success enough to warrant an organization to commit a not-insignificant amount of money to him?

And, beyond all that, there is the makeup of Gausman’s 2021 season that doesn’t seem to get pointed out all that much. In the first half of the season, Gausman was arguably the best pitcher in the league. In 114.2 innings pitched, he pitched to a 1.73 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 30.5 percent strikeout rate, and 2.57 FIP. Batters slashed just .159/.218/.258 with a .213 wOBA against him. In the second half, though, all of that changed. In 77.1 innings pitched, he pitched to a 4.42 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 27.7 percent strikeout rate, and 3.65 FIP. Hitters slashed .276/.322/.458 against him while his wOBA climbed to .332. Not that I need to spell it out for you, but that is an alarming difference.

Finally, the Yankees infield defense might give pause to the thought of acquiring a splitter-heavy pitcher. As is well-known, the Yankees made good fielding look like a lost art form last season. Shifting Gleyber Torres back to second base helped a little bit, but, given that signing a top flight defensive shortstop in Carlos Correa looks like it might be a longshot, we might be in for more below-average defense next season. Of course this is an issue that is of no fault to Gausman, but I would seriously hesitate giving a fairly big contract to a starting pitcher who relies on generating groundballs without a serious commitment to upgrading the defense around them.

While Kevin Gausman’s free agency case is certainly an intriguing one, I think it’s one that the Yankees should ultimately pass on. His recent success is tantalizing, but a deep dive into the numbers—both this season and across his career—show that his success might be more of a flash in the pan than a sustainable level of performance, and I’m not entirely sure that the contract he will likely command will be worth it when all is said and done. Given that it’s being reported that his decision could come within a matter of days, we thankfully won’t have to wait very long to see where he ends up.

Update

The free agents are just flying off the shelves this week. Gausman’s going to Toronto.