Why Blue Jays' Kevin Gausman may be the unluckiest pitcher in baseball

Arash Madani and Arden Zwelling discuss the Blue Jays' outstanding road trip ahead of a crucial series against the Angels, the lights-out level of play from the bullpen, and the significance of their series sweep in Boston.

BOSTON — Kevin Gausman finished Thursday’s start, his 24th of the waning season in what was eventually a 6-5 Toronto Blue Jays win over the Boston Red Sox in 10 innings, with a perfectly solid 3.15 ERA.

That’s a top-25 mark among qualified MLB starters. He also carries a 23.8 per cent strikeout-minus-walk rate — a statistic Gausman’s Blue Jays value highly — which ranks sixth behind a row of absolute studs in Shane McClanahan, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Aaron Nola and Corbin Burnes.

But where Gausman has all those guys beat — every guy in baseball, for that matter — is FIP. As in fielding independent pitching, a stat that measures a pitcher’s performance using outcomes detached from the defence played behind them. Think strikeouts, walks, hit batters, home runs. Gausman’s FIP is 2.01, nearly a quarter run lower than Rodon’s second-place mark. And they’re the only two qualified pitchers below 2.54.

So, a 3.15 ERA vs. a 2.01 FIP — a difference of over a run. Only two other pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 innings this season — a sample of 94 — have a larger discrepancy. Patrick Corbin, whose ERA is 6.81 and FIP is 5.01. And Lucas Giolito, who’s rocking a 5.14 and a 4.08. Neither of them even close to Gausman’s league.

How does this happen? Well, you strike out a ton of batters (Gausman has a top-10 strikeout rate at 27.7 per cent). You don’t walk many (Gausman’s 3.9 per cent walk rate ranks within MLB’s 96th percentile). You minimize home runs (Gausman’s coughed up only 7 over his 134.1 innings pitched). And you get absurdly unlucky on balls in play (Gausman’s .373 batting average on balls in play is tops among qualified MLB starters, nearly 40 points clear of JT Brubaker in second place, and soaring above the MLB average of .289).

It’s the story of Gausman’s season. Stretches of brilliance interspersed by stretches of unbelievably poor fortune.

“Yeah, pretty much. Unfortunately,” Gausman said when asked if his season had been defined by bad luck. “It sucks to say that. But a lot of groundballs have got through and been hits. A lot of weak contact has led to guys reaching base. I always base my outings off the contact that I get. So, it's tough on nights like tonight.”

It’s tough watching Xander Bogaerts beat a full-count heater straight into the dirt in front of home plate at 78.7-m.p.h. and getting a single off of it. A groundball hit with a -50 degree launch angle is a pretty good indication of a hitter missing badly against a nasty, diving pitch. But that extreme angle also robbed the ball of any speed behind it as it rolled slowly towards Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman, who had no hope of an out at first.

It’s tough when, four pitches later, Gausman threw a brilliantly located splitter down-and-away that came off the end of Christian Arroyo’s bat at 65.2-m.p.h. and floated into centre field. The ball was hit so softly that it rolled to a near dead stop 119 feet from home as Bogaerts scampered to third. Two pitches after that, Arroyo was sliding into second with only the sixth stolen base of his six-season career as Danny Jansen bobbled his transfer behind the plate.

It's tough seeing a Reese McGuire flare — exit velocity: 86.9-m.p.h. — fall just out of Teoscar Hernandez’s reach in right, plating Bogaerts. It’s tough that a Bobby Dalbec groundball single against the shift scored Arroyo. Two runs in and the hardest-hit ball in the inning was Dalbec’s at 91.2-m.p.h. Stuff like this doesn’t only happen to Gausman. But it happens to Gausman an awful lot.

“I try to focus on the contact I’m getting. But obviously you want the results and the soft contact. You just feel like you're not getting beat. They're not necessarily earning it. And they are, it's still a hit. But there’s been a lot of ground balls that seem to be finding their way into the outfield,” Gausman said. “All I can really focus on is making better pitches before that happens, you know? Strike a guy out. That’s kind of where I'm at. A lot of the bad stuff that happened tonight, I could've done things earlier in the AB to maybe keep that from happening.”

That’s fair — Gausman wasn’t undone purely by poor luck. His fastball velocity was down 1.5-m.p.h. from his season norm; his splitter was coming in a tick slower than average, too. The Red Sox stole a pair of bases off his high leg-kick delivery. He got beat on some fastballs up, like the full-count one Tommy Pham singled off of in the third. And he didn’t finish a few splitters, like the one Rafael Devers laced to right to plate Pham four pitches later.

But a .529 BABIP on the evening certainly contributed, just as it has all season. Rob Refsnyder began the fourth with a groundball single off the pitcher’s mound, then took off for second in an 0-2 count. Shortening up at the plate, McGuire chopped a changeup on the ground the opposite way, bouncing a dribbler into left field through the spot where a shifted Chapman, who raced to cover Refsnyder’s steal attempt at second, was standing a split-second prior.

That set up a Dalbec sacrifice fly that scored Refsnyder from third. And although Gausman grinded into his third trip through Boston’s order, getting the Blue Jays past the fifth in a tied game, it wasn’t a particularly difficult choice for interim manager John Schneider to lift him at 88 pitches. Gausman knew it, too. He emptied the tank in that fifth, throwing three of his four hardest pitches on the night.

“You know, batting average on balls in play is tough. He’s been unlucky,” Schneider said. “He was grinding a little bit today, I think. And a couple of soft hits and things like that, Reese putting the ball in play with the runner moving there, it kind of sums up his year a little bit.”

Gausman’s diminished velocity, meanwhile, needn’t be a concern unless it becomes a trend over multiple outings. He’s 24 starts into his season now. He’s battling through some things physically, as anyone in his position would be. But he’s given the Blue Jays 30.2 innings of 2.64-ERA ball this month and he’s still got another start to go. With or without his best fastball, Gausman’s found a way through it.

“Some days the velo just comes naturally for me. But it wasn’t as easy today. When I needed it, it was there. But it took a little extra to actually get there, for sure,” Gausman said. “I've definitely felt better than I do right now. But that's part of it. I’ll take my time between outings, maybe tweak some things, give my body a little break. And hopefully five days from now I feel a lot better.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays teed off on Kutter Crawford to the tune of four runs on 10 hits, which was just good enough to keep pace with what the Red Sox got off Gausman. And the clubs traded runs in the sixth thanks to a Danny Jansen solo shot and a Jarren Duran double that plated Dalbec, who reached on a two-out Bo Bichette throwing error.

The fabric of space and time came to an abrupt halt right about there, as the Blue Jays and Red Sox took turns burning scoring opportunities in a seventh inning that began on your sixth birthday and an eighth that finished during your college graduation.

Bo Bichette reached second with one out in the top of the ninth but was stranded. The Red Sox loaded the bases with none out in the bottom of the ninth against Jordan Romano but Franchy Cordero struck out and Kike Hernandez grounded into a double-play against a drawn-in, five-man infield.

But the Blue Jays were able to scratch zombie runner Cavan Biggio across in the top of the 10th with a couple groundballs off John Schreiber. Schreiber put a contact play on for the second one with George Springer at the plate and Biggio executed a perfect slide just under the tag of Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. That set up Romano, back out for a second inning and pushing his pitch count up to 28, to retire the side in order in the bottom half and finish things off.

The Blue Jays certainly had their chances to end the game much earlier than that, putting runners on in every inning but the second. And yet, they went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 13 on base. One of those nights. Not often you come away from them with a win. And not often you come away from a seven-game road trip through Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park with a 6-1 record.

“It was an unbelievable job by the bullpen. Offence came through. Cavan with the contact play at third, doing it correctly and having a fantastic slide at home. Everyone literally contributing today. That was a really good game,” Schneider said. “It’s awesome. There's not a whole lot of runway left in the season. So, to go into New York and [Boston] and win both series and sweep [the Red Sox] in a tough environment, it says a lot about our guys.”

And Gausman’s night said a lot about his year. These things are tricky to measure, but there can’t be a pitcher who’s been as unlucky as him, can there? Sure, his strange season hasn’t all been factors out of his control. His velocity’s fluctuated. He appeared to be tipping at one point. But when he’s been on, he’s really been on. His peripherals are spectacular; the nastiness of his stuff’s apparent. A 3.15 ERA doesn’t happen by accident.

Neither does a 2.01 FIP. And how good does Gausman’s season look if there isn’t that run-wide gap between them? What if some of those shift-beaters he’s fallen victim to aren’t hit the opposite way? What if the Blue Jays play sounder defence behind him? What if a double play is completed here and a ball doesn’t skip off the bag there? What if some of those flares fell grass-blades foul rather than centimetres fair?

Who’s to say. It’s a well-worn baseball saw that a pitcher has no control over what happens once the ball leaves their hand. At least that’s what pitchers tell themselves to blunt the dreadful and persistent adversity the game so often throws at them. And at this point, Gausman’s probably tired of hearing it.

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