ST. LOUIS – Kevin Gausman’s splitter is still nasty, as Canadian slugger Tyler O’Neill of the St. Louis Cardinals can attest.
The pitch also continues to generate the type of weird contact that contributed to the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander’s abnormally high .363 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a number that led the majors by a wide margin in 2022 and was well above the league average of .289.
That’s Nolan Gorman there, his body going one way, hands going another, squibbing a ball up the third-base line for a two-run single in the third inning that helped propel the Cardinals to a 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays on a crisp Saturday afternoon.
Gausman was once again felled by misfortune in this one, as he should have been out of that third the batter before Gorman, as Nolan Arenado sent a 97.7-m.p.h. grounder at third baseman Matt Chapman, who fielded the ball cleanly but bobbled the transfer, never got set and bounced an 82.9-m.p.h. throw that skipped past Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
That put runners on second and third with two out for Gorman, who showed that the randomness of BABIP isn’t done tormenting Gausman just yet.
“I base my outings on the type of contact I get – if a guy hits a ball 100 miles an hour off you, obviously they had a really good swing on it,” said Gausman. “There are going to be times, especially for me against a left-handed hitter like that, that’s going to happen, unfortunately, just because that’s the action of the pitch that I’m trying to get, that’s the outcome I’m trying to get, either soft contact or a swing and miss. It’s unfortunate when those things happen, but it goes back to trusting the process and knowing that if you stay there, you’re going to have more good luck than you are bad luck.”
Amplifying the frustration is that Gausman was otherwise sensational is stifling the Cardinals before a Busch Stadium crowd of 44,461 and that the Blue Jays couldn’t make Jack Flaherty pay for some early wildness.
He issued three two-out walks in the first before recovering to strike out Brandon Belt on a full-count fastball, allowed a walk and a hit batter to open the second and walked the first two hitters in the third, emerging unscathed each time.
That led to an extremely unusual pitching line for Flaherty, who walked seven and hit a batter but didn’t allow a hit in five shutout innings. The Blue Jays didn’t manage a hit until Kevin Kiermaier’s one-out single in the seventh and didn’t plate a run until the eighth, thanks to a Jordan Hicks wild pitch that cashed in a Guerrero leadoff walk.
Closer Ryan Helsley had to bail Hicks out of that jam and then finished things out in the ninth, working out of a first-and-third, one-out jam by striking out Guerrero and popping up Daulton Varsho.
“It’s weird, you’re sitting around, waiting, sitting around, waiting and need someone to get the hit. We just didn’t get it today,” said manager John Schneider. “But I thought the approach was good, carried over a little bit. Kind of extreme games, the first and the second, between 19 hits and just (three) today. If we can stick with that approach, that’s a good thing.”
Over the winter, the Blue Jays took several deep dives into Gausman’s BABIP woes, trying to identify ways to adapt their defensive alignments behind him this year. They began with heavy shifts a year ago, went more straight up later in the year, and factored in the infield shift ban this season in what Schneider conceded was still “an imperfect science,” especially with the splitter.
“It’s tough to predict where each ball is going to go based on the action on that pitch,” he continued. “Then you couple it with what hitters are trying to do with his fastball, too. So if they’re trying (to) wait on the split and see it up, they’re of course, naturally going to be a little bit late on his heater. So it’s taking all of those things and putting it in a blender and hopefully coming out with the right outcome. But it’s tough because it’s a very unique action on that pitch.”
The Gorman at-bat is the dilemma in a nutshell. Everything about his swing indicates a ball hit to the right side of the field. But the very end of the bat catches the ball, it rolls off at 65.6 m.p.h. with an expected batting average of .100 and ends up providing the difference in the game.
“When you have a pitch like that, because you can’t really control the movement, you get check-swings and you get balls off the end of the bat,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “You get funny, funny things that happen. That’s inevitable with that pitch. He’s an interesting bird because it doesn’t affect him. Obviously he wants to win, No. 1 priority, but he makes his pitch, he trusts his stuff and whatever happens, happens, so to speak.”
Schneider also praised Gausman’s ability to shake off bad luck – “Watching him deal with that last year was phenomenal,” he said – which is what he did again Saturday. He struck out O’Neill to end that third, worked around a two-out single in the fourth, had a clean fifth and then was helped by a clever 5-4-2 double play (in which Cavan Biggio made a good throw home to get Gorman at the plate) for another zero in the sixth.
Beyond a couple of times when the first pitch of an inning snuck up on him a bit, Gausman didn’t have much issue with the pitch clock or with the tweak he had to make to the rocking motion he used to have in his delivery. More of an impact came from the end of infield shifting, which he said led to “two hits today that have been outs the last five years of my career.”
“The book is still out on that. We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Gausman, who before starts works with field co-ordinator Gil Kim on how to best play behind him. “And there’s never just a perfect way to play defence behind me because sometimes things are going to happen.”
Helping him along was judicious use of his slider, which catcher Danny Jansen said is “sharper,” with “more control of it,” inducing three whiffs in four swings on seven pitches. In his back pocket, Gausman also has a new “sweeper that is more horizontal,” said Jansen, but he didn’t need it against the Cardinals.
What he could have used is a little more luck in turning weak contact into outs behind him, something that was often elusive last year, and prove so again in his first time out in 2023.