Why a Kevin Gausman breakthrough is likely on the way

We've been hearing about Kevin Gausman's potential for a while. Is this the year when he finally delivers? Getty Images

One good outing, one bad. Combined, a 6.89 ERA, a 1.67 WHIP and a miserable No. 144 ranking among starting pitchers on the Player Rater.

Kevin Gausman's inauspicious start to the 2018 season understandably has placed him among the most dropped pitchers during the past week, at least among those selected among the top 200 picks in fantasy baseball drafts. It has also cast doubt upon his value as anything more than a second-half pitcher, bringing to mind memories of his career first-half 4.94 ERA/1.47 WHIP or even-worse 6.20/1.64 April numbers.

Still, it's far too soon and far too minuscule a sample size from which to judge Gausman, and in fact, I think it's a prime time to strengthen your investment by either adding him in the more than 10 percent of leagues in which he has been dropped or potentially trading for him if his manager is growing impatient -- especially if his Wednesday outing again results in less-than-stellar numbers in the primary rotisserie categories. I'll preface the discussion, though, by admitting to my having backed the right-hander as a strong fantasy pick countless times.

Let's not bury the bad, because it's important: Gausman's average four-seam fastball velocity has been down in his two starts, and by a significant amount at that. He has averaged 92.6 mph with the pitch after posting a 94.9 mph number in 2017, and only showed minimal improvement in his second start (92.9 mph) compared to his first (92.3). While some pitchers experience diminished velocity in the season's opening weeks -- be it from working up to full strength, cooler temperatures, the dreaded "dead arm" phase or something else -- Gausman has shown no such tendency in his career, having averaged 95.1 mph with his four-seamer in eight career April starts entering this year. This is the area of greatest concern for the right-hander and what most bears watching on Wednesday (as well as in subsequent starts).

Now the good: Gausman continues to show the increased level of reliance upon both his split-finger fastball and slider that he did during his strong 2017 second half, throwing the former 23 percent and latter 20 percent of the time (23 and 13 percent during the second half of last season). The splitter also remains his go-to pitch with two strikes, thrown 41 percent of the time in those counts (33 percent in the 2017 second half). These fuel his strikeout potential, key to his fantasy value, and both show similarly good swinging-strike rates to his 2017 second-half numbers.

More important, Gausman appears to be maintaining two key adjustments that fueled his late-last-season breakthrough, those being his stance on the pitching rubber as well as his squaring his shoulders more through his delivery, something that might put his past shoulder issues behind him. While Gausman previously had stood more centered on the rubber, he shifted much further toward first base near the end of June/beginning of July last season, and lo and behold, he posted seven wins, 11 quality starts, a 3.49 ERA and 27.1 percent strikeout rate in 17 starts the rest of the way. The move helped shift Gausman's release point, which seems to have shifted even more dramatically in his two starts this season, something you can see on pitch-tracking sites like Brooks Baseball.

What would help, of course, would be his getting ahead in the count early more often. Gausman's 49 percent first-pitch strike rate ranks just 121st out of 131 pitchers with at least two starts, and he has always hovered either at or beneath the league average in the category in his career. That's one trait that, with improvement, would signal an imminent breakthrough.

Putting it all together, Gausman seems to be a pitcher merely in the midst of adjustments, the results of which should be what propels him into the top 40 fantasy starting pitchers. He's one of the more critical hurlers to track over the next few weeks, but barring a downturn in his skills or continued mediocre velocity, he's a pitcher I'm willing to trust to fully rebound over the course of a full season.