Both Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray are pretty big names compared to the value they’ve provided to their respective teams so far, and for very different reasons. Gausman has made headlines since his draft year, with a high 90s heater that runs more than Forest Gump. Ray was notable when the Tigers traded away Doug Fister, as he was one of the prospects that came back to Detroit from the Nationals. He was somewhat heavily criticized, and mostly unfairly, as it wasn’t his fault that the Tigers made a poor return on Fister, with him as the headliner.
Regardless, both have been vaulted up sleeper ranking lists for the past few years, and with both of their 2016 performances it looks like a real breakout for each might be just on the horizon at last.
Starting with Gausman, his tale has been a winding one, bedazzled with success in the minors and marred with struggles at the major league level. He made his debut just one season after being drafted fourth overall at LSU, but was bounced up and down due to some ineffectiveness as well as some more general growing pains. But this last year saw him begin to really start to put his pieces together, lasting 179.2 innings with a very good 3.61 ERA and 3.77 xFIP.
He got there by posting his career best strikeout percentage (23.9%) since his debut, but what was different about this strikeout rate was how well he began to control and command the strike zone. His walk rate was just 6.2%, and because of his zone profile he was able to get guys to chase 34.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone, much better than league average.
He didn’t have a huge change in his arsenal, but he did change it up a little. He’s throwing less fastballs (down from 69% to 66%) and more sliders (from 10% to 13%). While not the biggest change in the world, by throwing more off-speed he’s been able to get hitters guessing more often, as noted by the chase rate. This has helped drive the chase rates, which in turn bring in the strikeouts. This explains how he’s been able to increase his strikeouts while cutting on walks, and hence just had the best season of his career.
Some people might get scared off because Gausman plays in such a hitter friendly park, and he’s very prone to homers. But his HR/FB rate is way too high to maintain, and will regress down closer to 11% (since OPACY plays so friendly for long balls). You’ll always have to worry about pitchers with homer problems on the Orioles, but the ones around Gausman are overblown, and he’s heading towards the breakout year we’ve been waiting for.
Robbie Ray, as noted above, is about as famous as Gausman for a lot less. Even with his 2014 stint with the Tigers, Ray posted an ERA over 8.00 in just 24 innings, making his value from the Fister trade essentially negative. But since being sent out West and down South, Ray has been pretty darn good, even if the topical numbers don’t quite show it yet.
His 3.52 ERA and 3.53 FIP in 2015 were more than solid for a guy in his first full year in a pretty extreme hitters park. His strikeout and walk numbers both ran about league average, so it seemed that with some projection he would be a high end number three or perhaps even a good number two. But last season saw his ERA rocket up to 4.90 which has some fans worried and jumping ship already. But when we look deeper, Ray improved his strikeouts incredibly, to 28.2%. He did all this while maintaining a close to average walk rate, an impressive feat for the 25-year-old.
He started throwing a lot more sinkers, 16% to 9% previously, but this wouldn’t appear to help his strikeout rates since sinkers are thrown to contact to induce grounders. Instead, what they did was get strikes early in the count, where hitters didn’t want to ground out, and this allowed him to use his curve later on to get the whiffs. He had similar luck to Gausman in regards to fly balls being hit for homers, and again his rates were too high to be sustainable over the long-term. His xFIP, which is normalized for this, was a stellar 3.45, even better than his 2015 campaign. He is making real improvements and is on the cusp of being one of the better strikeout pitchers in the league, and simply one of the best, if his luck can come back around.
Both Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman have faced their share of hype and criticism over their roller coaster careers. But both are still mid 20s and have worlds of talent, both have the strikeouts and control necessary to become top pitchers, and this season looks for both to be the one where they make that next step.
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