Pitching prospect Kevin Gausman made his major league debut for the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night, and things didn't quite go as planned for the Birds on a number of fronts. Though the most pressing concern for last year's Team of Destiny is their bullpen, whose fall back to Earth has just about reached terminal velocity, Gausman had a rather rough evening as well: four earned runs allowed across only five innings pitched, allowing seven hits (including a home run) and two walks while striking out five. This certainly isn't the end of the world; it's not even much of a referendum on whether or not Gausman's ready for this level. But there are some warning signs that he might still have some work to do in the minors before taking this big a step up.
Gausman was selected by the Orioles in the first round of last year's amateur draft and is the first player from that first round to make it to the big leagues. He's the third man up in total -- Paco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Dodgers became the first player from the 2012 draft to make the majors last year, and Michael Roth of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim became the second when the Angels' bullpen situation spun so completely out of control that his presence became necessary.
What all three of these men have in common is that they're college pitchers -- Rodriguez was drafted out of the University of Florida, Roth out of the University of South Carolina, and Gausman out of Louisiana State University -which isn't really all that surprising, as college pitchers (all college players, really) tend to be a bit older and have much more polish, and therefore are usually closer to ready for the major leagues than the average high school draftee or international free agent signing. In Rodriguez and Roth's case, they're also a bit more disposable -- organizations don't really have to worry about "ruining" your run-of-the-mill college reliever by promoting him too quickly. What you see with those guys is usually what you get.
That's less true with starting pitchers that come out of the college ranks, since in the major leagues it's very difficult to get by as a starter with the sort of breaking pitches that cut the mustard in even NCAA Division I-A play. Gausman showed why that is pretty well last night. The four-seam fastball was there from the get-go and didn't fade over his five innings and 89 pitches, sitting 96-97 with movement and touching 99 on the high fastball he threw by Jose Bautista for his fourth strikeout; he can't live up there with any semblance of command, but he doesn't have to, and it's good to know he can reach back for that velocity if he needs to. He commanded the pitch decently at first, but started missing spots more and more as he worked in his changeup and a slider.
The change-up looked great all evening -- the bottom fell out of it so well that up in the MASN broadcast booth, Gary Thorne repeatedly called his change-up a breaking ball, and Pitch F/X agrees: if you look at his game log for last night, Gausman, who has been working with Orioles pitching coordinator Rick Peterson all year on a repertoire of three pitches -- fastball, change-up, slider -- looks to have added a curveball to his oeuvre. Those are actually change-ups. That's how much his change-up falls off, and the way that his change-up has developed this year is part of the reason scouts have been raving about Gausman's performance at AA Bowie. (It's worth noting that Gausman did fool around with a curveball in college, but he dropped it last year after entering the Orioles system to focus on developing his slider.)
Nasty as the pitch was -- he threw it 22 times, and only once did someone (Adam Lind) square it up well enough to make good contact -- it never quite ended up where Gausman wanted it to. The best example of this was Colby Rasmus's second at-bat of the night. In his first trip to the plate, Rasmus saw a fastball out of the zone, a change-up likewise, and then a 2-0 fastball over the plate he took for a ride into right field for a sharp single. Rasmus is a known fastball hitter, has been doing a whole lot of damage this year when seeing fastballs, and consequently teams have stopped throwing those to him when they can; the second time through the order, the Orioles tried to play off this. Rasmus saw eight pitches, six of them change-ups/"curves," and whiffed on two before realizing that Gausman wasn't able to throw the pitch for a strike. So he watched two more for balls, fouled one off that was probably out of the zone as well, fouled off a fastball, then took one last change-up for a ball and made his way to first base. Rasmus simply has not hit things other than fastballs with any degree of authority this year, and if you throw him junk around the strikezone he's more than willing to oblige you and swing through it -- but you have to command the pitch for that to work.
The good news is: it's one start. What's more, it's Gausman's major league debut -- there's all kinds of nerves and other things going on, outside of the baseball being played on the field, that shouldn't be an issue once he's had a few days to sit down with pitching coach Rick Adair and work through some things. So it's encouraging, to an extent; his arm is as advertised, and he showed off the kind of stuff that strikes out 49 batters while walking five down in Bowie.
Is he ready for the big leagues? It's too early to say. The Orioles seem to think so, and their aggressiveness with Manny Machado is working out well so far, gripes about his accelerated move to third base aside.
There's another parallel to Machado here as well: much like when they promoted him last year to take over third base late in the season, the Orioles don't need Gausman to be a super-star staff ace or number two just yet. For a guy with less than half a season of professional ball, mere competence is more than enough as he learns how the game moves at the highest level. I know Orioles fans are craving some of the Rookie of the Year attention for Gausman that they were denied due to the circumstances and timing of Machado's promotion, but even if he's "only" league-average the rest of the way, that still makes the hodge-podge Baltimore rotation much more solid and reliable than they were last week. The way they're hitting, the rotation doesn't have to be much more than that for the Orioles to make some noise in the American League East.
And with Gausman in the rotation now, maybe they'll be able to do something about that bullpen.