Why the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman may be baseball’s unluckiest pitcher

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

That’s a top 25 among qualified MLB starters. He also has a strikeout rate of 23.8% minus walking – a very high statistical value of Gausman’s Blue Jays – which ranks sixth behind a row of absolute studs of Shane McClanahan, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Aaron Nola and Corbin Burnes.

But where Gausman beats all these guys – all baseball guys, for that matter – is FIP. Similar to independent pitching, a stat that measures a pitcher’s performance using results detached from the defense played behind him. Think strikeouts, walks, batters, home runs. Gausman’s FIP is 2.01, almost a quarter less than second place Rodon. And they’re the only two qualified pitchers below 2.54.

So, an ERA of 3.15 versus an FIP of 2.01 – a difference of more than one run. Only two other pitchers who have pitched at least 100 innings this season — a sample of 94 — have a bigger gap. Patrick Corbin, whose ERA is 6.81 and FIP is 5.01. And Lucas Giolito, who swings a 5.14 and a 4.08. None of them are even close to Gausman’s league.

How can this happen? Well, you knock out a ton of batters (Gausman has a top-10 strikeout rate at 27.7%). You don’t walk much (Gausman’s 3.9% walk rate ranks in the 96th percentile of MLB). You minimize home runs (Gausman only coughed 7 of his 134.1 innings pitched). And you’re absurdly unlucky on live balls (Gausman’s .373 batting average on live balls is the best among qualified MLB starters, nearly 40 points ahead of second-place JT Brubaker and exceeding the MLB average of .289).

This is the story of Gausman’s season. Periods of brilliance interspersed with periods of incredibly poor fortune.

“Yeah, not bad. Unfortunately,” Gausman said when asked if his season was defined by bad luck. “It’s ugly to say that. But a lot of ground balls went through and were hit. Lots of weak contact led to the guys reaching base. I always base my outings on the contact I get. So it’s hard on nights like tonight.

It’s hard to watch Xander Bogaerts beat a full heater straight into the dirt in front of home plate at 78.7 mph and fire just one. A ground ball hit with a -50 degree launch angle is a pretty good indication of a badly missing batter against a bad dipping pitch. But that extreme angle also robbed the ball of all speed behind it as it rolled slowly toward Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman, who had no outout hopes early on.

It’s tough when, four pitches later, Gausman threw a brilliantly sited splitter that broke off the end of Christian Arroyo’s at-bat at 65.2 mph and floated into center field. The ball was hit so softly it rolled to a near dead stop 119 feet from home as Bogaerts raced to third. Two pitches later, Arroyo slipped to second with just the sixth stolen base of his six-year career as Danny Jansen blocked his transfer behind the plate.

It’s hard to see a Reese McGuire rocket – exit speed: 86.9mph – falling just out of reach of Teoscar Hernandez on the right, tackling Bogaerts. It’s hard that a Bobby Dalbec ground ball single against the substitution scored Arroyo. Two runs and the hardest hit ball in the set was Dalbec’s at 91.2 mph. Stuff like that doesn’t just happen to Gausman. But it happens a lot to Gausman.

“I try to focus on the contact I get. But obviously you want the results and the smooth touch. You just feel like you’re not getting beat. They don’t necessarily earn it. And they are, it’s always a success. But there have been a lot of ground balls that seem to end up in the outfield,” Gausman said. “All I can really focus on is making better pitches before that happens, you know? Hit a guy. That’s kind of where I’m at. A lot of bad things that happened tonight, I could have done things earlier in AB to maybe prevent that from happening.

That’s right – Gausman wasn’t called off just out of bad luck. His fastball speed was down 1.5 mph from his season standard; its splitter was also coming slower than average. The Red Sox stole a pair of bases on his high kick. He got beat on a few fastballs, like the full count one Tommy Pham picked in the third. And he didn’t complete a few splitters, like the one Rafael Devers laced on the right to tackle Pham four lengths later.

But a BABIP .529 on the night certainly helped, as it has all season. Rob Refsnyder started the fourth with a ground ball single from the pitcher’s mound, then took second in an 0-2 count. Shortening to the plate, McGuire cut a ground change in the opposite direction, bouncing a dribbler into left field through where a staggered Chapman, who ran to cover Refsnyder’s steal attempt at second, got held a fraction of a second before.

That set up a sacrificial fly from Dalbec that tagged Refsnyder from third. And although Gausman began his third trip thanks to Boston’s order, lifting the Blue Jays to fifth in a draw, it wasn’t a particularly difficult choice for interim manager John Schneider to lift him to 88 throws. 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 was unlucky,” Schneider said. “It was creaking a bit today, I think. And a few soft jabs and things like that, Reese putting the ball in play with the runner moving over there, kinda sums up his year.

Gausman’s speed decrease, meanwhile, need not be cause for concern unless it becomes a trend over multiple outings. He has 24 starts in his season now. He physically struggles against certain things, as would anyone in his position. But he gave the Blue Jays 30.2 2.64-ERA innings on the ball this month and he still has another start to go. With or without his best fastball, Gausman found a way out.

“Some days the bike comes naturally to me. But it wasn’t as easy today. When I needed it, it was there. But it took a bit more to get there, of course,” said Gausman said “I feel so much better than now. But that’s part of it. I’m going to take my time between rides, maybe tweak some things, give my body a little break. And hopefully in five days , I will feel much better.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays started 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 from Gausman. And the clubs traded points in the sixth thanks to a solo shot from Danny Jansen and a brace from Jarren Duran that tackled Dalbec, who reached on a two-out Bo Bichette throwing error.

The web of space and time came to an abrupt halt at this point, as the Blue Jays and Red Sox took turns chasing scoring opportunities in a seventh inning that began on the day of your sixth birthday and an eighth one that ended when you graduated from university.

Bo Bichette reached second with one out in the top of the ninth but was blocked. The Red Sox charged with no outs in the bottom of the ninth against Jordan Romano, but Franchy Cordero hit and Kike Hernandez went on a double play against a five-man infield.

But the Blue Jays were able to strike out zombie runner Cavan Biggio in the top of the 10th with a few ground balls from John Schreiber. Schreiber made a contact play for second with George Springer at the plate and Biggio executed a perfect slide just under the tag of Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. That allowed Romano to come back for a second inning and push his pitch count up to 28, to retire the team in order in the bottom half and finish things off.

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

“It was incredible work from the bullpen. The offense is over. Cavan with the contact play at third, doing it right and having a fantastic slide home. Literally everyone contributes to it today. It was a very good match,” Schneider said. ” It’s awesome. There are not many tracks left in the season. So go to New York and [Boston] and win both the streak and the sweep [the Red Sox] in a tough environment, that says a lot about our guys.

And Gausman’s night speaks volumes about his year. These things are hard to measure, but there can’t be a pitcher who’s been as unlucky as him, can there? Of course, his odd season wasn’t all factors beyond his control. Its velocity fluctuated. He seemed to tip at one point. But when he left, he really left. Its peripherals are spectacular; the wickedness of his affairs is evident. A 3.15 ERA doesn’t happen by accident.

Neither does a 2.01 FIP. And what does Gausman’s season look like if there isn’t that race-wide gap between them? What if some of those quarterback batters he fell victim to weren’t hit in the opposite direction? What if the Blue Jays played a stronger defense behind him? What happens if a double play is completed here and a ball does not jump out of the bag there? What if some of those rockets fell like blades of grass rather than inches?

Who to say. It’s a well-worn baseball saw that a pitcher has no control over what happens once the ball leaves his hand. Or so pitchers tell themselves to mitigate the appalling and lingering adversity the game throws at them so often. And at this point, Gausman is probably tired of hearing it.

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