Sometimes pitchers blossom late like this ex-Oriole did

It was on July 31, 2018 when the Atlanta Braves acquired right-hander Kevin Gausman from the Orioles in a six-player deadline-beating trade that also brought the Orioles international bonus money. The faltering Birds were headed into full-on rebuild mode and their top pick from 2012 (No. 4 overall in that draft) was heading out the door.

Just over a year later - on Aug. 5, 2019 - the Braves waived Gausman after he had gone 3-7 with a 6.19 ERA that year. He was 28 and his career was trending in the wrong direction. The pitcher that had failed as an Oriole to develop a dependable third pitch was still in that same boat.

But fast-forward to today and Gausman is about to cash in as a free agent for the third time. Of course, the first time he became a free agent was via being non-tendered. The Cincinnati Reds picked him up from Atlanta on waivers in late 2019 and he had pitched much better with the Reds that year than with Atlanta, although it was mostly out of the bullpen. He went 0-2 but with a 4.03 ERA and 11.7 strikeout rate. Still, with a projected arbitration price tag of $10.6 million, the Reds non-tendered him.

Some clubs felt he may have saved his career by pitching well out of the bullpen and saw him as a late-inning, multi-inning weapon. The San Francisco Giants saw him and saw more. They still saw a starting pitcher. They signed him to a one-year deal for $9 million (which was quite surprising to many at that time) and he went 3-3 with a 3.62 ERA and 1.106 WHIP in 12 games during the shortened 2020 season.

The Giants saw enough to want him back. Boy, did they. Gausman accepted their qualifying offer of $18.9 million for the 2021 season and then delivered big for the majors' winningest team, a club that went 107-55 to take the National League West ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Gausman went 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA in 33 starts with a WHIP of 1.042. He made his first All-Star team and no doubt will get plenty of Cy Young votes. Over a span of about 18 months, he was traded, waived, traded and non-tendered. Now add thriving to that list.

Now he is considered one of the best starters on one of the best teams.

How did this happen?

Thumbnail image for Gausman-Orange-Toronto-Sidebar.jpgWith the Orioles between 2013-18, he went 39-51 with an ERA of 4.22 and a WHIP of 1.350. His ERA+ of 100 was exactly league average over his 150 games in the Orioles' orange and black. But in the Giants' orange and black, his ERA+ is 138 in 45 games. Now there is talk of the Giants pushing hard to keep Gausman and sign him as a free agent for the third time, this time to a multi-year deal.

No doubt he is very open to that since he blossomed with that team.

Whether it is the experience he has gained over many years that finally kicked in, whether he just clicks with the Giants coaches, he pitches well with a good team behind him or he found the right pitch mix, or a combo of all of the above, Gausman has never been better.

Sometimes players do take flight and/or break out later.

He is the ace the Orioles hoped they drafted, just not for them. Or at least he pitched like an ace in 2021. Can he do it again? The Giants seem to think so and want to see him do it in their uniform. But now he's going to cash in more than he ever has, and this is a pitcher that has earned $27.9 million over the last two years.

Gausman's best year with the Orioles was in 2016, when he had a 3.61 ERA in 30 starts. That year, he threw his fastball 66 percent of the time and used his splitter 17 percent and slider 13 percent.

Now he has almost scrapped the slider he never really could develop. In '21, he used his fastball 53 percent, his splitter 37 percent and his slider just 5.6 percent.

Gausman now uses his splitter to get ahead of hitters and also to put them away. Many pitchers break out the pitch only as a putaway. Gausman has used it this year as a get-me-over or get-ahead pitch. He throws it both to land within the strike zone and also throws it to get strike-to-ball chase by the hitters.

There are probably many reasons Gausman has finally delivered like the No. 4 overall pick he was. But basically giving up on his slider and going all-in heavy on the split has to be near the top of the list.

All of this is yet another example that some pitchers just blossom later. Sometimes years later. Sometimes several teams later. Sometimes a few trades and waiver deals later. Raise your hand if you saw the Gausman that pitched all those games in Baltimore producing numbers like he did in the '21 season? My hand is down, by the way.

How does this relate to the Orioles?

In an obvious way, that he once was an Oriole. But in another way to serve as a reminder that pitchers (and even position players) can blossom later in their careers. Former O's skipper Buck Showalter talked about those players who produced their best years between 28 and 32. Gausman is proving to be one such player.

He's made pretty big money the last two years and now even more is about to come his way.

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