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Kevin Gausman to Blue Jays - Fantasy Baseball Impact Analysis

The Toronto Blue Jays scored the third-most runs in Major League Baseball in 2021 while leading the league in home runs by a huge margin. Despite the clear successes on offense and finishing 20 games above the .500 mark, the Jays missed the playoffs after landing fourth in their division.

The main reason this team fell short of the postseason was the strength of the American League East. Four teams in the division won more than 90 games, with the Rays eclipsing a 100-win season. The secondary reason was the starting pitching staff, which just could not do enough to quiet the brutal offenses they faced for most of the season. The Blue Jays' team ERA finished at 3.91, which placed 10th-best in the league. That's a pretty impressive number given the tough schedule those pitchers faced, but if there was any place for improvement on this team, it was the pitching staff.

Toronto took an aggressive step to improve their starting pitching staff by inking Kevin Gausman to a five-year deal worth $110 million. In this post, we'll quickly review Gausman's 2021 season and then talk in some depth about the fantasy implications of his move north of the border.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Gausman's Career Year

Everything went right for Gausman in his first (and last) full season with the Giants. He made 33 starts (an impressive feat in itself) and posted a 2.81 ERA. That strong ERA was backed by a very strong 29% strikeout rate and an elite 6.5% walk rate. Opponents hit just .208 against him, resulting in one of the league's best WHIP marks of 1.04. Only eight pitchers in the league that made 25 or more starts posted a better ERA than Gausman, and only nine bested him in WHIP. He was a top-10 starter in the league any way you slice it.

The recipe for Gausman's success was fastball location and a devastating splitter.

Anything clearing a 30% CSW% is a great result, and you see Gausman getting there on three of his four offerings. It's not an overpowering fastball, but averaging 95 miles per hour is more than enough when you can spot it the way Gausman did. He got ahead with that pitch, mixed in some slow and breaking stuff, and really wiped hitters out with the splitter that posted one of the best swinging-strike rates in the league at 24.8%.

So we're looking at a guy that will be 31 years old (a perfectly fine age considering today's starting pitching landscape) on Opening Day coming off of a 33 start year with sparkling numbers that are backed up by a great strikeout-to-walk ratio. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Strength of Schedule Impact

I took an in-depth, and I might even say unmatched, look at 2021 strength of schedule for pitchers earlier this offseason. You can find that analysis here. I'll share again the division summaries in terms of strength of schedule for each division's pitchers.

You can see that the NL West tied for the easiest schedules faced. That division had two and a half really good offenses (the Dodgers, Giants, and Rockies in Coors), a pretty middling unit (Padres), and then 1.5 truly awful offensive teams (Diamondbacks and Rockies on the road). Since Gausman was a Giant, he didn't face the Giants, making it a pretty good division to pitch in. Here is how Gausman's innings broke down by opponent faced.

A total of 49 innings against the Padres and Dodgers is no walk-in-the-park, but you can see how many innings he ran up against some pretty anemic offenses. He threw more than 62 innings against the likes of the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Rockies, and Pirates. Getting to face those teams in 2021 was a huge boon to his statistics, and Gausman took advantage allowing just 18 earned runs in those 62.1 innings (a 2.60 ERA). To his credit, he fared just fine against the Dodgers (3.21 ERA in 14 innings) and Padres (3.09 ERA in 35 innings) as well, so this isn't a guy who got to his strong line just by exploiting weaker competition.

Getting back to the strength of schedule table, you can see that Gausman will move into what was the toughest division to pitch in last year. The average hitter that an AL East pitcher faced had a slugging percentage of .422 in 2021, far ahead of the .408 a pitcher would face in the NL West.

To get a better idea of what a Blue Jays pitcher will have to face over 162 games, let's look at the opponent breakdown for Robbie Ray last year, who spent the entire year in a Toronto uniform and threw 193.1 innings with the team.


Ray's schedule was probably harder than you'd expect, with 39 innings against the Rays and only 16 against the Orioles (you would expect these numbers to be pretty similar as they are both division opponents), but you can really see the gauntlet that these Blue Jays pitchers can be put through. The Rays did not score an overwhelming number of runs, but they are a tough team to pitch against. Then you have the Red Sox and Yankees near the top there, and those offenses are just loaded with elite hitting.

All of this is not to specifically mention the DH. Gausman made just three of his 33 starts in American League parks, meaning 91% of the time he avoided the DH. In Robbie Ray's case, he faced a lineup with a DH in it 94% of the time (making just two starts in NL parks). That doesn't make a massive difference over the long haul, but it's not insignificant either.

 

Ballpark Impact

Rogers Centre has long been one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the league. They did not play a full season there in 2021, with COVID issues forcing the Blue Jays to play the early months of the season in Florida and New York, but when all was said and done the run-factor for the Rogers Centre came in at 1.131 (courtesy of ESPN's park factors). That means that the park led to a 13% increase in runs over expectation (and this does control for the skill of the hitters that actually played in those games). The ballpark Gausman is leaving, AT&T Park, came in around the middle of the pack at 0.975, which means a 2.5% decrease in run expectation over expectation.

This is not the polar shift it would have been even a few years ago (they moved the AT&T Park fences in prior to 2021), but it is certainly a downgrade in terms of the ballpark for Gausman.

The main way this will hurt Gausman is with the home run ball. Here's a visualization that shows each ballpark's home run rate on barreled balls. In case you are unaware, a "barrel" is a classification of a batted ball that occurs when a ball is hit at or near the optimal combination in launch speed and angle. League-wide, right around 50% of barreled balls went over the fence for a home run, but here's the breakdown for each ballpark (note that I used only games in Rogers Centre for the Blue Jays)

A barreled ball had a 53.7% chance to go over the fence in Rogers Centre, while the number was lower at 46.9% in San Francisco. Again, we aren't dealing with an extreme value for either park, but there is little doubt that Toronto will be a tougher place to pitch in for Gausman in the coming years.

Gausman is not a ground-ball pitcher either (he's been under 42% on his ground-ball rate the last three seasons with a career-high mark of just 46% in 2017), making him more susceptible to dangers of this park shift.

 

Conclusion

There are two main points here, I'll summarize them each individually.

  1. Gausman is coming off of a career year at age 31. I believe this alone to be a pretty good reason to be lower than the field on him for 2022. Being 31 is not a big hindrance in today's league, and top of the SP power ranks is just chock-full of guys well into their 30s, but the fact that Gausman's best year came this late in his career does make the repeatability tougher to believe in. You are going to pay a premium price for a guy, and maybe it will work out, but more often than not the buy-high on a veteran is a negative-EV move.
  2. This is a negative move for his fantasy stock. We have to wait and see how the rest of free agency plays out, but there is nothing to show that the AL East won't be the toughest division to pitch in again in 2021. It hurts even more that Gausman is exiting one of the easiest divisions to pitch in as well. He will face a much, much tougher collection of offenses in 2022 than he did in 2021, which is another legitimate reason to downgrade him.

The field gets sharper and sharper every year, so maybe we won't see as big of a jump in Gausman's ADP now that this signing has taken place. It is never advisable to decide on a full fade of a player before you know their ADP with confidence. That said, at this point in the offseason, the smart money should be on letting someone else take their chances with Gausman.



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