Blue Jays’ Gausman must adjust physically and mentally to MLB’s pitch countdown

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Kevin Gausman understands that umpires will be watching his pitching motion closely this year. As part of the pitch clock’s implementation, Major League Baseball intends to enforce its oft overlooked rule on coming to a full stop before delivering the ball, a necessity for the timing operator to know when to stop the 15-second countdown between pitches. The way the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander toe-taps into his delivery, a sort of rocking from the stretch before his front leg lifts, is a no-no that won’t be tolerated.

“This isn’t a new rule thing – this is something that’s been on the books forever,” explained Joe Martinez, Major League Baseball’s vice-president, on-field strategy. “When there are runners on base, the pitcher has to come to a full stop. That little bit of rhythmic movement when he’s coming set, that’s OK, no problem there. But he has to come to a full and noticeable stop, both his upper and lower body, before he picks up his leg to deliver the pitch. 

“No other adjustment required. Just make sure he comes to a full stop.”

Sounds simple enough, but over the next six weeks Gausman must undo years upon years of muscle memory to rework his triggers on the mound.

On Wednesday, manager John Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker spoke to the right-hander about what’s ahead but during Thursday’s side session, he threw as he always does, reluctant to “first day try to change everything all of a sudden.”

The adjustments will begin his next time up on a mound, he said, taking away something “I do naturally” and rarely thought about consciously.

“It’s probably more of a mental thing, getting over it, knowing that you can’t use that a crutch,” said Gausman. “That’s obviously now what I’m trying to do, but it’s going to be a little weird, you know? It’ll be different. Like anything, you do something long enough, you just develop weird habits of doing things. But now that it’s a rule, I definitely need to kind of re-evaluate.”

A preview of what lay ahead may have come last September, when umpire Jeff Nelson called him for a balk, only the fourth of his career, suggesting the decision had been premeditated.

Over the winter, MLB officials spoke to the clubs of pitchers with deliveries that could end up in violation of the new rules. Think Luis Garcia of the Houston Astros and his rocking the baby. New York Yankees lefty Nestor Cortes and his funky leg moves are right on the line.

The goal was to establish a standard and to stick with it.

“All we want is consistency,” said Gausman. “If you’re going to call something, call it. Like if you’re going to have a big zone, have a big zone, but keep the zone big. If you have a small zone, same thing. We have to be able to make adjustments based on that. Hopefully this is kind of like a hard line and then hopefully there’s no like discrepancy between whether I stopped or didn’t stop. If I do the same thing every time, they can’t really say that.”

Gausman’s acclimation process, it goes without saying, is essential to the Blue Jays and their aspirations in 2023. As co-ace with Alek Manoah of a powerhouse rotation also set to include Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and likely Yusei Kikuchi out of the gate with Mitch White experiencing a minor shoulder impingement in January, he’ll be counted on to deliver dominance similar to that he provided last season.

Riding his vicious splitter/power fastball combo, Gausman produced 5.7 fWAR, posting a 3.35 ERA over 174.2 innings. That he underperformed his FIP of 2.38 and had a career-high batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, of .363 was a subject of much consternation last season, suggesting he was far better than his already good numbers indicated, although there wasn’t a clear path to changing that.

“There’ve been a lot of people working a lot of hours trying to figure out exactly why that was,” said Schneider.

“You wish you could just put your finger on it and say, OK, with this pitch, this ball is going to go here,” he added. “A lot of it is projecting where the ball is going to go based on swing path and based on pitch action. With a unique pitch like (the splitter), it’s tough to really predict. When you’re looking at how hitters started to approach him, if they were trying to lay off that split down, which made them a little bit late on his heater, there were things like that to take into consideration. It’s really hard to really quantify how a mis-hit ball is going to go to someone in the infield. That part of it was tough.”

In the latter parts of last season, the Blue Jays began shifting less behind him and this year, of course, they’ll have to keep two infielders on either side of second base.

“I don’t want to say (the defensive alignment) is going to be traditional, like, hey, we’re just going to play straight up – you have to pay attention to tendencies,” said Schneider. “But having a year of data under our belt with him and watching him and watching how the league adjusted to him is going to be beneficial for us. So it’s a non-stop process. It’s kind of evolving over the year. And it’s the uniqueness of that actual pitch which makes it tough to pinpoint.”

Gausman will continue to primarily feature the fastball/slider combo but suggested he may mix in his slider a bit more often, early in counts as well. That will be among the adjustments he has to make, although the primary one will be ensuring his delivery is compliant.

“They just don’t want to confuse the guy that’s in the press box whose job it is to decide when the pitcher actually started their delivery,” said Gausman. “Obviously the more that you tap, it’s great for (holding) baserunners, they don’t know when you’re going to go either. So I get it. I get why they change the rule. It just sucks when you’re one of the guys that’s on the list, right?” They’ll definitely be watching me a little bit closer than normal.”

Spring training gives him some time to get used to it.


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