Gausman’s mastery of splitter reminds Gibbons of Sutter

*Watch Stu Stone’s full interview with John Gibbons for the former Toronto Blue Jays manager’s weekly “Talking Points” feature, sponsored by Bodog Canada, by clicking on the video above.

May 6, 2022

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

It’s a much different Kevin Gausman pitching in the American League East these days than the one John Gibbons remembers.

The former Blue Jays manager, who served as Toronto’s bench boss for a second term from 2013 to 2018, recalls Gausman as a first-round pick with an electric fastball, but also as a young pitcher who had a middling 4.22 ERA in parts of six seasons as a starter with the Baltimore Orioles.

“He had a great arm, but he was kind of a mystery,” Gibbons told Stu Stone during his weekly Talking Points interview sponsored by Bodog Canada. “It was like, ‘How does this guy keep getting hit?’ You always keep in the back of your mind that he was young and he was learning and he didn’t have that off-speed pitch, that split.”

The off-speed pitch or split that Gibbons is referring to is Gausman’s devastating splitter – a weapon that took him several seasons to perfect and propelled him to a sixth-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting with the San Francisco Giants in 2021.

That pitch is a major reason the Blue Jays were comfortable signing the 31-year-old, now in his 10th major league season, to a five-year, $110-million contract in December.

And that pitch has been the key to Gausman’s outstanding early season performance with the Blue Jays. Heading into his start on Saturday, Gausman owns a 2.27 ERA in 31 2/3 innings. Remarkably, in his five starts with the Blue Jays, he has 41 strikeouts and has not walked a single batter.

“He always had the good fastball, but if there’s nothing to complement your fastball, they can turn it around,” Gibbons told Stone. “If all you’re going to throw is heaters, these guys turn that around, so you got to have something to go with it and it looks like he has finally figured that out.”

To be fair, the former Blue Jays skipper added, Gausman didn’t have it easy early in his career competing in what’s widely regarded as the toughest division in the majors.

“He was a young kid in the American League East where all of the thumpers are, where all of the best hitting ballparks in baseball are, they’re all small band boxes, so that works against him, too, and you get your butt kicked around enough, you lose that confidence,” Gibbons told Stone.

Gausman’s mastery of the splitter several years into his career reminds Gibbons of legendary closer Bruce Sutter. Sutter was a nondescript pitcher with an average fastball in his third season in the Chicago Cubs’ system when minor league pitching instructor Fred Martin showed him the split finger grip that would transform him into a superstar closer.

“He [Sutter] was also on his way out of the game and he learned the split finger fastball and that’s all he threw and he rode that all the way to the Hall of Fame,” Gibbons told Stone.

So what’s it like to try to hit a good split finger fastball?

“Hitting is all recognizing pitches and you see [it as a] fastball all the way and then boom, it just tumbles out of the way,” explained Gibbons.

As important as the movement on that pitch, however, is Gausman’s confidence on the mound, says Gibbons.

“He mastered some things, but he finally started believing ‘Hey, I can do this,’” said Gibbons of Gausman.

“He’s turned into probably what Baltimore figured he was when they took him in the first round [in 2012].”

Tulowitzki was most important addition in 2015

Gibbons also revealed in his conversation with Stone that in his mind, the addition of Troy Tulowitzki was the key to the club’s success in 2015.

Yes, left-hander David Price was outstanding after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers on July 30 that season, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts for the Blue Jays. But Gibbons believes that Tulowitzki’s defence at shortstop after they landed him from the Rockies was the most important reason the Blue Jays went 43-18 down the stretch to secure their first division title since 1993.

“Our defence was horrendous and that’s what was killing us,” recalled Gibbons of the 2015 Blue Jays who had a 50-51 record on July 28, the day they acquired Tulowitzki.

Gibbons said Tulowitzki was a major upgrade at shortstop.

“Tulowitzki, I thought was the key because [Jose] Reyes, God bless him, couldn’t move anymore and balls would trickle through and we had more balls rolling through our infield . . . and now we had to get extra outs. And Tulowitzki came in and cleaned that right up.”

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