This time last year you could see my photo on the Robert Gsellman bandwagon and heck, it’s possible the picture was taken from near the driver’s seat. Seemingly from out of nowhere he came up and got the pitcher’s dream combination of strikeouts and ground balls and made improvement in his walk rate, too. After the Mets struck gold with Jacob deGrom coming up and exceeding all expectations, it looked like we were ready to see lightning strike again with Gsellman.
Instead, Gsellman was unimpressive early, suffered an injury, spent time in the minors and mouthed off to his boss. Perhaps the only thing missing in his fall from grace last year was a Page Six scandal. But Gsellman apologized for his remarks and at the end of the season put up his best pitching of the year. After returning to the majors in mid-August, Gsellman made eight starts and in those 43.2 IP he recorded a 3.50 ERA and a 1.305 WHIP. While those numbers weren’t nearly as good as he put up in his MLB debut in 2016, they were significantly better than what he did earlier in the year and give hope that not all is lost for him going forward.
It’s good to have hope; sometimes that’s all you’ve got. While Gsellman’s results in those final 43.2 IP were encouraging, he had an ugly 16 BB/25 Ks ratio. Over a longer haul there’s simply no way you can survive with a 5.2 K/9 without a ton of luck. He had done better previously in 2017 with a 6.8 K/9 before August but that was still well beneath his 8.5 K/9 mark in 2016.
In addition to seeing his strikeout rate collapse, Gsellman also saw his strand rate tank while his HR rate ballooned. Overall, he performed slightly worse than his peripherals but it’s not like anyone should find solace in a 4.89 FIP and a 4.79 xFIP. So, what happened to him?
Gsellman saw a drop in velocity last year, he missed fewer bats and too many ABs seemed like the batter knew what pitch was coming. Gselllman still got a good number of grounders, as his 49.3 GB% was the highest mark on the staff among pitchers with at least 50 IP. But he was hurt by the poor infield defense not converting enough of those balls into outs and when batters elevated the ball, it was downright ugly.
In 2016, opposing batters had just a .369 OPS when they hit a fly ball against Gsellman. Last year that number jumped to a .934 mark, with 19 of the 22 hits going for extra-bases, including 14 HR. Regardless of which side of the plate opponents batted from, they were able to pull the ball with great success against Gsellman in 2017. RHB posted an .896 OPS when they pulled him and LHB had a .415 AVG and an .887 SLG mark when they hit the ball to right field.
So, how can Gsellman improve his results? Perhaps the new pitching brain duo of Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland can make some adjustments. Because batters apparently were sitting on his fastball, Gsellman had by far the best results when he threw his change. The problem was that he only threw it around 10 percent of the time. In Cleveland we saw Corey Kluber embrace his slider and Josh Tomlin ramp up the usage of his cutter. Could Callaway have Gsellman turn more to his change? Here’s a nice one he threw against the Pirates in early June.
Maybe it was higher than you’d prefer but it was moving away from the lefty, so even if he did make contact, he wasn’t likely to pull it and do the damage that haunted Gsellman in 2017. The FanGraphs Leaderboards show that Jason Vargas threw the highest percentage of change-ups last year, with a 32.7 rate. Vargas made the All-Star team last year with the Royals and won a career-high 18 games. Furthermore, the Leaderboards also show that two of the top three most effective changeups last year belonged to Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, both who worked under Callaway.
If Gsellman remains on the Mets, it seems likely that he will operate out of the bullpen, at least in the beginning of the year. If he doesn’t have to pace himself, Gsellman might recapture the velocity he displayed in 2016. More velocity and more change-ups might be just what the doctor ordered for a return to being an effective pitcher.
While relievers are taking on more importance, it will be hard for Gsellman to have the same impact in 2018 out of the bullpen as we hoped he would last year in the rotation. But an effective reliever would be head and shoulders above what Gsellman gave the Mets last year. It may not be what we anticipated a year ago but it would still be a good result for a 13th-round draft pick.