There's More To LSU's Gausman Than Gas
BATON ROUGE, La.—Even though Kevin Gausman was a veteran of the high-profile showcase circuit, his emergence as a true blue-chip pitching prospect in high school snuck up on him a bit, the way he tells it.
"I kind of thought I just threw hard and I didn't really have any other pitches all through high school," the lanky righthander said. "My senior year people were saying I could be a late first-round guy, and I was sitting there like, 'Wow, I have no other pitch.' I threw a fastball and a crappy slider, and I didn't even have a changeup."
Sure, Gausman entertained the notion of heading straight from high school in Colorado to pro ball in 2010, but for a variety of reasons it became clear to him that he should attend Louisiana State and take his chances with the draft as an eligible sophomore in two years.
It was the right decision. As a sophomore this spring, Gausman has blossomed into one of the nation's premier Friday starters, going 8-1, 2.95 with 112 strikeouts and 21 walks in 92 innings through 13 starts. And he is one of the leading contenders to be drafted No. 1 overall next month.
"When he first arrived here, he was really just a thrower," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "He's become a real ace, in every sense of the word."
Gausman did not dream of being LSU's ace growing up, but he did dream of pitching in the College World Series. The story goes that Gausman's great grandfather installed the lights at Rosenblatt Stadium in the days before the CWS was a multimillion-dollar extravaganza. His fee was modest, but he did ask for eight tickets to the College World Series—front row above the third-base dugout—in perpetuity.
So Gausman, whose family is from Nebraska, grew up going to CWS games. His father always told him if he worked hard enough, he could play on that field someday. Gausman remembers being struck by Rice's "huge, flame-throwing pitchers" in 2003.
"I always wanted to do that," he said. "My favorite pitcher growing up was Randy Johnson—I always wanted to be the righthanded Randy Johnson."
One of his favorite memories was watching former Texas closer Huston Street pitch in Omaha. Gausman was thrilled when Street wound up pitching for his hometown Rockies.
Gausman also received plenty of exposure to LSU during his trips to the CWS, but originally he wanted to go to school in the West, at Arizona State or Oregon or in California. But he accepted former LSU recruiting coordinator David Grewe's invitation to visit Baton Rouge, just to see what the South is like.
"I'd definitely seen LSU in Omaha and I knew all about them, but I didn't know if I wanted to go to school in Louisiana," he said. "Coming from Colorado where I'm used to waking up and snowboarding, to coming down here where there's not really much to do. But I took my visit here and fell in love with it.
"I thought it was a place I had the best chance of getting to Omaha."
The 6-foot-4 Gausman also played basketball in high school, and he decided against giving it up to focus on baseball during his senior year, because he knew he'd miss hoops when he was finished with it. That's another indication that he just wasn't yet ready to dive into pro ball.
And pro ball wasn't quite ready to dive into the deep end of the bonus pool with Gausman, either. The skinny righty did not work out at all in high school because he was afraid of getting hurt, so he lacked strength. During his senior year, his basketball team played deep into the season, reaching the final four, and Gausman made his season debut on the mound the day after his hoops team was eliminated. "I hadn't even picked up a ball yet," he said.
The weather was particularly poor in Colorado that spring, and Gausman's stuff wasn't as electric as it had been the previous summer. His modest performance and stuff, coupled with his strong interest in LSU, caused Gausman to slip to the Dodgers in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
When Gausman arrived in Baton Rouge, he said it took some time for him to decipher some of the Cajun accents he encountered, and for him to get the lay of the land in a place that was very foreign to him (he admits he thought a lake on campus was connected to the Gulf of Mexico). But he quickly felt at home, with help from some of LSU's passionate fans—like the woman the pitchers call the "K Lady," who gets the fans going when an LSU pitcher has two strikes on a hitter.
"When I first got here—she obviously takes a liking to the pitchers—she came up to me and said, 'So, I hear you strike out a lot of guys. You're going to hear a lot from me,' " Gausman said.
He heard from her plenty as a freshman, when he struck out 86 batters in 89 innings, but that season was very much a learning experience. A big part of his maturation process was learning to control his emotions and handle pressure situations. Gausman says he is an intense competitor and half-jokes that he thinks he set the record for most technical fouls in a season during his basketball days.
"I averaged like one a game—it was pretty bad," he said. "I get under people's skin pretty easily. That's something that's always just been in my blood."
Gausman has a gregarious personality and confesses to being a prankster (on occasion he'll blast roommates Raph Rhymes and JaCoby Jones with an air horn when they walk through the door, for instance). The local media and fans have latched on to Gausman's habit of eating four miniature powdered donuts after every inning he pitches—a superstition that Mainieri allows but doesn't exactly endorse.
"He's still got his idiosyncrasies," Mainieri said. "Listen, the looser he is before a game, the better he's going to pitch. He's not one of those kids who's going to get his game face on: 'Rrrrrr, I'm going to go get them.' He stays loose, flipping the ball to himself, he's smiling and talking before the game. So he's got some little quirks to his personality, but in a year, I think he has understood how to let all that stuff work for him, as opposed to being a distraction away from the important things."
Gausman has also learned how to channel his competitiveness to help him escape jams. Against Kentucky, Gausman twice escaped second-and-third situations by recording back-to-back strikeouts. The following week against Georgia, he allowed 10 hits (just two of them on hard-hit balls) but minimized damage and kept the game close so the Tigers could win it late.
"To me, that's how you judge a pitcher: When you don't have your 'A' game or when your back is to the wall, what are you going to do?" LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. "The stuff is the stuff. My 12-year-old daughter could come in here and say, 'My god, he looks like he's throwing harder than the other guy.' But what do you do in the games you don't have it and you've got to make those big pitches, how do you respond? That's what's excited me about watching him and seeing him becoming that type of guy."
And as Dunn put it, the stuff is the stuff. Gausman has a bazooka, regularly holding 94-96 mph fastball velocity deep into games and touching 97-98. His 85-86 changeup is a plus pitch that gets swing-and-misses against both lefties and righties. He mixes in a 90-91 mph one-seam sinker, using it to jam righthanded hitters or tail away from lefties.
The only question about Gausman's repertoire has been his breaking stuff. Gausman said his slider was "kind of terrible" during his freshman year. When Dunn was hired as LSU's pitching coach last summer after a long career as an instructor in pro ball, he looked at video of Gausman and determined it would be best to shelve the slider and focus on developing a curveball. He had some success with the new pitch for the first third of this spring, then Dunn reintroduced the slider. The first game he used it, against Arkansas on March 30, he struck out 12—most of them with the slider. His slider is short and hard at 84-87 mph, and he has taken to throwing it much more frequently than his 78-79 curveball, which he tends to use more as a get-me-over pitch early in counts.
"His bread and butter is still the fastball and the changeup, and we try to use those other pitchers according to the hitters and how the feel of it is that day," Dunn said. "But don't make any mistake: He's going to live and die with the fastball. You've got to command your fastball, and that's the thing he's been able to do this year, with movement as well as velocity."
Gausman isn't a finished product, but the LSU coaches rave about his aptitude and his increasing maturity. Just as the Tigers have reaped the benefits of landing a prospect of Gausman's caliber two years ago, Gausman has benefited from the college experience.
"I have to think the experiences he's had here at LSU and in the summer—pitching for Team USA and in the Cape a couple times—I have to think all that stuff has increased his confidence level and helped him mature as a person," Mainieri said. "He's ready for pro ball, that's what I'm saying. I'm glad he came to college, I think it was the best thing for him, I think he needed it, I really do. But I think now after two years, he's ready.
"I think the kid has a chance to be not just a major leaguer but a really good major leaguer."