Austin Gomber was put in an uncomfortable position after coming over to the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies had just traded franchise icon Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals and the 28-year-old southpaw was the only Major League-ready player. So, there was inevitably going to be added pressure by the home fans for Gomber to succeed and somewhat ease the pain of losing the team’s former star. And “Major League-ready” was a bit of a misnomer, as Gomber had only thrown 104 innings with the Cardinals — not a ton of experience. Then add that he was now calling Coors Field home and the path to immediate success was murky, at best.
Expectedly, Gomber struggled to a 6.65 ERA and walked 19 batters in 23 April innings. That included a disastrous start in San Francisco to close out the month, in which the left-hander gave up an obscene nine runs while not even getting out of the second inning. Two starts later, Gomber found himself in St. Louis, where he had yet another poor start, giving up five earned runs in as many innings — a game where the aforementioned Arenado collected a pair of hits in a Cardinals win.
But since that point, Gomber has been in a groove, pitching to a sparkling 1.28 ERA across 42.1 innings, while only walking three men during that span. This includes a dominating performance on Tuesday, shutting out the San Diego Padres at Coors across eight innings — something that we should actually not be too surprised with. In five starts at home, Gomber has a superb 0.95 ERA and 0.81 WHIP across 28.1 IP. On the road, the southpaw has faltered to a 5.06 ERA and 1.19 WHIP across 48 IP.
That leaves us with two different types of splits to investigate — where he’s pitching and his successes related to particular time frames. There shouldn’t necessarily be an expectation of overlap between the two given the uniqueness of Colorado’s altitude, but it’s worth examining how Gomber has turned his season around and see if there is one.
Firstly, we look at how Gomber’s used his pitches at home and on the road.
We see that Gomber has used his pitches in the zone more often at home than on the road, a surprising development given how the ball flies at Coors. You would think a pitcher would be much more tentative pitching in such a hitter-friendly environment since any sort of mistake would likely result in an extra-base hit. Additionally, we can see how Gomber’s breaking pitches — slider and knuckle-curve — are far more lethal swing and miss offerings on the road than at home, playing into the long-standing effects of the altitude on breaking pitches. But what’s more important is how often he’s using his arsenal, where he’s really broken out the changeup in his home starts, while favoring his breaking pitches in away starts.
While Gomber’s changeup is straight, unlike the tumbling action you’d see from a Luis Castillo or Stephen Strasburg offering, it still offers a great change in speeds, with roughly 9 MPH of separation between the changeup and his four-seamer. With a similar trajectory to his low-spin fastball, that speed differential is likely a huge reason why Gomber’s offspeed pitch has a whopping 17.1% SwStr overall this season, including 19.1% SwStr at home, which leads us to our second split.
After his dominant outing a few days ago, Gomber mentioned how his poor start against St. Louis on May 7 marked a changing point for him — pun unintended.
“Up until St. Louis, I really hadn’t been me — pitch how I pitch, attack how I attack,” Gomber said. “That’s partially the catchers not knowing me and me not doing a good enough job explaining what I do. It came to a head in St. Louis. I had really good stuff and should have done better than what I did.
“I felt like I was pitching to a scouting report and not to my strengths.”
Part of that game plan was using the changeup more often.
Note: May 12 is the first start Gomber had after his outing in St. Louis.
Not only has the usage increased, but the number of swings outside the strike zone and the swinging-strike rate that the changeup generates have grown exponentially, all while decreasing the pitch’s zone rate. Considering that Gomber is now using the pitch 27% of the time in two-strike counts in his most recent run of starts compared to just over 6% before, the unexpected jump in numbers can be justified.
By using the changeup more often, Gomber has become more unpredictable and subsequently has improved his results. Yet, he has done more than just be unpredictable; the southpaw is also getting ahead of hitters more often. But of late, Gomber’s changed his repertoire on the first pitch of at-bats, throwing fewer fastballs.
In addition to floating over more changeups, the 28-year-old is resorting to a trick he’s used often during his career.
Armed with a knuckle-curveball that displays nearly 5” more vertical drop than the average, Gomber is throwing those breakers in the top shadow of the zone — not common amongst his peers, but certainly a strategy he’s used before.
Not getting swing and misses on these types of pitches is fine, especially given the swing rate isn’t high either. That’s because for his hammer knuckle curves to reach the top of the zone, the pitch must start incredibly high, making the hitter give up on it. This allows Gomber to steal strikes early in counts or even behind in the count since this is not a pitch a hitter is ever looking for or is not prepared for — even when they are looking for it — since Gomber’s pitch is a unicorn relative to the rest of the league.
Maximizing his skillset has allowed Gomber to get ahead often with minimal risk and put away hitters effectively, leading to a dominant string of starts. And, while that is the case, there still is room for improvement.
If you haven’t watched it already, take a look at our own Nick Pollack break down the sixth inning of Gomber’s start on Tuesday. For our purposes, we’ll focus on Trent Grisham’s at-bat.
Grisham is a left-handed bat, someone that a southpaw like Gomber should have no trouble with. And if you just looked at wOBA figures for his career, he has performed better against lefties (.287 wOBA/.337 xwOBA) than righties (.300 wOBA/.315 xwOBA). This is no different than this season (.235 wOBA/.298 xwOBA v LHB; .277 wOBA/.285 xwOBA v RHB). But if you look at his expected figures, you’ll notice that he’s performed to the contrary, for his career and this season. This at-bat is probably the best representation of Gomber’s approach against same-sided hitters.
In the grueling nine-pitch affair, Gomber starts off with a high knuckle curve — it’s a little too high, however, we know that the location wasn’t a mistake but rather by design. Then he throws three consecutive sliders in a row down and away, the latter two ending in foul balls. This means that Grisham is starting to gather the timing of the slider, so it would be a good time to go to a new pitch. Gomber obliges, throwing a same-sided changeup — far out of his comfort zone — and missed in the dirt. The southpaw has thrown only 2.7% changeups to left-handed batters this season, after not throwing any a year ago. But this didn’t stop Gomber from using it earlier in the game to strike out Eric Hosmer in the second inning.
However, given his prior usage of the pitch and how poorly located that particular pitch was, it was highly unlikely to be thrown again and Grisham could eliminate it from his thought process. Gomber eventually won the battle by getting San Diego’s center fielder to ground out on a misplaced slider. Even though Gomber could have followed up the high fastballs he threw for the seventh and eighth pitch of the at-bat with knuckle curves, the breaker does not generate a ton of whiffs and that’s not what you necessarily want when in a two-strike count. Having that changeup be more prominent in at-bats against same-sided hitters like Grisham will allow the southpaw to further mess with the hitter’s timing by giving him two pitches — slider and changeup — to tunnel off the heater.
With just over 180 innings under his belt at the big league level, Gomber is slowly but surely finding his footing by doing things his own way. It’s easy to point to drastic home/road splits or the recent hot stretch and disregard legitimate changes Colorado’s new standout has made. He’s throwing more knuckle curves at the top of the zone than ever before for called strikes. He’s now throwing fewer fastballs in favor of his slider and his straight changeup. Gomber has found himself by utilizing his pitches his way — and that’s how he’s placed himself on an upward trajectory.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)