Kevin Gausman didn't make his spring debut until March 12 and threw just eight innings against other teams, but there was never any concern about his status, not after the way teammates and manager Gabe Kapler raved about the way Gausman looked when pitchers and catchers reported back in February.
After Gausman's first live BP session, Kapler smiled and said, he "is just kind of looking like he knows how good he is, and that's a really good thing for us."
The Giants are betting big on Gausman living up to preseason hype. They gave him an $18.9 million qualifying offer in November to keep him around, and last week Kapler named Gausman his opening day starter. With that designation often comes the label of "ace," although it's not one the 30-year-old is fixated on.
Gausman said he just wanted to be in the first three in the rotation and noted he hopes every pitcher feels like he's the ace on his start day. Asked about any big goals for his first 162-game season with the Giants, he said he simply wants to stay healthy and pitch deep into games, but in answering the question, he did hit on one responsibility of the ace.
"Be the stopper on the night when the bullpen needs a break," he said. "Be one of those guys that kind of can give them relief every once in a while."
Gausman knows how important that is, because not long ago he was on the other side. He made 14 relief appearances and just one start for the Reds down the stretch in 2019, but the Giants saw enough to sign him that offseason, hoping he could be their most successful reclamation pitching project yet. The early returns are very positive.
Gausman had a 3.62 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 3.09 FIP last season. He struck out a career-best 11.9 batters per nine innings and ranked in the 85th percentile in whiffs. Gausman's fastball velocity ticked up. His splitter became one of the best pitches in the game; the opposition hit just .097 against it. In just about every respect, Gausman was the poster boy for what Andrew Bailey, Brian Bannister and the rest of the coaches and analytics staff are trying to do with veteran players.
"When players take big steps forward like Kevin has, they deserve all of the credit," Kapler said. "That said, I think that we've helped him develop a foundation to make meaningful mechanical adjustments and to hone his game plan, and there's no question that we stress that even veteran players with long track records of success have more in the tank. We want to be raising the bar and not considering any player a finished product."
The Giants knew the qualifying offer might represent an overpay in some eyes, but they were hoping to get a draft pick if Gausman departed, and they were more than comfortable with Gausman returning because the front office and staff feels there's another step to take.
Gausman has talked to the coaches this spring about areas of the strike zone where he can be better, but a lot of this will be just getting more comfortable being himself. He said that was the biggest difference once he got to San Francisco.
"I think more than anything they've just kinda helped me to be my own guy and not necessarily try to fit in this mold that a lot of pitchers are in right now, which is sinker-slider guys or high-spin-rate guys, or guys who have really, really good sliders," he said. "I've just kinda never been one of those guys. I struggled early in my career just trying to be one of those guys, and I think it made me get away from doing the things I do well."
The Giants are hopeful for another level, and they need it. The rotation is the main area where they simply don't come close to matching the top of the division. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Trevor Bauer, and the Padres line up behind Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Dinelson Lamet. Some scouts would tell you both those rotations have others they would prefer to the Giants' starters. The Giants need Gausman to match those pitchers when their teams come to town.
"He's a very important pitcher for us," said backup catcher Curt Casali, who worked with Gausman in Cincinnati. "But you wouldn't know it by talking to him."
Casali described Gausman as "one of the quietest aces I've been around," but then added that the key point was that he could comfortably call Gausman an ace.
"That's a testament to how hard he has worked," he said. "He got around the right people and put it back on track."
Gausman had some down times before joining the Giants, but he's been near these heights before. He had a good year in 2016, earning his only previous opening day start the next spring. Kapler waited a while this spring to make the second one official, but there was never any doubt about who would lead the staff.
"Obviously it's a huge honor to be able to get the ball for the first game," Gausman said. "Our conversation was pretty one-sided. He was like, 'Hey, we want you to start opening day.' I was like, 'Alright, great, that sounds great to me.' But yeah, it's a super-humbling moment. I'm definitely fired up for April 1."