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Logan Gilbert is learning some new tricks

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The talk around Seattle’s first-round draft choice in 2018 has centered on his velocity, but Logan Gilbert is much more than just a big fastball

this is the only picture of Logan Gilbert I have, but it kind of works, and also, PUPPY.

Logan Gilbert’s career is moving quickly now, but that wasn’t the case less than a year ago. For five or six weeks, “I had absolutely no energy,” he says. Diagnosed with a case of full-blown mono that he had been incubating while still pitching for Stetson, Gilbert couldn’t even summon the energy to watch television or read. “I just lay on the living room floor. It was awful.” When he was finally well enough to resume some activity, he had to have surgery to remove a bone spur under his toenail. Mariners Director of Player Development Andy McKay sent over a stack of books, and for the next few weeks Logan alternated reading with Netflix to pass the time, stuck in his Florida home while his fellow draftees got their first tastes of pro ball. It was a frustrating start to his career, but the Mariners were more than happy to be patient with their first-round draft choice, someone who they saw as a perfect fit for the organization in both talent and makeup.

Gilbert, who majored in business analytics at Stetson, was quick to catch on with the Mariners’ analytical bent. “Logan knows how to embrace the analytical side of the game while at the same time knowing how to manage all that info without it being overwhelming,” says West Virginia pitching coach Alon Leichman. Gilbert notes that the biggest change in starting his professional career has been the amount of data he’s able to access, from Trackman to pitch shapes, but is quick to praise his coaches for helping him interpret that data and personalize the data to each player’s needs. He also appreciates the Mariners’ commitment to developing players beyond their skills on the field.

“The biggest thing I’m picking up on here is there are a lot of other things that go into making a good player and teammate, and if you want to have a long career, those are the things that will get you there and keep you there. So I think the relationships they focus on, the character side, those things have stood out to me early on as things that will help you as a player and as a person.”

The start to Logan Gilbert’s professional career may have been delayed, but when he finally debuted for the A-level West Virginia Power this April, the numbers showed why the Mariners were so excited to snag Gilbert with the 14th pick in last year’s draft: 30 strikeouts to just five walks over his 19.2 innings for the Power, allowing only four earned runs on nine hits. It was clearly only a matter of time before he’d be moved up to High-A Modesto to join fellow advanced college player, 2018 draftee, and batterymate Cal Raleigh, and last week the Mariners decided that time was now, shipping the 6’6” righty off to California, where he made his first start this past Thursday.

A glance at Gilbert’s line from that game shows a passable performance from a player with under 20 professional innings to his name debuting at High-A: 4.1 IP, with three earned runs on five hits, two walks; seven strikeouts bump that performance from “passable” to “pretty good.” What the line doesn’t show is how Gilbert got to those seven strikeouts, and how hard he had to work to reverse course on a debut that was headed in decidedly the wrong direction. In Gilbert’s first two innings, he allowed three runs on four hits, and walked more batters (two) than he struck out—anathema for a player who prides himself on commanding the zone and not handing out free passes. But Gilbert pushed past his struggles to finish strong: in his final 2.1 innings, he allowed just one hit and no runs, didn’t walk a batter, and struck out six. Part of this is due to Gilbert’s competitive nature. The other part is another piece that doesn’t show up in his final line: the pitching coaches he’s worked with over his time as a Mariner.

Alon Leichman, West Virginia’s pitching coach, is someone who knows high-pressure situations: born to American-born parents in Kibbutz Gezer, home to one of the few regulation baseball fields in Israel, Leichman played for Team Israel in the European Baseball Championship in 2010, 2012, and 2016, and acted as bullpen coach for Team Israel in the WBC in 2017. In 2010, Leichman led his team to an IAB Premiere League Championship with a seven-inning performance where he allowed just one run (unearned), walked three, and struck out fifteen batters. After the performance, Leichman told AF Sports that while he leaned heavily on a curve over the early innings, “it faded, so I came in with a change-up in the final innings.” The change also helped Leichman dominate as a JUCO pitcher at Cypress College in California. “Changeups are close to my heart,” he says. It’s a pitch Leichman knows well, and so it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that when Gilbert found himself struggling against the more advanced Cal League batters, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out some new tricks, including a shiny new changeup.

When Gilbert was drafted, the excitement around him was primarily tied to his big fastball, reportedly 92-95 and even touching as high as 97. In the Sally League, Gilbert was able to use his fastball—up at 97 in his first outing for the Power—to mow down batters.

And while he did work in his slider and changeup at times, his curve was his main secondary pitch, with the fastball-curve combo proving plenty effective in racking up the Ks:

Pretend the weird camera angle is an artistic interpretation of how overwhelmed Sally League batters were by Gilbert

Of his secondary pitches, Gilbert’s curve is probably the one talked about the most, with FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel going so far as to call it one of the best curves in the draft class. Several scouts who went to see Gilbert at Stetson remarked on how fastball-heavy he was as a Hatter, seemingly bemoaning the lack of opportunity to see Gilbert’s secondary pitches, and so the reports vary widely, with some calling the curve the best secondary, some the changeup, and a few the slider. With the long layoff between draft day and Gilbert making his professional debut, it’s time to update the scouting report on Gilbert’s secondaries. In difficulty lies opportunity, and Gilbert’s initial scuffle in the Cal League offers a great opportunity to examine his secondary pitches.

In the first inning, Gilbert quickly realized that he was dealing with a different class of batter in the California League. “I was throwing some chase breaking ball pitches that I thought were a little more tempting than the batters obviously did,” he says dryly. “So that’s when I knew I had to make an adjustment pretty quick.” Gilbert was able to throw his fastball for strikes high in the zone at times, but his fastball has so much natural movement that it was moving right on up out of the zone. With his fastball command imperfect and the Lancaster batters eager to punish any mistakes over the middle of the plate, Gilbert had to get “creative” on the mound. Luckily, despite his strong bent towards the analytics, Gilbert also considers himself a creative person; one of his hobbies is playing the ukulele (currently the instrument is “stuck in West Virginia with the rest of my stuff,” he says mournfully). A less mature pitcher might have doubled down on his best weapon, but instead Gilbert painted with his entire palette of pitches.

He did use his curve, which looked nasty when he was able to land it in the zone. (This one might have had a little framing help from catcher Nick Thurman—a strong defensive catcher, but not one Gilbert has worked with extensively.) Gilbert’s curve is a traditional 12-6 which he throws with a spike grip. When the pitch is off it can bounce up to the plate, as it did at times this spring as Gilbert was shaking off some rust, but when it’s on, it has a nasty, late bite combined with the movement Gilbert is able to get on all his pitches:

MiLB TV

The curveball command wasn’t reliable enough for Gilbert to lean too heavily on it, though, as he missed with it off the plate, so Gilbert reached a little deeper into his bag and produced a changeup that got swings like this:

bend the knee

Let’s compare that with the changeup from even just a month ago:

It’s a little tricky to see because the camera angle in Lexington is legitimately bananas but this changeup has more straightforward downhill plane compared to the late diving action in the first image. Both produce swings-and-misses, but the Modesto changeup is far superior in movement and has the potential to fool more advanced batters. Staff writer Matthew Roberson pointed out the similarity between the late movement on Gilbert’s changeup and Steven Strasburg’s:

Gilbert confirmed that he’s been working on the shapes of his breaking balls in Spring Training, with Leichman and also, even earlier, with Modesto pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr. Gilbert and Marcello Jr. have been working together for quite a while, actually, even before Marcello Jr. was hired on with the Mariners, at his facility. In Gilbert’s debut, Marcello Jr. made a mound visit in the second inning, after Gilbert had given up an RBI single with two outs. Gilbert would strike the next batter out, and then proceed to dominate the JetHawks for the next two innings. I’m not sure what Marcello Jr. said to Gilbert, but I hope it was “throw more changeups” because:

the Involuntary Tebow. You hate to see it (I love to see it.)

Gilbert didn’t use his slider very much, but this one was a doozy, producing yet another ugly swing from Lancaster’s Taylor Snyder:

MiLB

Gilbert says the slider is the pitch he’s focusing on the hardest right now; he’s hoping to develop some more horizontal movement on it to further distinguish it from the changeup. You can see the break on the pitch is currently more similar to the vertical break of the change, with late horizontal movement. The next step may be tightening the movement to differentiate it further from the curveball’s significant 12-6 drop. That will be a pitch to watch as Gilbert continues to refine his arsenal as he climbs the ladder. The slider is also the pitch he says he likes throwing the most right now, so he can track its progress.

Gilbert’s ability to bounce back after a rough second inning in his Cal League debut can be traced back to the first professional inning he ever pitched: in a big-league spring training game in front of a sellout crowd against Cleveland. Gilbert was tagged for five runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning against a squad consisting of half big-leaguers and half upper-minors players. It could feel like an ominous start to a career, but while he’s disappointed in his performance, Gilbert frames the experience as a learning opportunity. “It’s eye-opening, because you think you see who the best hitter is, and then you get to the next level, and every guy is that guy and more, and then you see the guys who can really play, and those are the guys you really want to go up against. So it gave me a little bit of that motivation, to see, okay, this is what it’s going to take, and then I get to see in a couple years—hoping I make all those adjustments that I need to—where I’m at.”

Logan Gilbert’s development is one of the most exciting things to track in the system right now, and he’s right there tracking it alongside us. Gilbert has an analyst’s mind, a competitor’s heart, and the talent to make those two things a powerful combination for years to come.