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Logan Gilbert needs to find an old friend in the curveball

Gilbert’s curveball was a constant companion throughout the minors. Where has it gone?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Seattle Mariners
now imagine him with his good curveball. truly terrifying.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Having covered Logan Gilbert since he was drafted—from the wonky camera angles in the Sally League, to fixed-camera Modesto, to Arkansas, where the camera lens is seemingly constantly coated in coagulated bacon grease—including talking to or about him for interviews, I feel like there probably isn’t a pitching prospect in the system I’m more familiar with. I tracked Gilbert’s development of his changeup from Modesto to Arkansas, a pitch that was one of the last he added to his repertoire, and examined how he dropped a few MPH on his fastball in order to exact more command over its late movement.

It’s been exciting to watch Gilbert, the pitcher I knew from the minors, morph into Logan Gilbert the major-leaguer (when Bill Krueger confidently asserted on a ROOT broadcast that Gilbert didn’t have a changeup I about swallowed my tongue; he’s since walked that back). But there was always one constant in his pitch arsenal in the minors that’s been curiously absent in the bigs: his curveball.

First of all, let’s talk about what Gilbert’s curve—anointed by Kiley McDaniel as one of the best in his draft class—was in the minors. Even better, let’s show rather than tell.

When he’s really commanding his pitches, Gilbert rides his fastball high in the zone, while painting his slider and changeup on the lower edges. Then he also gives hitters another wrinkle with this curve, which looks like it’s going to be that high fastball sailing out of the zone before dropping in at the last second, causing batters to swing late...

...or give up on the pitch entirely.

Again and again in the minors, we saw batters failing to time up Gilbert’s curve, whether because they were sitting fastball or just not prepared for its late drop, producing swing-and-misses like this:

Or this:

Watch the batters’ feet in both of those clips; you can see them trying to time up the pitch, and each time, failing to do so.

Even Yadier Molina is an admirer of Gilbert’s curve:

In the minors, the curve was Gilbert’s most reliable secondary pitch as he continued to work on shaping his slider to have the kind of late tilt you see today and develop his changeup, which at the time was the least MLB-ready of all his pitches. But so far in his big-league career, he’s only throwing the curve about 10% of the time, with the slider being his more favored secondary pitch. He’s also recently started working in the changeup more often, too; in his last outing, in 100 pitches he threw the change 10 times and the curve just five, although so far he throws the changeup exclusively to lefties.

If you search MLB’s Film Room site for Gilbert’s curve, you’ll get a bunch of results that are actually his slider (hint: if the velocity starts with an 8-, it’s not his curve). Here’s one I found:

Another I found was a bad miss that looks like it just slipped out of his hand, and here’s just a little get-me-over curve to steal a strike on Reyes:

This is all fine for now as a change-of-pace to keep hitters off-balance, but it’s not yet the weapon-grade pitch it was in the minors. When Gilbert’s curve is really on it has that late hook and drop; what we’re seeing so far is a curve that’s staying up more in the zone (-2.2 inches of vertical drop compared to league average) and that doesn’t seem to be deceiving hitters, as Jake Reppert pointed out in his excellent FanPost about Gilbert the other day.

Jake points to Gilbert’s release point as a problem, sitting well above his other pitches, which is something he’ll need to address mechanically in order to make the curveball into the weapon it was in the minors. But I don’t think a pitch that was once hailed as one of the best in the class, that has consistently been a weapon in the minors, is something he’ll let fall by the wayside entirely. One thing that has been consistent for Gilbert over his minor-league tenure is his relentless drive and ability to improve. The development of his changeup is probably the best example of that; that pitch had the longest path to go to become an MLB-quality pitch, and is notoriously difficult to master (how many times have we heard “so-and-so is working on a changeup” in spring training?). Through hard work and without facing game competition, Gilbert wrangled that pitch at the alternate site into something workable, and he’s continuing to learn on the job. I wouldn’t bet against him doing the same with a pitch that has already been successful for him at a different level, whether we see him complete that journey this season or next. Still, it’s thrilling to watch Gilbert continue to develop as a pitcher right before our very eyes, and I’m excited to see what trick he masters next.