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Rookie Monsters: Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic lead Mariners to series win over Kansas City

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Northwest Green jerseys work their magic once again, Mariners win 7-1

Seattle Mariners v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Logan Gilbert and Jackson Kowar were both taken in the first 35 picks of the 2018 MLB Draft. Gilbert was taken 14th overall by the Mariners, although it could be argued Kowar, taken 33rd (a compensation pick for Lorenzo Cain) actually had more name recognition, having been teammates at Florida with Brady Singer, the Royals’ first-round pick (18th overall). Singer had the most name recognition of the three, having been talked about as a potential top-5 overall pick with top-of-the-rotation upside. Gilbert and Kowar, on the other hand, were seen more as mid-rotation starters, and while scouts liked Gilbert’s fastball, they noted his velocity had fallen off, and, even though Stetson has produced names like Kluber and deGrom, he didn’t have the pedigree of pitching for a powerhouse SEC school like Florida.

Three years later, it’s clear why the Mariners bypassed both Florida pitchers to take Gilbert, a pitcher who perfectly suits the Mariners’ style of player development. While his rookie campaign has had its ups and downs, today Gilbert demonstrated what the Mariners saw in the lanky, ukelele-playing, Harry Potter-loving kid from Apopka, FL: a pitcher who can comfortably sit in the upper-90s deep into games with a rich arsenal of secondary pitches; and beyond that, a cerebral competitor who understands how to sequence his pitches and make adjustments on the fly, with the ability to execute pitches when he needs them the most. A bout with mono and a foot surgery in his draft year might have somewhat slowed Gilbert’s ascension to the bigs, causing him to debut in 2021 instead of 2020, as Brady Singer did, but since he’s been here he has arguably shown better stuff than Singer if not enjoyed better results, striking out more batters and walking far fewer—almost half as many—in twice as many innings in his debut year. Gilbert was already well on his way to shedding the “mid-rotation starter” label through his first pro year in 2019, but the pandemic limited his ability to blast that ill-fitting moniker into outer space for good with a dominant 2020 season, and now he’s been forced to prove he belongs at the top of a rotation in the crucible of the big leagues. With outings like today’s, Gilbert showed not only why the Mariners placed so much faith in him, but also a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of pitcher he can be once he gains more experience at this level.

The 2021 Royals aren’t a good team, exactly, but Gilbert struggled with them in his last outing against Kansas City, giving up four runs and lasting just five innings. It was the last game of a lousy three-outings stretch at the end of August that saw Gilbert surrender 19 runs in 13 innings to Toronto, Houston, and then the Royals. In September, however, Gilbert has bounced back, allowing just five runs over his past four starts, with 23 strikeouts—one fewer than he had for the entire month of August—and just three walks, half of what he had in August.

Today’s victory over the Royals, the same team that gave him fits in August, showcased what Gilbert looks like when he is at the top of his game: a fastball that easily sits 95-96 but can push up to 98 with pinpoint location, and a full arsenal of secondary pitches that keep batters guessing about what he’ll throw next. As opposed to using his fastball heavily in the first and then mixing in the secondaries, as we saw earlier in the season, Gilbert started out today mixing his pitches, throwing a curveball for his second pitch of the game, and seven total breaking balls to 12 fastballs in the first inning, ending with a strikeout of Salvador Perez, who was caught wrong-footed when Gilbert threw him a slider up in the zone in a 2-2 count.

The slider was Gilbert’s strikeout pitch today, accounting for four of his five strikeouts, but today wasn’t as much about racking up the strikeouts as it has been for Gilbert in the past. Instead, he coaxed a bevy of weak contact from the Royals hitters, jamming them in on their hands with his fastball for easy popouts and almost as many groundouts (4) as flyouts (6)—a different approach for the usual flyball-heavy Gilbert. The only balls Gilbert allowed hit over 100 MPH were both to, of all people, Michael A. Taylor—one was the first hit Gilbert allowed in the game, a mistake pitch that was a middle-middle fastball that Taylor hit for a single but a more proficient power hitter might have redirected over the fence, and another was a sharply-hit grounder that could have been a base hit if not for the consistent excellence of one J.P. Crawford. (Salvador Perez did have a 99.9 MPH groundout on a slider that leaked towards the middle of the plate, but he was just a bit late on it, trying to protect against the fastball after Gilbert had gone FB-CH-SL-SL to him in the at-bat, another example of how well Gilbert was mixing and sequencing his pitches today.)

The two other hits Gilbert gave up resulted in the lone run against him on the day. It started with a two-out double off the bat of Whit Merrifield in the 6th, a well-located 96 on the outside edge of the zone that Merrifield was just able to keep fair down the right field line. A mistake pitch to Nicky Lopez—96, but middle-middle—resulted in a sharp single and the Royals’ lone run of the day. (Annoyed with himself, Gilbert would come back to strike out Perez swinging on 97 at the top of the zone.) All that weak contact allowed Gilbert to stay in the game through the seventh inning, tying his season high, and he finished his day with a flourish:

Meanwhile, the other pitcher from the 2018 draft didn’t have quite as good a time in this game. Jackson Kowar is 6’5” and can crank his heater up to 96, but he had a walk problem for Triple-A Omaha this year that seems to have followed him into the bigs. Kowar struck out three Mariners in his four innings of work, but he also walked three and allowed two home runs, and five runs total on seven hits. Fewer than 20 picks separated Gilbert and Kowar in the 2018 draft, but today that gap felt vast.

Helping to make that gap feel vast was another member of the 2018 draft: the highest-drafted member of the group, in fact. Jarred Kelenic has struggled this year both with facing big-league pitching and the high expectations that come with being a #6 overall draft pick. In the Mariners All-Access Show on ROOT Sports that aired previous to the game, Kelenic likened his experience this year to something most Western Washington drivers can relate to: the frustration of driving on I-5. In the past, he explained, baseball has always treated him well; he’s been on “the” I-5, going 80, passing people and waving, and suddenly, he’s come to a wreck, “and I’m just stuck.” There’s no way around it, he says, you just have to get through it. “I’ve never been kicked in the face before like this,” he said.

But over the month of September, Jarred has been kicking back. He’s boosted his average to .250, and—most encouragingly—pumped his slugging up to .550, for a wRC+ of 135. Today, he boosted all those numbers with a 3-for-4 day that included two doubles and a home run, as well as a walk. Twice, Kelenic got in 0-2 counts and worked his way back, once for a walk and once for the home run, both in full counts. He got the Mariners on the board early, his two run-double in the first giving the Mariners all the offense they’d need on the day:

Kelenic knows how to handle velocity, and Kowar is closer to a peer of his than a wily veteran (see: Ottovino throwing him his second changeup of the entire season in 1000 pitches for a key strikeout), but this isn’t exactly a cookie at the bottom of the zone.

And Kelenic didn’t stop there. Here, leading off the inning, he fell down in the count 0-2 after fouling off a first pitch fastball and watching a changeup for a called strike. He then spit on another changeup below the zone—the same pitch he chased against Ottovino, the same pitch he’s been chasing all season—fouled off another fastball, took two pitches high, and then punished this mistake from Kowar, who attempted to challenge him in the middle of the plate:

That’s not always going to work out in Jarred’s favor; he won’t always be facing a fellow 2018 draftee who gives him a fastball on the plate. But by working the count, he’s put himself in a position to be successful, and it’s encouraging to see him damage pitches he should damage.

Speaking of damage, Jake Bauers was the next batter up and:

Divish noted that Bauers has been putting in a lot of extra time with the hitting coaches, and it seems to have paid off. Statcast has that blast at 460 feet, although I think Statcast might have been watching a football game and failed to input that correctly, with the highest exit velocity of the game, at 112 MPH. Positively Stanton-esque from the man I’ve admittedly been calling “No Power Bauers” for the better part of the season. At least designated staff fringe outfielder-lover Connor is delighted.

It’s been a long time since I’ve recapped a Mariners game where there was too much offense to fit into a recap—the Mariners scored seven runs, and I’m running out of space to recount each one—and I feel pretty guilty that John, who loves pitching, had to recap such a stinker from Kikuchi last night and also make an entire meal out of one Abraham Toro RBI groundout, which is like making a meal out of one stale Triscuit (plain, no flavor), while I get to glory in this basket of rookie cookies. But that is, how they say, the rookie cookie crumbles. Adding insult to John’s injury, and insult to the Royals’ loss on the day, John-favorite Mitch Haniger decided to do a little stat-padding in the 9th:

Mitch is far from a rookie, but this is a nice reminder that Mitch Haniger is still hitting home runs in his first full season back after missing a Game of Thrones-length of time. Hooray for Mitch, and hooray for the Mariners, even though their recent dip against Boston and Arizona (ugh) most likely knocked them out of Wild Card contention. 80 wins and counting in a season where they were projected by most systems to maybe scrape 70-ish is an accomplishment of its own, and games like today, where the future leads the way, temper this season’s disappointments by whetting the appetite for next season.