Spring training represents the first organized baseball many people have seen in months, which means that, despite them being non-meaningful games, they’re exciting. More than just seeing baseball, though, it’s also a time for players to practice. Sometimes, that’s to regain feel that may have eluded them since October, but some players use spring training to practice things that they’ve been working on over the offseason in a game-like setting. Oftentimes, these respective changes are rendered inconsequential, but sometimes, they change everything for a player.
When you write about a baseball team, you tend to be pretty cognizant of changes that players from that team make. If a player makes a swing change, I’m on it. If they reshape a pitch? Even better. There haven’t seemed to be any Mariners overhauling their swings, but it wasn’t until yesterday during Logan Gilbert’s spring debut — in which he had six strikeouts over three full frames — when he introduced a pretty new look. I guess it’s fair to say that, this spring, Gilbert is the story to follow.
Gilbert had quite the mixed rookie campaign. On one hand, he stayed healthy, struck out a good chunk of hitters, and limited walks and home runs. That’s basically all you can ask for. On the other hand, his 4.68 ERA was pretty mediocre, which speaks to how inconsistent Gilbert was at times. Typical rookie stuff! The pitcher we saw yesterday looks like a much-improved version of himself, one that’s building on the foundation he laid in his rookie campaign.
For all of Gilbert’s strengths, we as a site have been relatively consistent in terms of articulating what he needs to do to take a step forward this year. John Trupin wrote about Gilbert’s fastball, which was good, but not great. Kate Preusser wrote about how Gilbert needed to find his curveball, which was highly regarded as he rose through the minors. I, uh, tweeted about how his changeup might just be his best pitch. There’s a lot to be cleaned up. and yet GIlbert may have done just that.
Here’s Gilbert, via Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times:
“From what I’ve seen lately, I like the slider to be around 89 mph, the curve around 83 mph, and the change-up in the mid-80s,” he said.
To reshape one pitch can be a tall task. To overhaul every single secondary offering is, well...good luck. By the end of the year, Gilbert was around 95-96 miles per hour with his fastball, and 85, 82, and 76 miles per hour with his slider, changeup, and curveball. Compared to his stated targets, that would be a bump of four, three, and seven miles per hour, which, again, feels lofty — and yet Gilbert seems to have pulled it off.
Let’s look at some strikeouts! All six of them, from yesterday:
You can’t see the radar gun readings, aside from when the commentators rattle them off, but you can see that he’s really tightened everything up. Touching 89 miles per hour at one point, his slider is much tighter — it’s more of a cutter-slider hybrid at this point — and the curveball and changeup are firmer as well. It’s worth considering that the pitches themselves are tighter, but Gilbert also located everything in the zone much better, which is a significant departure from last year.
To demonstrate this, here are some representative pitches from Gilbert. First, a slider that he leaves a touch too high in the zone:
A changeup that gets away from him:
And then a curveball that misses badly, but almost falls in for a strike:
At least on these pitches, it’s clear that Gilbert didn’t put them where he wanted to. And while these are largely representative of his misses, every pitcher misses his spot on occasion, and these are just a few pitches of a few thousand that he threw. For something less anecdotal, consider Gilbert’s pitch location, for all of his secondaries:
Again, what you’ll notice about all three pitches is that Gilbert didn’t command them very well. His slider location was decent, in that he generally kept it to his glove-side and towards the bottom of the zone. What’s exceedingly apparent, though, is that he had zero feel for his curveball — you can tell by lack of clustered pitches and heterogeneity of pitch location — and his changeup often drifted up and to his arm-side.
The thing about not having feel for your repertoire is that, some games, you only have one or two of your pitches working. That was often the case for Gilbert last year: over 24 games pitched, there was only one game in which he threw his fastball less than 50 percent of the time, and nine games where he threw his fastball more than 65 percent of the time. That means that his fastball is doing a significant amount of the heavy lifting, and we know that the three times through the order penalty is mostly related to hitters gaining familiarity for the pitcher. It’s difficult enough to keep hitters off-balance. But when you’re leaning excessively on one? It’s damn near impossible.
We learned a lot yesterday. There’s that he spent some time this offseason learning from Jacob deGrom, which...doesn’t hurt! There’s also that he’s throwing all of his pitches harder, duh, we’ve already talked about that.
But more than anything, the reports that came out yesterday speak to a pitcher who’s going to be able to throw four pitches, and hopefully throw them to his spots. He’s completely shelved his weird changeup grip — one that we saw he couldn’t command, and also that he said he couldn’t command — and the tighter shape on the curveball and slider portend better location too. The quality of Gilbert’s pitches all seemed to have ticked up, but his ability to use them and put them where he wants is, arguably, even more meaningful for him. At least right now.
Gilbert has said himself that his priority is locating, and he’s reshaped his pitches to reflect that. There are several precedents for pitchers taking their sliders and turning them into cutters — or at least shelving them for a cutter — and the outcomes there have mostly been good. There’s Corbin Burnes, whose increased cutter usage helped him go from a replacement-level reliever in 2019 to a 10 WAR pitcher from 2020 and 2021. Then there’s Yu Darvish, who started using his cutter as his primary pitch, helping him get inside the zone more and throw more strikes.
Of course, not every pitcher who moves from a slider to a cutter is going to become a Cy Young award winner. It is, perhaps, troubling to think about a different pitcher who overhauled their repertoire in the same manner as Gilbert, and that’s Yusei Kikuchi. The difference is that Kikuchi has shown a marked inability to command his pitches, something that Gilbert has previously flashed, and now looks to have down pat.
Maybe I should remind you that it’s spring training, and that you should temper your expectations. It was only three innings, and yet those three innings were some of the best we’ve seen from Logan Gilbert since he’s been a major leaguer. The stuff has ticked up, and that’s plenty noteworthy, but even more so is that Gilbert should have more pitches to play with, with better location when he decides to do so. So, yeah, this is just practice. But if nothing else, Gilbert has raised his floor significantly, and now it’s easier to see that ceiling.