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40 in 40: Why Logan Gilbert is my Cy Young pick

We love a growth narrative

Seattle Mariners v San Francisco Giants Photo by Brandon Sloter/Getty Images

If you just looked at fWAR and rWAR, you’d think that Logan Gilbert didn’t improve from 2022 to 2023. Not that he needed to since it’s not as if three-WAR starting pitchers grow on trees: Gilbert’s one of just 12 players to have done it by both fWAR and rWAR in each of the last two seasons. (Burnes, Castillo, Gallen, Gausman, Gilbert, Kelly, Snell, Strider, Valdez, Verlander, Webb, and Wheeler.)

But contrary to those stats, what I saw in Logan Gilbert’s 2023 was a massive step forward, which is why he’s my pick for the 2024 American League Cy Young Award.

When you profile Logan Gilbert, you’re required to start with his fastball or the BBWAA will fine you. His fastball is the foundation on which everything else is built. Those lanky arms and legs give him elite extension, releasing the ball closer to the plate than just about any pitcher in baseball. That helps his good velocity play up, so by “perceived velocity,” his fastball is in the 96th percentile among starters who throw four-seamers.

It’s also got great ride. The human brain’s experience with physics expects a fastball to drop on the way to the plate, so the less it does, the more likely a batter is to swing underneath it, either whiffing or missing the barrel. Gilbert’s fastball drops just 12.8 inches on the way to the plate, which is in the 89th percentile.

That combination of perceived speed and lack of drop make it a very good pitch. So while most rookies rely on their fastball, Gilbert’s was so good that he could be extreme. When he first came up in 2021, he was one of the most fastball-forward pitchers in the league, throwing it 61% of the time. And it worked:

But another reason he threw it so much was that his secondary pitches weren’t very good. His slider was the one he was the most comfortable with, but it was poorly designed: too slow and with too much horizontal movement to be effective. It was this version of the slider that he took into 2022, at least until he started listening to Robbie Ray midseason. As Kate wrote that fall:

Gilbert has asked Ray for help on throwing his slider—since he “throws a pretty good one,” Logan says, drily. Ray actually attempted to help Gilbert with his slider back in spring training, but, “I didn’t listen as much as I should have,” confesses Logan.

“I tried to help him more with the mentality behind throwing it, because obviously, we’re different pitchers, he’s righty, I’m lefty,” says Ray. “He’s over seven feet of extension, I’m not even six and a half, so just trying to talk to him about the mentality of throwing the pitch, just getting a grip he’s comfortable with and feeling like he’s throwing a fastball with it.”

Gilbert is known as a tinkerer, a perfectionist who is always looking to maximize each one of his pitches. Ray helped Gilbert remember the pitch he loves best—his fastball—and encouraged him to find the similarities between the two pitches.

What a difference that made. From his debut through the 2022 All-Star break, Gilbert’s slider got whiffs or called strikes 23.5% of the time. Since the 2022 break, that’s up to 31.9%, taking him from the 10th percentile to the 71st. Here’s what it looks like in action:

That pitch was from August 8th of this year, when he set a new career high in strikeouts. It was one of the three times he punched out Juan Soto that day, something only three other starters have done in Soto’s 779 games.

As fun as that game was though, Gilbert’s real slider showcase was his July 9th outing in Houston, when he mowed through the Astros, getting nine whiffs on his slider:

That’s the kind of thing he couldn’t do in his rookie year or the first half of 2022.

So he ended 2022 with a pair of devastating pitches. He also had a curveball, which has always been decent but never heavily relied upon, and a changeup, which was bad.

Unsatisfied with that mix, he decided to ditch his manic changeup for a splitter. I wrote about it in depth last April. The long and the short of it is that a splitter is a great pitch for someone with Gilbert’s profile. Gilbert’s splitter spins in the exact opposite direction as his fastball, making it very hard for batters to differentiate between them. But since the fastball doesn’t drop as much as it looks like it should, and the splitter drops more than it looks like it should, batters can’t know whether to swing high or low. As a combination, then, it should make both pitches even better than they would be in isolation.

Beyond the pitch design being a good fit for Gilbert, it’s a good fit for his body too. A splitter is gripped by shoving the ball in between your index and middle fingers like you’re making a peace sign around the ball. Unfortunately, life’s full of tradeoffs: the farther you jam it back toward the webbing, the more movement and better command you’ll have, but it also increases the risk of injury. That’s less of a big deal for Gilbert though. Just like his long limbs get him elite extension, his long fingers help him get a lot of length around the ball without straining himself.

When I wrote about the splitter in April, I noted that he seemed to be having some trouble commanding it, and particularly keeping it down. But that got a lot better as the year went on. Compare his heat maps for the pitch from the first half (left) to the second half (right):

Here’s what it looked like by September when he went toe-to-toe with one of the best splitters in the game, Kodai Senga’s ghost forkball.

If you liked the slider showcase against the Astros, you’ll love the splitter showcase against Atlanta.

You might have noticed the score bug showing Atlanta having already scored two runs in the first inning. That happened because Gilbert didn’t have his fastball that day. And that’s what having multiple great offerings can do for a pitcher. It allowed him to adjust mid-game.

But we have to talk about him not having his fastball that day. Because if he’s added this great slider and splitter, one might wonder: why didn’t he already win the Cy Young Award? The answer lies in his fastball, which went from one of the league’s great ones to just an average one. By Run Value per 100 pitches, he’s tumbled from 1.5 in 2021, which was toward the top of the leaderboard, to 0 in 2023, which was average. He went from getting swinging strikes on 13% of his fastballs to just 9.1%.

Yet there’s no clear reason why that happened. There’s nothing meaningfully different about it. It had a little less spin and a little more vertical movement (in a bad way). But not enough to explain the gap in performance. Was location the problem? I doubt it. Here are his three seasons in a random order. You tell me which one was the year his fastball was great, which year it was good, and which year it was average:

Screenshot taken from Alex Chamberlain’s invaluable Pitch Leaderboard v5

It’s still a very good pitch. Recall that it’s in the 96th percentile in perceived velocity and 89th percentile in downward movement (in a good way). If anything, it ought to be getting better results as it’s paired with the splitter. The way those two pitches contrast should make them both play better, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I think Gilbert’s 2023 fastball results were just kind of a fluke.

Sometimes you dream on what a player could do if he added a skill. But it’s not like that with Gilbert—he just has to put together what he’s already got. In 2021, he debuted with that electric fastball. In 2022, he reshaped his slider. And in 2023, he added the splitter. WAR might say he’s not getting better. And from a results-based perspective, that’s true. But from a skill-based one, it’s not. All he has to do now is get some positive regression on his fastball results and combine that with the improved slider and added splitter. I’m betting he pulls it off.