Tyler Gilbert, in his fourth professional season, appeared to get a grip on what it might take for him to reach the big leagues with the Phillies. The left-hander, in fact, got a couple of new grips that made him a different and dominating pitcher in 2018.
“I think the addition of my cutter, which I added to my arsenal, helped me a lot, and then I actually developed a better curveball, which happened in the middle of the season,” Gilbert said. “I learned new grips, and the cutter allowed me to pitch differently to batters. It opened doors for me against lefties and righties.”
The proof was in the numbers for the Phillies’ 2015 sixth-round pick out of the University of Southern California. The standard numbers – 7-2 with five saves and a 3.25 ERA – were good, but the batting average against Gilbert was the pitcher’s most noticeable improvement. Hitters in the high-A Florida State League batted .271 against him in 2017. Lefties hit .263 and right-handers .275. Pitching in 48 games at double-A Reading and triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2018, Gilbert held all hitters to a .211 average. Lefties batted .169 and right-handers .234.
All of those numbers were career lows by a lot, which is not typically the case for minor-league pitchers as they ascend in competition level.
“With the cutter, I could really play it off my fastball,” Gilbert said. “To righties, I could start it up the middle and it would come in. I had a lot of broken bats against righties, which wasn’t something I had ever been able to do before. It was really exciting to see the cutter work and produce weak contact.”
The best part of Gilbert’s story is how he came upon his new, difference-making pitches. Near the end of the 2017 season, which was a pretty good one for him at Clearwater, Gilbert struck up a conversation with teammate Seth McGarry, a right-handed reliever who had joined the Threshers in August after being traded by Pittsburgh for big-league reliever Joaquin Benoit.
Even though McGarry throws with the opposite arm, Gilbert wanted to know how he gripped his cutter.
“I just went up to him and said, ‘How do you throw that cutter of yours?’ ” Gilbert said. “He taught me the grip, and I actually learned it in one day and used it in the game the next night and it worked. He was pretty impressed. He was, like, ‘Hey, you picked that up in one day.’ It just felt so natural. It was really cool. It kind of gave me confidence in learning new pitches going forward.”
Before learning the cutter, Gilbert already threw a four-seam fastball, a split-finger changeup and a curveball that he described as “soft and loopy.” He was looking for more power with his curveball and he believes he found it in the middle of last season.
“It is way better now,” he said.
And how did this happen?
“Seth McGarry, once again,” Gilbert said, laughing. “He taught me the spike curveball. That’s what it’s called. I can really throw it harder. I get it up to about 80 miles per hour and it has that 12-6 action to it. Again, this new grip felt so much better and so natural. I learned it in one day and I used it that night and struck two guys out.”
Gilbert averaged nine strikeouts per nine innings after averaging 7.7 the season before. He also walked just 15 batters, including two intentionally, over 69 1/3 innings. He was promoted from Reading to Lehigh Valley near the end of June, marking the first time he received an in-season promotion during his career.
Shortly after the season, he got a call to play for the Tigres de Licey in the Dominican Winter League. Those calls only go to pitchers who have had outstanding minor-league seasons.
The Phillies, however, could not find room for Gilbert on their 40-man roster and feared they might lose him in the Rule 5 draft at the end of the winter meetings in Las Vegas. Gilbert went undrafted and, shortly after that, found out he had been invited to big-league camp as a nonroster invitee. He believes this is the year he will reach the big leagues.