Finding consistent performance in the starting rotation has been a tough task for the Toronto Blue Jays. A large part of the reason they currently find themselves six games under .500 and fourth place in the AL East is due to the early struggles among their starting pitching, owning a collective 5.17 ERA in the month of April, and a 5.51 ERA in the month of May that helped attribute to a 9-19 month.
June has seen the team improve much on this front, as their rotation is currently posting a 3.76 ERA for the month. They’ve gotten a good string of starts from the usual J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez, while also getting Marcus Stroman back from injury. But then there’s an unfamiliar name hanging in the back of that rotation that has so far put together a successful season through 40.1 innings. It’s Sam Gaviglio and his 89 mph fastball.
A last-minute minor trade acquisition by the Blue Jays, Gaviglio isn’t completely coming out of nowhere. An under-the-radar prospect in the Cardinals and Mariners organizations, he made his big league debut last season with the Mariners, and he pitched the tail end of the season with the Royals, tallying up 74.1 innings at the major league level last year. Looking like he was going to have trouble making the Royals roster out of Spring Training this year, he was designated for assignment and was subsequently flipped to the Blue Jays for cash considerations. They placed him down in Triple-A to begin the year and called up him last month when Stroman hit the disabled list.
To start off, the fact that Gaviglio is starting games in the major leagues is an impressive feat in itself. Starters that have fastballs that sit below 90 mph are near the point of extinction. In 2002, 133 pitchers had an average fastball velocity below 89 mph (I’m using 89 because that’s closer to Gaviglio’s average of 88.6 mph) and made five or more starts. It’s been a free-fall since then, as only 16 pitchers have done so in 2018.
In order to achieve any level of success at the major league level with a fastball like Gaviglio’s, you’re going to need a very above-average secondary pitch to pair with it. And so far this season, Gaviglio has shown off a terrific slider. The reliance on that pitch isn’t anything new for him though, as pointed out in this profile Minor League Ball did of him last year.
“Gaviglio is listed at 6-2, 195, born May 22nd, 1990. A ground ball pitcher, he doesn’t throw especially hard, topping out at 91, and relies a lot on his slider and change-up. There’s nothing spectacular about him but he throws strikes and keeps the ball down. Long relief seems like the role for him.”
The main thing that stood out to me about Gaviglio how all of the sudden his K-rate has spiked. He’s never been a strikeout guy and has usually been the exact opposite of that actually. His K-rates were even low in the minors.
A career 7.4 K/9 pitcher in the minors and 5.9 K/9 pitcher in 74.2 innings at the major league level, Gaviglio struck out 29 batters in 29 innings in a dominant stretch at Triple-A to begin the season, while striking also striking out 40 batters in his 40.2 innings at the big league level this year.
I’ll go back to the slider, because it seems like it’s the pitch doing most of the work for Gaviglio. It’s taken a big step forward compared to his big league stint last year. The offering ranks 34 in SwStr% out of 232 pitchers (minimum 100 pitches), sitting at 23.1 percent. Last year its 16.8 percent mark mark ranked 161st out of 332 pitchers. The wOBA on the slider this year is .171, ranking 34th out of 235 qualified pitchers. Last year it was at .377, ranking 298th out of 329.
Last year, Gaviglio’s slider looked like it would generally hang over the plate, middle-away, with 48.3% of them hitting the strike zone.
This season, it seems as if a larger portion of his sliders are outside the zone with a lower vertical location. Only 35.5% of his sliders have hit the strike zone this season.
Throwing the slider down-and-away from right-handed hitters has done wonders for him this year. They’re only posting a .123 wOBA against it this year, major improvement from the .345 mark they hit it at last year. Here’s a beauty he threw to J.D. Martinez to strike him out:
If Gaviglio was ever going to make it as a major league pitcher, he was going to need to develop and execute a very above-average secondary offering to make up for what he lacked in fastball velocity. He took his slider, made some adjustments in location with it, and is now thriving as a starter at the major league level.