Bump in the road or ominous sign: Has Luis Gil hit a wall after his red-hot start?

NEW YORK — Luis Gil’s former coach remembers the first time he realized his player was different. It was at a tournament in Baní, Dominican Republic, in early 2013. Gil was a skinny 14-year-old shortstop-turned-pitcher because hitting clearly wasn’t his thing. He was scheduled to pitch the next game, but he had been dealing with command issues, so his coach informed him he wasn’t going to start. Gil lost it.

“He said, ‘Damn! It’s my turn!'” the coach, who goes by Francisco Díaz, said in Spanish with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Relax, you’re going to pitch a lot.’ He always had fire to throw hard all that time. That spirit, that desire. Like, ‘It’s me, it’s me, it’s me.’ Very competitive.”

Díaz is a buscón — a part-agent, part-trainer for Dominican teenagers seeking to sign with major league organizations. He spoke over the phone last week from the Dominican Republic as players practiced in the background. Players he hopes will one day reach Gil’s heights thousands of miles away.

Over a decade since that tournament in Baní, Gil is on pace to pitch more than he ever has in a season as a 26-year-old rookie for the New York Yankees. For six weeks, from his start May 1 through June 14, Gil was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, on a sure-fire path to the All-Star Game with a 1.14 ERA and 61 strikeouts over nine starts after an April hindered by command trouble.

In two outings since, he has resembled the inexperienced hurler not far removed from Tommy John surgery that he is. The right-hander has given up 12 runs across 5⅔ innings over those two games, a regression that corresponds with an unfamiliar workload amid a rotation-wide nosedive.

Gil has never thrown more than 108⅔ innings in a season as a professional. He logged just four innings in 2023 — all in the Florida State League — in his first game action since undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2021. This season, he’s already logged 85⅔ innings after his 4⅓-inning performance in a loss to the Mets on Wednesday.

So, is he tired?

“Of course, that’s the question,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday night. “We’ll see. He seems to be in a really good physical place.”

Gil provided a straightforward answer.

“No, I really don’t [feel tired],” said Gil, whose ERA ballooned from 2.03 to 3.15 in one week. “I’m healthy, thank God, and I feel very strong, really.”

GIL’S WORKLOAD WASN’T supposed to be a storyline for a Yankees club suddenly reeling in early July after a blistering opening stanza to the season. It’s become important only because Yankees ace Gerrit Cole got hurt.

The Yankees had their starting rotation set heading into spring training — and Gil was slated to begin the season in the minors. That was until March 16, when the Yankees announced Cole would be shut down for at least three weeks with elbow discomfort.

Replacing the reigning American League Cy Young winner would be impossible, but Gil had already made an impression on the Yankees.

Five days before Cole was shut down, Gil faced the Philadelphia Phillies’ A-lineup in Clearwater, Florida — a group that featured Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto and Trea Turner. He tossed 3⅔ scoreless innings in relief, allowing one run, one walk and striking out eight. He emerged confident that he belonged at the highest level.

“That was one that we said, ‘Oh, we got to pay attention here,'” Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake said.

Gil’s stuff has never been in doubt. He’s always boasted a sharp slider with a fastball that flirts with triple digits — and looks even more explosive with his above-average extension. The arm talent prompted the Yankees in March 2018 to ask for a gangly 19-year-old Gil from the Minnesota Twins in a trade for outfielder Jake Cave.

Three years later, Gil began his major league career with 15⅔ scoreless innings over three starts in August 2021, but his shortcomings became apparent in his final three outings. To become a long-term big league starter, Gil needed to improve his command and develop a reliable third pitch.

For Gil, the challenge was mastering his changeup, a pitch he threw just 44 times in his 33⅓ major league innings between 2021 and 2022. The breakthrough finally happened during Gil’s lowest professional point, while rehabbing from his elbow surgery last year and into the offseason in the Dominican Republic, where he traveled 140 kilometers round trip every day from his home in Azua to San Juan to work with a trainer.

“He attacked the rehab with, ‘I’m not just going to get healthy, I’m going to improve myself and the changeup is a major focus here,'” Blake said.

Gil has thrown the pitch 29.3% of the time at an average of 91.6 mph. Opponents are batting .188 with a .300 slugging percentage against it. Baseball Savant’s Run Value metric grades it as a well above-average pitch and his second-best offering this season.

Cole, whom Gil credits for aiding him during and between starts, explained Gil uses the changeup to rediscover the strike zone or when looking for a strikeout. Cole said the offering helps Gil keep hitters off his fastball, darting in the opposite direction of his slider.

“That’s when you see a game like what he had against the White Sox where now we’ve got three pitches,” Cole said, “a nice three-pitch blend.”

Gil was a force in that game at Yankee Stadium in mid-May, striking out a career-high 14 batters across six innings. But Cole was more impressed by his previous outing, when Gil held the Tampa Bay Rays scoreless over six innings despite finishing with just three strikeouts.

“He made an adjustment in the middle of the game on the rubber,” Cole said. “He made a cognizant adjustment with the fastball to improve his location through the game. And he manifested the same run prevention that he did the following week with his A-plus stuff.”

That, Cole said, was an example of Gil’s high aptitude. For more than a month, as Cole spectated from the injured list, Gil made it look easy. Then the Baltimore Orioles chased him from a 17-5 beating after 1⅓ innings on June 20 by taking away his fastball and feasting on missed locations. The New York Mets followed, knocking him from the game with one out in the fifth inning last week.

He surrendered 12 runs between the two duds — five more than he allowed in his previous nine outings combined — as his innings count approaches uncharted territory. His velocity has largely held around his average, but command has been the snag. A lack of consistency with his fastball, in particular, was a problem against the Mets.

“The shape of his fastball, the release point of it, some were good where he popped and he had the carry in the zone, others he was kind of cutting or pulling a little bit,” Boone said after Gil’s start against the Mets. “Just having a hard time just owning his delivery.”

Boone insisted this two-start snag is “part of it” — part of the grind of a season, and nothing more.

“There are moments like this in baseball,” Gil said. “For me, pitch execution is really important. It’s something that I’ve been working on. I definitely want that to be better, but, at the same time, it’s all a learning experience, too, going through moments like that.”

THOSE AROUND GIL say he reported to spring training this season more mature and focused than ever. Gil attributed the growth to gaining new perspective from his injury and his daughter, Samantha, born shortly after he had Tommy John surgery.

“When I got hurt, I was sad because it’s an injury that takes a long time to recover from,” Gil said in Spanish. “When she was born, that gave me a push to keep working hard and put more dedication to the job.”

It’s been a job for Gil since he was 16, when the Twins signed him for $90,000 in 2015 after three years under Díaz’s tutelage. The price tag meant Gil wasn’t considered a top-tier prospect. His fastball touched 91 mph. He was scrawny. The measurables didn’t scream star.

But Díaz, who is still in touch regularly with Gil, has always suspected there was potential to unearth. He’s overseen several future major leaguers. Luis Castillo, a Seattle Mariners starter in his eighth season, is the most accomplished. But, in Díaz’s opinion, the three-time All-Star is not the most talented.

“If Gil is healthy and he can control his pitches, nobody is better than Luis Gil,” Díaz said. “I told somebody I worked with that Gil is better than Castillo. He’s better.”

But stuff alone doesn’t equal success at the highest level. Success requires constant tinkering and adjustments. It requires peppering the strike zone and the durability to withstand a 162-game schedule. Gil is absorbing that on the brightest stage for an organization with championship-or-bust expectations.

“He’s a young pitcher that hasn’t pitched for a couple of years,” Boone said. “There’s bumps along the way.”

The Yankees have not indicated whether they plan on curtailing Gil’s workload. For now, they don’t have another obvious option to cover innings, with Clarke Schmidt on the injured list until late this month.

“I think it’s something we’re aware of and trying to be on top of as much as we can,” Blake said before Gil’s start Wednesday. “It’s just taking as many data points as you can about where he’s at, whether it’s just the pitch count itself. Whether it’s the release point in the pitch metrics. Whether it’s the work inside the weight room and the training room, what that looks like.

“I think all those things kind of inform you a little bit of where he’s at and where he’s trending and try to make a little more informed decision, even though it’s not perfect.”

For six weeks, Gil provided the club an unforeseen jolt every fifth day. He was, for that stretch, a luxury fill-in for a club gliding through series victory after series victory. Now the Yankees, desperate for wins, need him to bounce back to help reverse their free fall.

“No one expected it to be easy,” Boone said.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top