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Ryley Gilliam looks to add to his curveball

Can the elite college closer reproduce that success in the big leagues?

New York Mets v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When I encountered him covering (the first) 2020 spring training, Ryley Gilliam cut an interesting profile in the Mets’ clubhouse. While other players were on their phones or chit-chatting with their teammates, Gilliam was reading Don Quixote while sitting at his locker. This intrigued me enough to talk with him about it, where he discussed having heard the term ‘Quixotic’ applied to baseball before, and wanted to get a better understanding of what the term meant.

For the Clemson-educated Gilliam, the mental part of his game never seemed to be what has limited his success; his lack of fastball control has been much more of the culprit.

Gilliam was a dominant relief pitcher at the end of his Clemson tenure, and excelled early on in his professional career. In A-ball, both in Brooklyn and St. Lucie, Gilliam was striking out 13+ batters per nine innings while limiting hard contact. As he rose through the ranks, his numbers, particularly his BB/9 and H/9, rose with him. His 2019 tenure in Syracuse was particularly rough; in just over nine innings, Gilliam gave up 14 earned runs, nine walks, and three home runs.

Gilliam’s most useful weapon is his curveball. Here is how our Steve Sypa describes his curve:

His curve is an above-average pitch, sitting in the high-70s with 12-6 break. The pitch has tight rotation and plenty of late break, eliciting plenty of swing-and-misses. He is confident with the pitch, and regularly doubles or even triples down on the pitch when he sees the need to.

As effective as that pitch may be, without a solid fastball to set it up, Gilliam isn’t going to have too much success. Of the fastball, Sypa says:

Throwing from a high-three-quarters arm slot, Gilliam’s fastball hovers in the low-to-mid 90s, sitting 91-94 MPH. It has some arm-side life to it owing to his arm slot, but because of his own size, the pitch does not have much plane to it. He has better command of the pitch out of the stretch than in the windup, as the abbreviated mechanics help cut down on ways he can become unbalanced and lose his release point.

Without a 2020 season and its data to analyze, it is hard to tell if Gilliam’s rough time in Syracuse was simply getting accustomed to the new level, or a ceiling he hit, talent-wise.

In his spring debut, Gilliam gave up both a triple and a home run en route to a 2-0 loss to the Marlins. While one spring appearance is not enough to judge a player on, especially one who only had limited professional baseball in the prior year, it further indicates that Gilliam is unlikely to see any time in the majors before September at the absolute earliest. If the Mets can help him harness his fastball, Gilliam may be a useful bullpen piece for them down the road.

Until then, he’ll be tilting at windmills.