The Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays have had a connection going all the way back to 1977, when both became part of the American League at the same time. Over the last few years, that connection has grown. Blue Jay fans from Western Canada have made Safeco Field their home away from the Rogers Centre much to the chagrin of the Mariner fans and players. Also, many players of late have donned both jerseys from Justin Smoak to Brandon Morrow to J.A. Happ. Sunday was a combination of both recent events. Sam Gaviglio made his return to the city where he opened his MLB a year ago in front of hordes of Blue Jays faithful.
Sam Gaviglio, who was with the Mariners during last year’s Canadian invasion: “It’s way better on this side. You get a hit and you score a run (with Mariners) and it’s quiet.”
— Rob Longley (@longleysunsport) August 5, 2018
The Mariners organization was a special place for the righty to begin his major league career; his dad was from the area and there was a lot of family in the area. In fact, Gaviglio lived with his aunt in Tacoma during his short tenure with the Mariners. He wasn’t there for long though.
After a quick detour to Kansas City via waiver claim, Gaviglio was traded to the Blue Jays on March 21, 2018. It was deal that at the time that didn’t garner much attention. Most people labelled this deal as a “depth signing” type of transaction, the type that would hopefully never matter in the big leagues.
Former Oregon State pitcher Sam Gaviglio tosses a 1-2-3 first inning in his first game against the Mariners, his former team.
— TJ Cotterill (@TJCotterill) August 5, 2018
Unlike Ryan Borucki, Sam Gaviglio is not considered a top prospect. Unlike Sean Reid Foley, he doesn’t possess a 95 mph fastball. His repertoire does not overwhelm people, especially in an era that puts emphasis on big young arms that can throw hard. But that doesn’t bother Gaviglio.
“I don’t pay attention to the gun. I am just looking at the swings guys are putting on my pitches,” he said. ‘I rely on my sinker a lot and movement and try to miss some barrels with it. Also, I might have to throw a few more offspeed pitches to keep them honest and off my fastball.”
When you quickly look at his statistics there are some less than flattering numbers. You see an ERA above five and in 15 starts he has pitched six or more innings only five times. But looking deeper and beyond the numbers, there is reason to be optimistic.
If you remove three really bad starts, Gaviglio has an ERA of 3.59 over 14 games. Also, as the season has progressed, he has shown the continued ability to bear down in high pressured situations. For example, in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game, runners at second and third with no one out. Gaviglio retired the next three batters, including striking out Denard Span with a nasty curveball down.
Gaviglio has relied primarily on location and movement to be successful. An excellent example was his start on July 20th against the Baltimore Orioles, in which he went 7.2 innings while striking out a career high eight batters.
“He did a good job of running his ball back over the plate which was really effective for him and kept hitters off balance,” said Baltimore outfielder Trey Mancini. “Location is the most important thing, unless you are somebody like Chapman. Sam did a good job of locating and that is the most important thing: movement and location. If you have both of those things you will do pretty well.”
“I am not fazed by the lineup I am facing. You have to make your pitches and fill up the zone.”
Gaviglio’s main pitches are his sinker (89 mph) and slider (83 mph), while he has the ability to mix in a changeup, fourseam fastball and curveball.
“I am always going to be a sinkerball pitcher. That is what I have been my whole career for the most part,” said the 28-year old right-hander. “I think the use of my changeup and slider have been a lot better. Last year I used my fastball but this year I have been able to put guys away with my slider and my change up.”
That shows up in the numbers as players are hitting a mere .163 against his slider and .184 versus the change. He also has an above league-average ground ball rate (49.6%) and weak contact rate (5.8%). “I try to get weak contact, not necessarily trying to strike guys out. Get weak contact and looking for outs.”
Gaviglio may not be trying to strike batters out but this season he has been doing it more often than in previous years (8.54 K/9). Why? He attributes it to keeping it simple – get strike one. “It makes the whole at bat a lot easier when you get strike one.” He has done that with 67.2% of the batters he has faced.
Over his limited time with the Blue Jays, it has become apparent when talking to Gaviglio that he takes his success and occasional struggles in stride. He doesn’t allow himself to get too high or too low. He remains in the moment, appreciating the opportunity to throw in each start and not worrying about what he can’t control.
When asked about facing tough lineups and his tendency to give up the long ball (17.3 % HR/FB) Gaviglio said “I am not fazed by the lineup I am facing. You have to make your pitches and fill up the zone. What I am trying to do is go out there and compete. – don’t worry about the HR”
He is also focused and dedicated on improving his craft. For example, during the All Star break, he wanted to stay in his routine and get his work in. So while others spent their break away from the ball park, Gaviglio stayed in Toronto and with the help of former Blue Jays catcher, J.P. Arencibia, he threw at side session at the Rogers Centre.
Gaviglio embraces being a student of the game and has learned from the different people he has interacted with in his pro baseball journey. One aspect of being a part of multiple organizations that the Oregon-native enjoyed was the opportunity to learn from different people. “Sometimes there is something here you can try and it works and maybe it doesn’t work. You are always learning more.”
From day one after arriving in Toronto, he has felt a comfort within the Blue Jays clubhouse. That has started with the pitching coach, Pete Walker who has encouraged Gaviglio to pitch to his strengths.
“He (Walker) lets me go out and pitch my game, he doesn’t say go out there and do something I am not, or try to be a pitcher I am not. He said that from the moment that I came up, when I debuted with the Blue Jays. He said go out there and pitch your game.”
While the learning for Gaviglio continues on the mound. It is here that he has taken advantage of the expertise and skill of his battery mates, Russell Martin and Luke Maile. They help him work out the mechanical aspects of his game and share with him their understanding of the hitters in the league.
“I rely on the catchers to see what is working, a big, important role that they play is to identify what is working and what is not…’Maybe we don’t have to go to that pitch, maybe we will stay away from this one.’”
In a season that went incredibly wrong for the Blue Jays, it is an opportunity for players like Gaviglio to use this as an audition to be part of the team’s future. He has certainly caught the attention of one very important person:
“He is a pitcher, he is a great competitor and can get you out in different ways. Some guys are overpowering, he doesn’t. He just pitches and dissects the plate a little bit and he has showed us he is pretty strong,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons.
That’s a pretty good endorsement.
Lead Photo © Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports