Gilbert happy to keep things consistent in Cactus League debut

February 28th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- arrived at Spring Training this year with a more refreshing sense of clarity than ever before.

He’s no longer a top-end-yet-unproven prospect, curious to how his stuff will play against MLB hitters, as in 2020 and '21. He’s no longer looking to create more deception to his arsenal, having installed a firmer, harder slider leading into 2022 and the darting split-finger that became an elite weapon going into ‘23.

“There were a few days right after the season where, honestly, I was kind of giving myself headaches,” Gilbert said recently. “Because I'm like, 'You can only reinvent yourself so many times. You can't just scrap everything and start over.' And I feel like I have most of the pieces that I need right now.”

So, how did the Mariners’ most analytically-driven starter attack his offseason, given that he was comfortable avoiding unexplored frontiers?

“A lot of it was routines,” Gilbert said. “Location, of course, is always going to be the biggest thing -- consistency in that location. But there's only so much you can do as far as refining and tinkering. I think with a little bit more maturity comes the sense of knowing that you don't have to keep tinkering just to feel like you got better.”

This time of year typically features new looks, particularly for pitchers. But on Wednesday, Gilbert showed much of the old when making his Cactus League debut against the Royals, when he twirled two hitless innings with three strikeouts and one walk against seven batters.

“You're always showing yourself, improving yourself,” Gilbert said. “There was a little more of [proving myself] a couple of years ago, trying to make the team from the first outing. And right now it's a lot of like, 'What do I need to see from myself to feel like I'm gonna be ready at the end of March?'”

Beyond the clarity of his pitch mix, the training wheels are also off when dealing with Gilbert’s workload, after he threw 376 1/3 innings the past two seasons, 11th most in MLB and by far the most on the Mariners. He went six innings or more in 20 of 32 starts last year and was also Seattle’s lone pitcher to throw the rare complete game.

If there’s anything specific that Gilbert is working on this spring, it’s how to better attack righty hitters while being more creative with his pitch mix in deeper counts.

Gilbert has had reverse splits since debuting in 2021 -- righties have a .741 OPS against him; lefties with a .634 OPS -- but those numbers improved marginally in ‘23. His high-riding fastball also became more susceptible, he said, perhaps a byproduct of predictability relating to early in his career when his secondary pitches were still developing. But now that the splitter is a legitimate weapon, the goal is to figuratively re-elevate his fastball to become a better out pitch.

“I have more options this year,” Gilbert said. “The main thing is just not getting yourself boxed in, especially in this league. In hitter counts, hitters are always going to perform better but I have to really find a way to get myself out if I get myself in a jam with guys on and I'm behind in the count, being able to get out of that. And I think I have the weapons to do that now.”

Gilbert’s growth has extended beyond his acumen and ability. He was among the handful of players whom manager Scott Servais visited with in-person to explain Seattle’s front-office strategy in a tense offseason.

At one point during their conversation in Lakeland, Fla., Gilbert told Servais: “Wow, you’ve never talked to me like this before.”

It speaks to how the organization views Gilbert as a key foundational piece, and one with increasing influence -- particularly among a young rotation that no longer has Robbie Ray and Marco Gonzales.

“This guy's been disciplined since he was 16 years old,” Servais said. “And you see that in what he does.”

Gilbert has already established himself as one of the better righties in the American League. Now will come the step of taking his consistency to the next level, and the Mariners believe that he has the weapons, experience and intellect to do so.