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Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the secret to Sam Gaviglio’s early-season success?

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s going on with Sam Gaviglio this year. With reams of data available and logic suggesting otherwise, Gaviglio has been a godsend for the Blue Jays’ bullpen this season.

Last year, he made the second-most starts of any Blue Jays pitcher, purely because the team’s rotation was ravaged by injuries and they had no choice but to hand the ball to Gaviglio every five days.

This season is a much different story for Gaviglio. He’s flourishing in a new middle-relief role with the Blue Jays, posting some of the best numbers among Blue Jays relievers. Gaviglio, of all people, is having an All-Star calibre first half of the season.

The numbers suggest Gaviglio won’t post a sub-1.00 ERA at season’s end, but Charlie Montoyo has found a way to maximize the value out of the 28-year-old right-hander. Which brings me back to my original question … how on earth is Gaviglio doing it?

At first, I thought something might’ve changed in his delivery or his release point. Pete Walker is known for tinkering with pitcher’s deliveries, moving them around on the mound and helping to alter deliveries. All of those theories came up blank for me.

Exhibit A: His delivery to the mound from 2018 and this year. Basically, no difference.

MLB.TV

Exhibit B: His release points. Again, practically identical year-over-year.

Baseball Savant

Exhibit C: Maybe he moved closer to the first base side of the pitching rubber? If anything, he’s facing a little more towards the third base side this year, angled further away from home plate, but aside from that, the differences are negligible.

MLB.TV

Exhibit D: Into the reams of data we dive. This is where we can begin to see some correlations, but nothing that is concrete causation for his turnaround in 2019.

Year WOBA BB % K % Hard Hit % Sinker % Sinker XBA Slider % Slider XBA LOB % BABIP
2019 .218 2.9 28.2 30.4 42.9 .176 42.4 .170 90.3 .169
2018 .344 6.9 19.2 40.1 54.7 .309 28.4 .234 68.8 .313
Difference -.126 -4 % +9 % -9.7 % -11.8 % -.133 +14 % -.064 +21.5 % -.144

Some impressive changes here by Gaviglio compared to last year. He cut his walk rate in half, dropping from 6.9 percent to 2.9 percent this year. He bumped his strikeout rate by nine percent. His hard-hit rate decreased almost 10 percent and his slider usage has increased 14 percent compared to last season.

If there’s one number from that table which raises a red flag, it’s that 90.3 percent strand rate. There’s no way on earth Gaviglio can sustain that over the course of an entire season. Eventually, some of those baserunners will begin to cross the plate, which will inflate his peripheral numbers.

The stark contrast in his BABIP from year-over-year is noteworthy as well, but even if luck turns the other way on balls in play for Gaviglio, that still doesn’t explain the sudden uptick in strikeouts and cutting his walk rate by over 50 percent.

Gaviglio’s altered his pitch mix this year, as well. Instead of leaning heavily on his sinker, he’s substituted it for his slider, which is a much better secondary pitch. Again, it’s baffling how a guy with an 89 MPH fastball is striking out batters at a 28.2% clip.

The other thing is that Gaviglio isn’t exactly pitching in high leverage situations. Along with Elvis Luciano, Gaviglio has been relegated to middle relief duty and is the mop-up man in lopsided losses. It’s not exactly like Gaviglio is being entrusted with the ball when the game’s on the line. He’s appeared in 13 low leverage situations, three medium leverage situations and two high leverage situations.

Last season, Gaviglio’s fatal flaw was opponents started teed off on him during the second time through the order. Opponents’ batting averages jumped from .216 to .344 from the first to the second plate appearance in the game.

This year, the coaching staff has been smart to limit Gaviglio to shorter stints. He’s faced opposing batters twice through the order in only five of 14 appearances. In turn, smaller doses of Gaviglio have done wonders for the Blue Jays bullpen this year.

Perhaps that’s the key to this whole thing. The Blue Jays have finally found the perfect spot for Gaviglio on the roster. The low leverage reliever role isn’t a glamorous one, but every team needs a semi-reliable arm to provide length when the starter comes out of the game early. Gaviglio has been that pitcher for the Blue Jays this year.

Nobody knows how long he’ll keep this up, but there’s something strangely satisfying about watching a pitcher with an 89 MPH fastball mow down opposing hitters. Gaviglio’s early-season success hasn’t been smoke and mirrors, either. He made an adjustment to his pitch mix, which is working wonders for him so far this season.