As season debuts go, Keagan Gillies’ went about as well as can be. The towering 26-year-old reliever, who over the last year has become a dark horse candidate to help the Orioles’ bullpen sooner rather than later, entered Bowie’s first game of the season with runners on second and third with no outs.

Eleven pitches, five whiffs, and three strikeouts later, Gillies was back in the Baysox dugout. If he ends up pushing for a spot in Baltimore’s bullpen this year, it will be showings like that which propel him there.

“You’re getting a back-end guy who stands at 6-foot-8 on the mound,” Baysox pitching coach Austin Meine said. “It’s a physical presence, and you pair that with the way the ball comes out of hand — it’s a very steep release angle with good velocity and some pretty nasty breaking stuff.

“It’s quite the package, when you factor in the size, the arm angle and release, plus some of the movement of his off-speed pitches. It’s a pretty difficult combo to fight at the plate, and honestly, he fills up the zone really well. He’s coming at you.”

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That combination of traits makes Gillies all at once a candidate to continue a rapid rise through the Orioles’ farm system, a pitcher whose stuff matches up well with some of the team’s preferences for their prospects to develop, and a testament to the uneven nature of player development when it comes to charting a player’s career.

Gillies, a Louisiana native, stayed home to pitch at Tulane and was a starter there. He put himself on the radar for the 2019 draft a year earlier as a sophomore with an ability to mix pitches without premium velocity. He pitched poorly as a junior and wasn’t drafted in 2019, and entering his senior year, realized it was “kind of do-or-die” for baseball. Through word of mouth, the recommendation came to his father that Gillies should check out a nearby facility called TopVelocity.

There, biomechanics specialist Brent Pourciau broke down video of him pitching, and laid out a list of movement deficiencies that, if addressed, could bump Gillies’ fastball into the mid-90s.

“The three main components of throwing hard are mobility, speed, strength, and all those combined into one,” Gillies said. “We worked on mobility first — my hips were horrible, my upper body mobility was terrible. My strength was really bad, so we incorporated a lot of Olympic lifting. … Once I gained the strength, I already had the speed from a mechanics point of view. Once I added that and the mobility in, I took off really quickly.”

Keagan Gillies (51) delivers a pitch for the FCL Orioles during a Florida Complex League game in 2022. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Two months in, Gillies’ fastball went from 88-91 mph to 92-93 mph in his first bullpen of the season. Now a reliever, Gillies closed for eight games before the pandemic hit, denying him another opportunity at the draft. But he used the shutdown to spend more time than ever in the weight room, and emerged as a fifth-year senior “a completely different person than I was two years prior,” he said.

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Evaluators agreed. He was a more physically mature pitcher who now had the conviction in his pitches to attack the zone, as well as feel for his entire arsenal. Despite his age — Gillies was already 23 at the time of the 2021 draft — the Orioles took him in the 15th round, with the hop on his fastball and the data on his pitches helping solidify his standing with the team. Most of his first full season was lost to injury, but Gillies’ 2023 made him one of the most interesting pitchers in the organization. Between High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie, he struck out 61 in 40 2/3 inning (13.5 per nine) with a 0.81 WHIP and 2.43 ERA, and opponents had just a .482 OPS against him.

In addition to a fastball that averaged 93.5 mph last year and gets downhill on hitters quickly due to his attack angle and elite extension, Gillies’ cutter — a pitch in the mid-to-high 80s — was his best pitch throughout that 2023 campaign, he said. But gains made at the end of the season on his splitter brought his entire arsenal to another level. He had learned the pitch from a friend back home, and working with then-Bowie pitching coach Forrest Herrmann after his promotion there, they tweaked the offering.

“We started to figure out the feeling out of the hand, and once we figured that out, I trained that all offseason and came into this season and it’s probably been my most effective pitch,” Gillies said. “It’s kind of opened up everything in my arsenal now. Last year, I couldn’t land it for a strike, now I can land it for a strike with better metrics. It’s really opening up everything for me — and that’s why I’m having a lot of success on the field.”

Added Meine: “From the angle that it comes from out of hand, it’s just got a lot of depth to it, that makes it a very tough, very steep approach into the strike zone. Hitters are going to perceive it to be in the strike zone until it’s not, and it just bottoms out. His ability to command that pitch over the zone or induce a lot of tough decisions on the batter’s part is part of what makes that pitch so special.”

Gillies also believes the way the Orioles train pitchers to perform in games, specifically by leveraging data and analytics, was “the last missing piece” of his development.

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“Coming here with their models, showing me where I can get my most whiff percentages, [location grades] where I can throw my best pitch in my best location and have my best results — once I started diving into that and looking at the models and seeing how I compare to other guys, how I compare to certain hitters, where my strengths are with those, that’s where everything opens up,” Gillies said. “That’s really where it becomes fun. Looking at those models and going out on the mound and recreating that on the field, then going back and looking at the data after — it shows you really where the success is, and they’re really good at taking that data and putting it in-game for you and that’s where I’ve seen a lot of my success.”

Gillies is off to a good start so far with Bowie. He had one rough outing in which he allowed two home runs and left after being hit by a batted ball, but has dominated otherwise. Considering the preponderance of left-handed relievers at Triple-A Norfolk and a broad lack of swing-and-miss stuff among the non-starter internal candidates to help the Orioles in relief this year, every strong outing Gillies has can potentially bolster his case for a late-season look in the majors.

“If I keep doing my thing, I’ll be in a prime spot to get there,” Gillies said. “Whether it happens this year, next year, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to stay consistent with everything.”

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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