A look at a minors reliever getting closer to impacting the big league club

He can easily fly under the radar despite a 6-foot-8 frame. As a reliever it is harder to get noticed. But fully healthy during the 2023 season, right-hander Keagan Gillies did get noticed with some impressive stats and a big strikeout percentage.

Now 26, the Orioles’ 15th-round draft pick out of Tulane in 2021 is rated as the club’s No. 30 prospect by Baseball America.

This after a season when he went a combined 5-1 with a 2.43 ERA for High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie. Over 40 2/3 innings, he allowed just 19 hits with 14 walks and 61 strikeouts.

He posted an 0.81 WHIP, allowing a .137 batting average against, and fanned 13.5 batters per nine innings with a 39.8 K percentage.

That can get your attention.

Gillies dealt with some injuries late in his college career at Tulane, and also during the 2022 season. But last year was a breakout for him and now he’s got a shot to be a future O’s bullpen piece.

“Last year was a great starting point for me, being hurt for a year and a half coming into the draft, my main goal last year was to have a full season healthy,” Gillies told me recently during an interview at Twin Lakes Park. “I accomplished that and even more with the success and results. Just want to now build on that with a lot of things I did. Like working on a new grip for the splitter that me and Forrest (Herrmann, 2023 Double-A Bowie pitching coach) started last year. Probably going to be my key secondary pitch this year. And I got a bit bigger in the offseason, putting on some weight.”

He added significant weight to his big frame, gaining 20 pounds in the weight room, and is now around 270 at spring camp.

“Just was getting after it in the weight room,” Gillies said. “Getting after it, upper-body wise. My upper body has been a little skinny as someone could see in pictures over the years. Hopefully, this up ticks the velo a little bit more and keeps me healthy.”

Gillies was pitching at around 93, 94 mph with his fastball last season and adds a cutter, slider and that splitter to his repertoire.

He got off to an amazing start at Aberdeen in 2023, allowing just two hits in 16 2/3 innings for an ERA of 0.54 and 27 strikeouts.

At Double-A Bowie he posted a 3.75 ERA in 18 games with 10 walks and 34 strikeouts over 24 innings.

He said the splitter grip he has tweaked made the pitch a work in progress last year, but this year that could be very different.

“It could be a very big out pitch for me. Definitely a drop-off pitch for me. Trying to cut as much vertical break as I can off it from my fastball, which really plays well from my arm slot,” said Gillies.

He definitely has weapons to work with as Baseball America graded his fastball at 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his slider and split got 55 grades. This could be a big year for him as he tries to work his way closer to Baltimore with a possible return to Bowie at the outset. Next December the club will have to decide whether he should get a 40-man roster spot to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft.

Gillies said he has learned a lot from various pitching coaches in the organization, and he seemed to really click with Herrmann last season.

“Everybody is working on something different. Working with Forrest was great last year, working on pitch design," Gillies said. "Throughout the year sometimes you can lose feel for a pitch at times. They are great at getting you back on target and back to your confidence and routine.”

In limited innings in 2022, Gillies had a 9.7 K rate per nine innings. Last season it was 14.6 with Aberdeen and 12.8 at Bowie. Over 62 career pro innings, he has walked 21 and fanned 84.

“Just dominance in the zone,” was important in generating such stats, he said. “Getting ahead of guys with the fastball and then coming with my secondary stuff, which plays very well when I’m ahead (in the count). Once you get behind, it’s harder at that Double-A level. They know you well from scouting reports. So, I tried to play to my strengths. My cutter was also pretty good last year, and the fastball at the top of the zone has been my bread and butter.”

Gillies said that in college he worked down in the zone often. O’s coaches showed him how he could elevate his fastball and have success, and he’s done it.

Now that he has pitched at Double-A with some success – 5 1/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts to end his 2023 season with the Baysox – Gillies is dreaming big about this year and his future.

“The goal is to make it all the way up this year,” he said. “That is the ultimate goal. Wherever I start, I have to do my thing and dominate the zone, and everything else will play out.”

He added that being a player in the No. 1-ranked farm is big.

“It’s incredible. It is awesome coming in every day and having the best of the best around you. You get better off that, facing these highly talented hitters. That really prepares you going into the season," Gillies said. 

The passing of the long-time O's owner: On Saturday, Peter G. Angelos passed away at age 94. Roch Kubatko has more on the O's owner here, and I have a few personal reflections here as well. 

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