Dr. Sticks and the Return of the Splitter

PHOENIX — Triston McKenzie and Logan Gilbert both dress a few lockers down from a surprise American League Cy Young Award winner. In the Cleveland Guardians’ clubhouse in Goodyear, Ariz., it is Shane Bieber, who won in 2020; in the Seattle Mariners’, in Peoria, it is Robbie Ray, who won for Toronto the next season. Neither had finished in the top three in voting before they won.

Bieber would not be surprised if the next winner were McKenzie, his Cleveland teammate.

“He’s always had a great aura about him,” Bieber said. “He knows how good he can be.”

In the search for the A.L.’s next pitching superstar — in the mold of Bieber, Ray and a National Leaguer, Sandy Alcantara, the unanimous Cy Young Award winner for the Miami Marlins last season — McKenzie and Gilbert stand out.

Both match the indicators of youthful promise, durability, performance and relative anonymity that made Alcantara a prime candidate for a breakout. They are only 25 years old and withstood the demands of at least 30 starts and 185 innings last season, with earned run averages under 3.25.

And unlike other dynamic young pitchers in the league, like Dylan Cease of the White Sox and Alek Manoah of the Blue Jays, McKenzie and Gilbert have yet to be named on a Cy Young ballot. That may be about to change.

Triston McKenzie

The origin of baseball’s best nickname is rooted in curiosity and genetics. McKenzie grew up in Palm Beach County, Fla., the son of physical therapists, and he would read the medical books they kept around the house. The heart fascinated him, and he thought he might become a cardiologist.

“I genuinely enjoy learning about what makes me tick,” McKenzie said.

Knowing this about McKenzie, his youth baseball teammates often called him “Doc.” When McKenzie signed with Cleveland in 2015 — turning down Vanderbilt University, where his brother, T.J., now plays — he got a new nickname: “Sticks,” for his reedy frame.

“He didn’t like that at all, so we started calling him ‘Dr. Sticks,’” said Todd Isaacs, an outfielder who played against McKenzie in high school and spent four years in Cleveland’s farm system. “It resonated around the locker room, and it stuck. Now it’s something he thrives on: Dr. Sticks, writing those prescriptions every game.”

Baseball Reference lists McKenzie at 6 feet 5 inches and 165 pounds; no other player in its database is both that tall and that light. Yet McKenzie’s deep knowledge of the body helps him make it work.

“Despite my size, I’m still pretty strong; most of the strength coaches would tell you that,” said McKenzie, who worked 191 ⅓ innings last season, and 11 more in the playoffs. “And I think the majority of me being able to go out there perform at a high level is knowing my body and understanding how I move. Knowing that I don’t actually have to look a certain way sets my mind at ease.”

As well as he knows his body, though, McKenzie did miss the entire 2019 season in the minors with rotator cuff and pectoral strains. He returned to make a strong cameo with Cleveland in 2020 and has learned to be diligent to withstand pitching’s toll.

“You don’t know what exactly leads to injuries, but we had concerns that if he didn’t put a greater emphasis on his physical and prep routines that eventually, his frame might not hold up,” said Guardians General Manager Mike Chernoff. “And he has. It’s been an incredible turnaround for him.”

For McKenzie, trusting his body has given him the confidence to fearlessly attack the strike zone. He cut his walk rate to 2.1 per nine innings last season, from 4.4 in 2021, and lowered his E.R.A. by nearly two runs, to 2.96. McKenzie’s 0.951 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) was the best among the 19 A.L. pitchers to make 30 starts.

McKenzie also expanded his profile off the field, working with young people in the Cleveland community (he was the Guardians’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award) and serving as Major League Baseball’s social media correspondent at the World Series. McKenzie said he hoped to bring fans closer to the game.

“With a lot of the other sports, it’s very open, and I feel like in baseball, there’s this sense of secrecy,” he said. “And the fans — especially young fans that don’t necessarily understand the game — don’t even get a chance to get their foot in the door and find their love of the game because it’s almost like they’re excluded from it.”

The World Series McKenzie covered, between Philadelphia and Houston, was the first since 1950 without a U.S.-born Black player on either active roster. McKenzie, whose father is from Jamaica, might be the best active pitcher among Black Americans and recently shared a Twitter message from M.L.B. celebrating the 15 Black pitchers with a 20-win season.

“I definitely take pride in being able to be part of that collective — just to even have my name considered in the same sentence as a Black Ace like Bob Gibson or C. C. Sabathia or Dontrelle Willis or Doc Gooden,” McKenzie said. “Knowing what it meant to me to be able to watch those guys as representation, it just makes my situation a lot bigger.”

Logan Gilbert

The day of his official visit to Stetson University in Florida, in November 2014, Logan Gilbert had a powerful vision of his future.

“I was watching a practice when Jacob deGrom won the Rookie of the Year Award,” Gilbert said. “It was pretty cool, because I was about to go to Stetson and it was like, ‘All right, guys make it from here.’”

By the end of the decade, deGrom had won two Cy Young Awards for the Mets, just as another pitcher from Stetson, Corey Kluber, had done for Cleveland. Neither was picked before the fourth round, and Gilbert was a first-round choice in 2018.

Even so, his availability at pick No. 14 was a relief to the Mariners. Jerry Dipoto, the team’s general manager, said the Mariners considered Gilbert the best overall draft prospect entering his junior season. Gilbert confirmed that assessment by leading the N.C.A.A. in strikeouts, with 163 in 112⅓ innings, but a drop in velocity worried some teams.

“We liked him when we drafted him and it was 92 miles an hour, and he came in the next spring training bumping 97,” Dipoto said. “That first year in our system, he moved through three levels and made it look easy. He’d throw a 75-pitch outing with 85 percent fastballs and just blow people up.”

Gilbert made only 10 starts above Class A before reaching the majors in 2021. He finished strong that September and did so again last year, when he ended his regular season with his first eight-inning start as a pro to help the Mariners clinch a wild-card spot.

Catcher Cal Raleigh ended the game with a homer that night, and reliever Matt Brash — developed in Seattle’s farm system after a trade from San Diego — earned the victory. It was a fitting way to vanquish a 21-year playoff drought for a team built meticulously from within.

“It’s a little more special when you’ve come up with those guys and you’ve gotten to see them grow,” Raleigh said. “You were on the same mission, sharing rooms with twin beds. Me and Logan, we’ve been roommates ever since the first fall camp when we got drafted. He’s a terrible snorer.”

Maybe the beds were just uncomfortable. Gilbert is 6-6, an imposing physical presence whose arm extension grades out in the 99th percentile of all pitchers. Only one peer with at least 20 starts last season — Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler — reaches as far before delivering a pitch.

“It’s a really heavy fastball and he releases it, like, halfway to home plate,” Raleigh said. “It gets on you a lot quicker.”

Gilbert said he wished he had focused more in the minors on developing other pitches, but that he is making up for lost time now. He often watches footage of pitchers from Japan, intrigued by their mechanics and pitch varieties, and he is working this spring on a split-finger fastball.

That pitch was popular in the majors in the 1980s, but it fell out of favor over (possibly dubious) injury concerns. It remains essential to many pitchers in Japan, and Gilbert — whose enormous hands help him manipulate the ball better than most — believes it can help him.

“It’s somewhat of a missing link here in America, that it’s not at least messed around with more, because I think there’s some opportunity there,” he said. “I’ve tried a changeup for years, since college, but it’s always been tough on me.”

He added: “This is something that the grip can just do the work.”

Gilbert’s new pitch was his idea, with the Mariners’ endorsement. It should help sustain his success (he was 13-6 with a 3.20 E.R.A. last season) while lowering his high rates of hard contact. And if the splitter doesn’t work, chances are Gilbert will find something else.

“He’s an ongoing development, and I think he’ll always be that way,” Dipoto said. “My guess is that Logan will pitch into his mid- to late 30s because he wants to, and that he will reinvent himself many times.”

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