When former Blue Springs Rod’s Sports A’s pitcher Grant Gavin takes a look at his phone after a game with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A affiliate to the Kansas City Royals, he can usually expect a text message.
It’s usually from his grandmother Judy, who always watches the games even when Gavin isn’t pitching. He grew up watching baseball together with Judy, and she usually shares her thoughts after a Naturals game is finished.
“I will have five text messages from my grandma about why we made a play a certain way,” said Gavin, a middle relief pitcher. “Or she’ll say, ‘Oh, this was a good hit by this guy.’ She’s always rooting for me.
“Then when I pitch well, she’ll tell me, ‘Great job, you did great.’ She also knows when I give up a hit or a walk or a run, she knows I will be upset afterwards. She’ll immediately try to cheer me up.”
It’s just one of the things that helps Gavin get through the daily grind of being a minor league baseball player, but he enjoys it.
He is in his second year with Northwest Arkansas and is having another solid season as he tries to climb the ladder to the Royals and the major leagues.
Last season, Gavin was promoted from the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks to the Naturals and fared fairly well.
He had a 3.19 earned run average, a save and a 1.42 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in 21 appearances after being promoted. He had 30 strikeouts (8.7 per nine innings), 17 walks and allowed just four home runs.
This season, the 23-year-old right-hander had a rough start but has been pitching better recently. He has given up just one earned run in his last nine appearances, lowering his ERA from 7.04 on May 11 to 4.39 last Saturday. He is 4-3 with a save so far this year.
The key to his recent success has been fastball command. Gavin said he had been leaving too many pitches over the plate, and they were being hammered by opposing batters.
He’s been regularly hitting the corners of the strike zone with that pitch lately, and that’s helped him set up strikeouts with his curveball. He has fanned 16 batters in his last eight appearances, giving him 34 in 26 2/3 innings this season.
He’s been working on pitching up in the zone and inside, so hitters can’t fully extend their arms on their swing.
“I’ve been able to go where I want to with (the fastball) more so than earlier in the year,” said Gavin, a St. Pius X High School graduate and former Blue Springs resident. “When you make mistakes at this level, they get hit hard. I was able to live more on the edge and outside the zone to get more outs. There is more of a difference to the hitter when my fastball and my curveball is down in the zone. The hitter is going to see the curveball easier.
“That’s helped my curveball. I like to use that, then surprise them with my fastball sometimes.”
It’s been a much stiffer challenge with Northwest Arkansas than it was with Wilmington, he added.
“If you threw your fastball over the plate in Single-A, you could get away with it because at worst I gave up a single or a double, or they’d foul it off,” Gavin said. “I had more of a margin for error.
“Here, sometimes they’ll foul it off if I make a mistake, but sometimes they will put it over the fence and you just gave up two or three runs. That was my biggest problem at the beginning of the season.”
Gavin also has faced some big names at the Double-A level. He’s pitched to the St. Louis Cardinals’ No. 2 ranked prospect Dylan Carlson (the team’s first round pick in 2016) four times and the Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Gavin Lux (the Dodgers’ No. 2 ranked prospect and first-round draft pick in 2016) once.
“Dylan Carlson is a pretty good hitter,” Gavin said. “He’s pretty good at hitting the fastball if you leave it over the plate. I think he’s 2-for-4 off me. And Gavin Lux, I got him out, but you can tell he has a good approach. I will be facing him a lot in the second half of the season.”
Facing up-and-coming stars like Carlson and Lux is one of the reasons Gavin has been working on developing a third pitch – the split-finger fastball. He recently threw the pitch for the first time and is working on it with his pitching coach, former major leaguer Steve Luebber.
“I think (the split-finger) will open up a lot of possibilities for me,” he said. “It will give hitters something else to think about. I want to be able to throw that with confidence, in the strike zone, by the end of the season.
“I am in the early stages of throwing it, but it has some good downward action. I think I can get more action on it if I can figure out how to get it a little deeper in my fingers and throw it more like a forkball. The ones I’ve thrown have a good speed differential – about 7 to 8 miles per hour off my fastball.”
Gavin not only faces challenges on the field, but there are some off of it, as well. He is on the road a lot as a minor league ball player and is often away from his family. He said he enjoys the lifestyle for the most part, but occasionally gets homesick. But his grandmother and his parents are always there for support.
“This is something I always wanted to do,” Gavin said. “I didn’t have a full grasp of what the lifestyle is like, but I really like it and enjoy it. If there’s any day where I am like ‘This kind of sucks,’ there was one time we had to take a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride in the middle of the night, and I thought that kind of sucked. Then the next day I get to wake up and play baseball, so it’s not that bad.
“A lot of my friends I grew up with aren’t playing baseball anymore, so I feel blessed in that regard. My parents helped me financially because you don’t get paid the best in minor league baseball. They help me make ends meet. If I am ever homesick I can always call my little sister or my mom or my dad or my grandma.”
With some help from his family’s support, Gavin said he hopes to get a shot to pitch for the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate – the Omaha Stormchasers – sometime in the near future. But his focus right now is to improve with the Naturals.
“I have no idea what the organization is thinking about doing with me,” Gavin said. “I don’t have any clue what’s going to happen, but if I continue to pitch well and get better and better and have a strong second half of the season, I would assume I’d get a chance at some point.”