Before the start of the 2021 season, left-handed Colorado native Lucas Gilbreath hadn’t pitched since 2019 due to a pandemic leading to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season. Before that, he had never pitched above High-A.
Now, in the waning days of the 2021 season, Rockies fans are watching Gilbreath blossom into a Major League reliever before their eyes.
Since June 8th, Gilbreath has appeared in 19 2⁄3 innings through 22 games. His ERA during this span is 3.20 with an opposing slash of .171/.306/.229 with just one home run allowed.
Lucas Gilbreath - Since June 8
It’s no secret the Rockies have eyed pitchers from Colorado. Blake Goldsberry, Case Williams, and most notably Kyle Freeland all hail from the Centennial State and grew up pitching at altitude. Lucas Gilbreath is from Westminster and attended Legacy High School. The Rockies drafted him in the 36th round of the 2014 draft, but he did not sign and instead honored his commitment to the University of Minnesota.
In three years with the Golden Gophers, Gilbreath posted an ERA of 2.91 over 48 total appearances and 142 1⁄3 innings. His career batting average against was an excellent .211 and he struck out 168 of the 615 batters he faced (27.3%).
Primarily a reliever in college, Gilbreath struggled in his freshman season with an ERA of 5.46 over 28 innings, but had a career year in 2016 with 1.36 over 33 frames. Minnesota moved him to the rotation in 2017 where he started 14 games and pitched 81 1⁄3 innings with excellent numbers: a 2.66 ERA, a .184 BAA, and 92 strikeouts.
The Rockies still had him on their radar, and they drafted Gilbreath in the seventh round of the 2017 draft.
His first three seasons in the organization were not exactly impressive. With the majority of his work coming as a starter, he posted an ERA of 5.35 across Rookie Grand Junction, Low-A Asheville, and High-A Lancaster. In 2019 with Lancaster, he struggled in an environment where hitters thrive. His fastball averaged just 91 mph, and his slider wasn’t very effective.
Lucas Gilbreath - Minor League Career 2017-2019
|2017 (ROK Grand Junction)||12||10||43||4.6||6.7||5.65||0.63|
|2018 (Class-A Ashville)||26||22||116||5.04||9.23||1.86||0.7|
|2019 (A-Advanced Lancaster)||28||28||144||5.81||8.94||4.63||1.38|
Like many other minor leaguers, Gilbreath sat out the 2020 season when he wasn’t brought to the Rockies’ alternate training site. He turned to other avenues to improve his pitching, utilizing space at his hometown Thunder Baseball Academy in Broomfield, Colorado. Gilbreath got to work, motivated by his struggles in the Rockies’ minor league system.
“I didn’t have the most success in the world, but the ups and downs kind of helped me and motivated me to keep improving and keep getting better at some of those aspects,” Gilbreath told the Golden Gophers’ athletic news.
Gilbreath also turned to resources within the organization for help. First, he reached out to organizational coach Frank Gonzales. The two had worked together in Lancaster, and the coach had similarly lost his 2020 season with the cancellation of minor league baseball. Gonzales had been promoted to the pitching coach of the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats and was scheduled to start his new position that season. (Gonzales is also the father of fellow Colorado native and Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales.)
Based in Fort Collins, Gonzales met with Gilbreath weekly to see how the young pitcher was progressing.
Also assisting Gilbreath’s endeavor to improve was Steve Merriman, then-pitching coordinator for the Rockies. Merriman left to resume his work with the University of Michigan before the 2021 season, but not before significantly aiding Gilbreath’s development.
Merriman worked with Gonzales to apply analytical data to Gilbreath’s approach in their weekly sessions. The summer of training was so effective that Gilbreath was invited to the fall instructional league by then-farm director Zach Wilson.
Wilson had nothing but praise for Gilbreath’s development. His fastball went from averaging 91 mph to consistently hitting between 94-97 with more favorable spin.
His previously ineffective slider became “consistently plus.” Sitting between 80-84 mph, the short and late break is effective at altitude where breaking balls often lack movement.
“To have him take a huge step with no games, and a lot of it done remotely, is pretty impressive,” Zach Wilson told Baseball America. “And the complete package showed up in instructional league. Did we think that was in there at some point? Yes. I’d be lying if I told you I thought it could happen in this type of environment so quickly.”
The Rockies organization was so impressed that they chose to protect him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster, a move that came with an invitation to 2021 spring training as a reliever.
Lucas Gilbreath - 2021 Spring Training
Though he did not make the 26-man to start the season, an injury to Antonio Senzatela, Lucas Gilbreath was called up on May 1 to make his big league debut, bypassing multiple levels of minor league ball. Entering a 14-5 blowout against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gilbreath’s very first major league pitch was demolished into Chase Field’s center field pool in a less-than-ideal but nonetheless memorable debut.
The month of May was a rocky road for the rookie as he struggled to adjust to major league batters. Through his first five games he had an ERA of 10.13. He was optioned and recalled several times. However, Gilbreath had learned from his struggles in the minors and all the work he had put in to push through. On June 5th he was recalled again to the Rockies’ bullpen, where he has since stayed. Gilbreath has made the most of the opportunity with consistent and steadily improving work out of the Rockies’ bullpen.
Lucas Gilbreath - Time Frame Comparisons
|May 2021||9||8 1/3||8.64||.314||.375||.657||3|
|Since June 8th||22||19 2/3||3.2||.171||.306||.229||1|
Gilbreath has been pitching consistently for the Rockies since his last recall, and he earned his first big league save on July 23rd against the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine. There have certainly been bumps in the road — such as a three run game on June 27th against the Brewers — but the trend for Gilbreath has been moving overwhelmingly in a positive direction. Fans have watched his ERA tick down to under five, one of just four Rockies relievers to have such a mark. In the month of August he’s been credited with just one earned run in 8 1⁄3 innings with 11 strikeouts.
The Rockies and their fans are watching Gilbreath develop in real time. Every outing he gains poise and confidence. In a few short months he’s gone from shaky rookie to one of the Rockies’ more reliable bullpen options, and one of very few left-handed options at that.
“He’s a bright kid... and just seems to have a poise and calmness about him,” skipper Bud Black said of Gilbreath after his debut. “But yet, there’s a competitor in there. He’s getting after it, but his understanding of where he is is a real positive and advantage for him.”
The bullpen has always been tricky for the Rockies, and the development of home-grown relievers is an important step the organization needs to take. With a little over a month left in the 2021 regular season, it’s going to be fascinating to watch his development continue. Hopefully he earns his place on the roster for years to come.