Most pitchers attach themselves to the idea of becoming a valued member of a starting rotation. Relievers, on the other hand, breed themselves out of necessity. Recent shifts in the modern game towards velocity and monitored pitch counts placed a higher priority on pitching out of the bullpen. Mets’ prospect Ryley Gilliam made the switch to relief work during his second year at Clemson to maximize his value and have a more significant impact with lesser innings under his belt.
“The transition from starting pitcher to the bullpen started in my freshman year because I had bounced around as a spot-starter and pitching out of the bullpen,” Gilliam said. “Essentially, after my freshman year they (Clemson) had their starting rotation set, and Tyler Jackson was their mid-week starter. There wasn’t a spot for me, so I took it upon myself to make a spot for me out of the bullpen.”
Adding Gilliam to the bullpen fortified Clemson’s relief corps in their pursuit of an NCAA Tournament appearance last spring. Gilliam served as the school’s closer for the first time and posted career-bests in strikeouts (54), WHIP (1.15), and ERA (1.41). The bullpen’s efforts helped Clemson amass their highest win total in over a decade with Gilliam earning Baseball America second-team All-American honors and becoming first Tiger since 1998 named to third-team All-ACC.
“I grew from learning how to throw every day and basically maintaining my stuff through the entire season and being ready to pitch each game going in for a possible save situation or if we needed a stop,” Gilliam explains. “It definitely prepared me for pro ball, because the hardest part about it is being ready to go each day no matter how you feel. That was my main focus at Clemson.”
Gilliam also showed signs of his potential in relief in his junior season and garnered consideration for the USA Collegiate National Team, featuring future first-round draft picks, Nick Madrigal and Travis Swaggerty. Increased competition led to increased exposure for Gilliam, who emerged from the tournament as of the top relief prospects in the upcoming draft. More gratifying for Gilliam was the opportunity to play alongside Clemson teammate Seth Beer, who recently joined the Astros’ organization as a first-round selection.
“Joining Seth was a huge boost of morale,” Gilliam said. “He came in freshman year, and he dominated in college. I looked up to him and to be able to play with him on Team USA, along with being my teammate at Clemson was cool. It was a goal for myself (to play on Team USA) after seeing him set the standard and trying to play. I loved representing my country and met a lot of great guys, who are all flourishing in their own careers.”
Finding quality young pitching is probably the most challenging pursuit for most scouts and general managers, given their unpredictability. The uncertainty leads teams to take many pitchers early in the draft, hoping one will have a big league future. In their first ten picks of the 2018 Draft, the Mets took six pitchers, including Gilliam in the fifth round, who may have the potential to move up quickly through the minor league system according to insiders, such as MLB.com’s Jim Callis.
“I play the game knowing that I can only control what I’m able to control,” Gilliam said. “That being said, no matter what anybody says about my pathway or how quick I might be able to get up, I have no control over that. I just know every time I get into a game, that’s my chance to impact and show people what I have on the mound and what provides value for the Mets.”
The expectations did not hinder Gilliam’s performance once he joined the Brooklyn Cyclones in early July. Instead, he justified the Mets’ selection at this initial stage with eight scoreless innings in his first eight appearances, including 13 strikeouts. To attain high levels of success in this first month in the pro ranks, Gilliam did not deviate from the approach he learned from the coaching staff at Clemson and credits the culture instilled during his tenure.
“I had a good coaching staff at Clemson,” Gilliam said. “They built a great culture with me, and I was part of Monte Lee’s first official class as head coach of Clemson. Lee, Andrew See, Bradley LeCroy, and Greg Starbuck were great coaches, and I feel that they impacted my baseball career and helped me understand what things are like at the professional level and what I should expect. It’s been a seamless transition (to professional baseball) because of the standard held at Clemson.”
Pitching out of the bullpen, Gilliam features a four-seam fastball with velocity peaking at 95 MPH, a curveball with 12/6 movement, and circle changeup. Plus command of his primary offerings and the ability to elicit swings and misses at a high rate support claims of Gilliam’s potential as a reliever who can move through a minor league system and pitch in high leverage spots. The focus for Gilliam at present is controlling the task at hand and letting his pitching dictate his path.
“I describe myself as explosive with a fast twitch on the mound,” Gilliam said. I pitch with a high tempo, and hopefully, I’m fun to watch. One of the main things I’ve been working on is throwing my changeup more consistent in the zone along with my curveball and burying in late in counts. It’s all about taking a step back and living in the moment, not worrying about moving up four levels in one season.”