Aiming for a return to KC: Parkville's Gavin pitching for Royals' Double-A team

Grant Gavin is one of the hottest pitchers in the Kansas City Royals’ minor league system.

The right-handed relief pitcher had a rocky start to his fourth season in the minor leagues, but the Parkville native has turned the corner lately.

He opened the season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas in Springdale, Ark. He is at a level where the difference between the proverbial prospects and suspects are determined. 

Only Triple-A Omaha separates the Platte County native from pitching at Kauffman Stadium.

“You feel closer (to the big leagues) but I don’t think about that because I know there’s a lot of stuff that I can improve on,” Gavin said. “There are so many levels I can take my game to and I want to be in the big leagues, but I got some improvements to make before I get there. If you asked any of my coaches they would tell you the same thing. 

“That’s what the minors are for. You come out here and get better every day and I’ll be closer than I was yesterday.”

Gavin had an earned run average of more than 5 runs per game the first months of the season. Since June, the Central Missouri product has a 2-0 record with 1.15 ERA in 19 games.

CODY THORN/Citizen photo   Parkville native Grant Gavin warms up in the bullpen for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals — the Royals Double-A affiliate —in Springdale, Ark.

CODY THORN/Citizen photo

Parkville native Grant Gavin warms up in the bullpen for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals — the Royals Double-A affiliate —in Springdale, Ark.

In 36 games this season, he had a 5-3 record with a 3.35 ERA through 45 2/3 innings as of Monday, Aug. 19 in 36 games — the sixth most appearances in the Texas League and two behind team-leader Franco Terrero.

His ERA spiked to 5.79 in May, but he didn’t give up a run in six games in June, had a 1.80 ERA (two earned runs) in eight games in July and hasn’t allowed two in five games in August.

Coming into the season he was one of the prospects in the Royals’ chain to keep an eye on. 

In 34 games last year he had a 1-1 record with a 3.19 ERA between Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He followed that up by having a 1.50 ERA in nine games in the Arizona Fall League, a league full of highly regarded prospects. 

He returned to Northwest Arkansas to open the 2019 season but struggled out of the gate. He gave up 13 earned runs — the worst a five-run outing vs. the Springfield Cardinals on May 11 — through 14 games.

From May 24 to July 29, he didn’t give up an earned run in 16 appearances. He matched a season-high with five strikeouts on Aug. 6 against Tulsa in two innings of work.

When he visited with The Citizen earlier this year he talked about what needed to do to improve and lower his ERA.

“I need to refine my command, first of all,” he said. “And get a little more confidence in my pitches. I’m working on a new change up that is going to open up a lot of success for me. It’s just another thing to put in the hitter’s mind. Once I get that going, it will help me keep hitters off balance and make my curves and fastballs much better.”

He has worked closely with Doug Henry, the Naturals’ pitching coach who previously served as the bullpen coach for the Royals. 

Henry sat in the bullpen during Kansas City’s back-to-back World Series runs and worked with some of the best closers to down the Royals’ blue-and-white.

For Gavin, becoming a Royal meant a lot after growing up a short drive from Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals selected Gavin, who turned 24 last month, in the 29th round of the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

“I knew going in, if I was going to get drafted, it would be by the Royals or the Astros,” Gavin said. “Those were the only two teams that showed significant interest in me. No one called before I got drafted, I saw it on Twitter. Anyone could’ve told me that day and I would’ve been ecstatic. Looking back, it’s one of the best memories of my life. I remember seeing it and having a sense of ‘oh my gosh, this really just happened.’ At the time, I was like, whatever, just someone please take me, I want a shot.’ But, I wouldn’t change it for the world because the Royals have meant a lot to me for my entire life and it’s even cooler now that they’re paying me to do this.”

Gavin was a Royals fan growing up and he attended St. Therese and later St. Pius X. At the parochial school off Interstate 29, he became a starting quarterback for coach Rick Byers as a freshman. That experience was an eye-opener for the 14-year-old, but beneficial.

“At the time, it was a big responsibility for me,” Gavin said of starting under center. “He (Byers) helped me grow up faster.”

He played three sports for the Warriors so he didn’t get recruited as much going from one sport to another. 

Gavin was all-state in football (as a punter) and baseball.

He was throwing in the mid 80s in high school and had options of going to William Jewell or Central Missouri. He had gone to camps in Warrensburg and chose to join the Mules.

He went from a starter in high school to a bullpen guy for the Mules, but came into college thinking he would start. Coach Kyle Crooks, then the assistant coach, told Gavin he liked him more as a reliever than a starter. 

“Honestly, looking back on it, I was disappointed because that wasn’t what I wanted at the time,” Gavin said of changing roles. “But I got to go out there and get my confidence back, which is the main thing for a pitcher. I kind of thrived in that role and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a starter anymore, I love relieving.’”

He played summer baseball his first two years in college and noted a big jump came from playing for the St. Joseph Mustangs after his freshman year. He got consistent work after an ‘up-and-down’ freshman season for the Mules. Coach Matt Johnson was using Gavin every two or three days and that routine helped Gavin gain confidence. 

“We saw late life on fastball, it jumped out of his hand and a plus-plus pitch in his breaking ball,” Johnson said. “He’s one of the guys we could lean to help us out. Summer is a different animal. College ball is so spread out. You pitch Sunday you have until next Friday or Saturday to throw again. Our ability every other day or every day opportunity to work things out and get better and it really helped. He was there every day at 2 p.m. getting conditioning in to get better and that makes it easier.”

He played in a league in North Carolina after his sophomore season and the next spring, Gavin helped Central Missouri win the MIAA and Central Regional title to reach the Division II World Series.

Gavin racked up 13 saves to go with a 4-3 record, with a 2.70 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings his junior season. 

His 13 saves were second most in a single season for UCM and the MIAA and was second most in Division II in 2016. That got the attention of MLB teams and then was drafted by the Royals after his junior season at UCM.

A first-team all-region and All-MIAA pick, Gavin hit the ground running for the Royals’ Arizona League squad. He was named the team’s pitcher of the year, going 3-1 with one save and a 2.01 ERA — fourth in the league — in 13 games and 49 1/3 innings. He started four games and was named to the postseason all-star game for the Surprise-based Royals. He later got his first taste of Kauffman Stadium as a pro when he was part of Future Night with other award winners in the Royals’ system.

He will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason if the Royals don’t add him to their 40-man roster. If not, they risk losing him to another team.

“Ever since I was 5 years old, I said I wanted to be a professional athlete and now that it’s here, it’s ‘wow,’” Gavin said. “It is one of the coolest things in the world. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I don’t know what I would be doing. There’s nothing that I could do where I would enjoy it anywhere close to what I do. 

“I would much rather be riding a bus doing this all the time versus sitting at a desk behind a computer, hating my life. A bad day at the baseball field is better than the best day behind a desk, in my opinion.”