Missing Bats and Turning Heads: A Conversation with Gil Luna Jr.
2021 9th round selection Gil Luna Jr. had a conversation with Dan Victor about his arsenal and how he made a change in his approach that has him overwhelming hitters.
In the annals of White Sox history, the ninth round of the MLB draft hasn’t been kind to the franchise. Historically, that draft spot can be aptly described as a “black hole” where prospects enter, never to be heard from again. The most recent Sox ninth round pick to see major league action was left-handed relief specialist Kevin Tolar. Tolar was drafted from his Panama City, Florida high school in 1989, and made his debut 11 years later while pitching for his sixth organization. During his career, he earned a -0.2 WAR over 17.2 innings pitched.
Flashing forward to 2021, the Sox have three ninth-round picks standing on various rungs of the developmental ladder, all are hopeful of ending this curse. One of these players is 2021 draftee Gil Luna Jr. While flying under the radar, the left-handed relief pitcher had one of the most successful debuts in minor league baseball.
Signing to a modest $10K bonus out of the University of Arizona, the senior signee reported to rookie ball where he promptly began breaking the wills of opposing hitters. In six outings the fireballer threw nine shutout frames. He surrendered only three hits and four walks while striking out 17. White Sox player development quickly recognized that the Arizona Complex League wasn’t posing a challenge for the hurler and promoted him to their Low-A affiliate Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. In the full-season league Luna found continued success. He allowed two hits and two walks while striking out seven over an additional six and a third scoreless innings. Upon completion of the season Luna headed back to the Arizona complex for instructs. Here, in what amounted to an encore performance of his rookie league campaign Luna put the cherry on top of his season. The lefty struck out eight of the nine batters he faced while tossing three more scoreless, hitless, and walk-free innings.
Including his instructional league innings, Luna’s season stat line read as follows: 18.1 IP 5 H 0 ER 6 BB and 32 K. He allowed one extra base hit, a double. How did this relatively obscure college reliever come to dominate during his first foray into professional baseball? Luna explained that he picked the brains of some friends that had previously gone through the draft process. He felt that this made him feel as if he had been there before and shares, “It was something I had been looking forward to doing my whole life, so I knew what needed to be done to stay prepared both mentally and physically; day in and day out.”
In college Luna suffered from erratic control giving up 69 walks in 73.1 innings pitched. When asked about the key to unlocking his newfound command he offers, “My first three college seasons the walks were very high. My last season the walks dropped, and strikeouts went up. I don’t think I cleaned anything up. I just started believing in myself.” He continued, “I felt confident on the mound, and I just attacked. Before, I nibbled too much and tried to be fine, hitting is hard; I think I was giving opposing hitters too much credit and myself not enough.”
Using a fastball heavy approach, the 6’0” 192 lb. southpaw handles his business on the bump. His fastball features excellent vertical movement and typically sits 94-96 while occasionally touching 97. He describes the changeup as his “bread and butter” pitch. From a velocity standpoint, at 80-83 mph the change features excellent separation coupled with arm side run. Luna’s comfort with his changeup gives him the confidence to pull the string in any count. He describes his third offering as a slurvy curveball, but suggests he is working toward developing a hard slider that he can deploy against both left and right-handed hitters. He lists refining this pitch as one of his major goals heading into the 2022 season.
Discussing the analytics of his pitches, Luna doesn’t quote spin rates or vertical/horizontal movement. In that respect, he seems to utilize more of an old-school approach. He doesn’t dismiss the numbers as unimportant, but feels more strongly that they are a byproduct of his efforts on the mound.
John Kazanas, Luna’s signing scout seems to have a Midas touch when it comes to identifying talented left-handed pitchers. The evaluator famously led the Sox to draft Mark Buehrle and more recently helped the team find Avery Weems, who was a component in the Lance Lynn trade. Kazanas shared, “He has no fear when he toes the rubber, he has a special confident attitude in challenging the hitter, here is my best stuff, try to hit it big boy!” With this bulldog mentality, it’s safe to say Luna isn’t going to rest on his laurels after his successful debut. The hurler offered, “It would be easy to be satisfied with that type of performance, but not me.” He continued, “I’m not here to be average or mediocre, I know what I need to do, and being satisfied isn’t one of those things.”
In addition to a solid pitch mix, the lefty is armed with an exceptional pickoff move. A skill that he used to eliminate two base runners during his first Low-A appearance for Kannapolis. When asked about his pickoff, Luna said it’s something he’s had in his back pocket since high school. He remembers being jaded from watching MLB pitchers throw over without purpose and determined early on that it was something he wanted to excel at. He shared, “I know when the right time to throw over is. My pickoff is deceiving, it looks like I’m throwing a pitch, but as soon as I come set and see a base runner getting lazy, being overaggressive, or just a little too bouncy I know it’s time.” He feels that deception plays into the equation, but it’s equally important to understand what the runner is thinking in the moment.
In 2021 the White Sox pitching staff had a noticeable bullpen hole with their lack of left-handed relief arms. Anderson Severino, Bennett Sousa, Andrew Perez, and Luna represent four quality arms poised to continue working their way through the system and toward the big-league bullpen. Sox fans should keep an eye on Luna as the organization has been aggressive in promoting relievers. Look for him to start with the High-A Winston-Salem Dash in 2022. If he can build on his impressive debut, the sky is the limit.
@slydanno70’s lukewarm seat questions with Gil Luna Jr.
DV: In a baseball movie about your life, who plays Gil Luna?
GL: “I’m going to have to go with Henry from Rookie of The Year; only because he’s so small and throws so hard.”
DV: What’s your favorite baseball movie?
GL: “Money Ball without a doubt.”
DV: Before being drafted by the White Sox, who was your favorite team?
GL: “The Arizona Diamondbacks, it was tough growing up a D-Backs fan, but being raised in Arizona, I always fell in love with the idea of playing for them one day.”
DV: Other than baseball do you have a secret talent that would make you famous?
GL: “I would most definitely become a comedian. I would say I’m the funny one in the bunch.”
DV: Are you a gamer? If so, what are you playing?
GL: “Gamer, oh yes, A lot of Modern Warfare Warzone and Call of Duty, but If anyone wants to play sports games like MLB The Show, Madden, or NBA 2K, I’ll go ahead and take people’s money with that too.”
DV: What are you binging on Netflix these days?
GL: “I’m a little late, but Peaky Blinders is my top one right now, I’m addicted.”
DV: Dogs or cats?
GL: “Dogs, I have two. A Siberian Husky named Bleu and a German Shepherd mixed with Lab, named Bud.”
DV: What is the jam on your current playlist?
GL: “Any time of any day I can bump country music as loud as I can. I just enjoy it that much.”
DV: Who was your brush with greatness or cool celebrity you’ve met?
GL: “My dad had a good friend that was really close to Alfonso Soriano. I was able to hang around the Cubs then and all those guys were celebrities to me. Loved staying around the game and being able to watch those guys at a young age was amazing.”