GSA Spotlight: Navy’s Luke GillinghamFeatured
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Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos knows how lucky he got with Luke Gillingham. It’s not that Gillingham was pre-ordained to play for the Midshipmen — he drew some interest from other top academic programs like Cal, San Diego and Duke — but once the Navy coaching staff saw him in the summer after his junior year, it wasn’t hard to sell him on the Navy experience.
After all, Gillingham’s father is an admiral in the Navy Medical Corps, and was stationed in Coronado, Calif., when Gillingham was in high school. So playing baseball in Annapolis was a perfect fit, even if it meant heading to the opposite coast.
“Honestly, growing up, it’s kind of all I really saw was Navy life,” Gillingham said. “I definitely saw how much pride he took in what he did, the way he was when he came home. That’s something that steered me in that direction. But I really wasn’t thinking about the Naval Academy until I started getting recruited here. The recruiting really got me here.”
“I’d love to sit there and pat myself on the back with the staff about how we recruited this great player and he came to Navy, but he had such a strong interest in coming here,” Kostacopoulos said. “His size alone and his deception, we wanted to get him to Navy. He knew this was the right path for him.”
It couldn’t have worked out any better for Gillingham, or for his coaches. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound lefthander has been one of college baseball’s most dominant pitchers over the last two years, and he’s been a vital part of Navy’s pitching staff for his entire four-year career. He made 14 appearances (eight starts) and posted a 3.23 ERA as a freshman in 2013. A key moment in his development was his final start of that first season, when he threw his first career complete game against Lehigh, striking out 12.
“That was a really big confidence booster, really just got me going forward. I never really looked back after that,” Gillingham said. “That’s the most memorable for me, starting a game, really sticking it out and ending a game, then you get that taste of closing a game out.”
Since then, Gillingham has recorded 11 more complete games, including four shutouts. He has become the ultimate tone-setter at the top of the rotation, pitching deep into games week after week and shutting down opposing lineups. He was very good as a sophomore, posting a 3.33 ERA in 67.2 innings, but he made an incredible leap from that season to his junior year, when he led the nation in WHIP (0.70) and ranked third in both ERA (1.19) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.99) while posting an 8-1 record.
Gillingham said the arrival of pitching coach Bobby Applegate in August of 2014 proved crucial for his development. With Applegate’s help, he learned how to visualize how he would attack each batter on a pitch-by-pitch basis. He also made a few mechanical adjustments with Applegate, moving to a slightly higher arm slot (high three-quarters) and working on getting more sink on his four-seam fastball, in addition to its natural run. But refining his mental game might have been the most important piece in his development.
What can you possibly do for an encore after posting a 1.19 ERA and striking out 12 batters per game as a junior? Some regression seemed almost inevitable, but Gillingham has managed to mostly sustain his incredibly high level of performance this spring, going 4-1, 1.80 with a 45-9 strikeout-walk mark in 40 innings. He was shut down throughout the summer and into the fall with a shoulder issue that did not require any kind of surgery, but it did cause his velocity to dip from his usual 85-88 range into the low 80s early on this spring. Even so, Gillingham has been characteristically dominant, and now his velocity is starting to climb back up to normal.
“When you reach the tallest building, like he did last year, you expect this tumbling, and he really hasn’t done that,” Kostacopoulos said. “He just keeps moving along … He’s got a special inside to him — it’s not just a competitive thing, it’s a thought process. It’s an ability to repeat, he can take things in, he loves learning. He loves being around a learning environment. He’s got ability, a lot of other things that I just happen to see daily.”
Kostacopoulos also marvels at Gillingham’s unassuming nature. He never takes his success for granted, never assumes he’s going to succeed just because he has succeeded in the past. That’s what keeps him grounded and hungry, according to his coach.
“You always can improve,” Gillingham said. “It’s hard when I think of how I did last year after a game, and how I did this year. I think I just have a pretty high standard for myself.”
Besides his uncommon makeup, Gillingham succeeds because he really knows how to use his three-pitch repertoire. His fastball doesn’t have premium velocity, but it plays up because he has “tremendous deception,” as Kostacopoulos put it. His coach believes his changeup would be a major weapon in pro ball for him right now, and he has the confidence to throw it anytime he wants, whether he’s behind in the count or ahead. His curveball has continued to get better, and he is comfortable throwing that in a wide variety of situations as well.
“I think one thing that makes me pretty successful is I don’t really have that, ‘Oh, he’s got two strikes, he’s coming with this pitch.’ Last week my most successful pitch was my changeup, other weeks it’s been my fastball,” Gillingham said. “Traditionally it’s been my curveball, but I can throw other pitches in other counts if that’s not working.”
Gillingham may not have a mid-90s fastball, but Kostacopoulos can’t shake the feeling that the lefty has a bright future in pro ball — if he wants it. He has a five-year naval commitment, but he would be able to play pro ball this summer and then report for duty in the fall. After two years, he has the option to petition the Pentagon for a waiver that would let him forego the final three years of his service commitment.
But there’s no guaranteeing Gillingham will take that route. Originally, he wanted to go to flight school, but that plan was scuttled for medical reasons. Now he’s interested in nuclear surface warfare. “We get opportunities here unlike any other school,” he said. “I’m kind of taking it day by day. If the opportunity presents itself to give pro baseball a try, I’ll run with it. But I’m definitely looking forward to serving.”
The way Gillingham has embraced the incredibly demanding Naval Academy lifestyle surely must endear him to scouts, as it has to his coaches.
“He’s really pretty good. But to have him do what he does every day — they get up at 6 in the morning, they take 20 credit hours a semester, they train in the summer at various things. Each minute of their day is occupied,” Kostacopoulos said. “For him to stay that bright-eyed, that positive, willing to work as hard as he does, it’s a pretty unique, special thing. Really neat to be around.”