Unlocking the Ace: Gavin Williams’ Elite Potential

The sky is the limit for the young Cleveland starter.

The Cleveland Guardians have seen a significant youth movement at the big league level this year, as three rookie pitchers have had a significant impact in the rotation.

Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen made their debuts early in the season, while Gavin Williams joined the team in late June. The 2021 first-round pick has gotten off to a solid start at the big league level, posting a 3.46 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 24.7% strikeout rate in 65 IP.

While that ranks behind Bibee’s 3.05 ERA and is ahead of Logan Allen’s 3.77 ERA, the skills that Williams possesses make his future ceiling higher than the other two.

Williams’ big league innings have exuded the likes of an unfinished product: there have been a handful of dominant starts but the consistency is not yet apparent. The peak of Williams in 2023 was his back-to-back 10+ strikeout games against the Blue Jays and Rays, but that has yet to be replicated in any other appearance.

However, Williams has yet to truly see a bad stretch of games. He’s only given up more than three earned runs once and that was to the Dodgers.

Williams’ success stems from an arsenal with top-of-the-line potential, yet it requires more development. He relies primarily on a fastball, reaching the mid-to-upper 90s, and an 85mph slider. Additionally, he occasionally uses a curveball and changeup to attack left-handed batters. However, there are existing command issues, as his 9.8% walk rate is worrying.


The Fastball


Gavin Williams relies heavily on his fastball, which is his best pitch and the foundation of his success. He throws it 56% of the time with an average velocity of 95.7 mph and can increase the velocity to 98/99 mph when necessary, especially in 2-strike counts. When his secondary pitches are not working, his fastball gives him a solid floor.

The pitch thrown by Williams has a Stuff+ of 113, which is the 24th-best fastball for a starting pitcher who has pitched at least 20 innings.

Although it doesn’t have exceptional rise (16 inches of IVB) or come from an elite vertical approach angle, Williams is one of the best in baseball in extension. He is tied with Tyler Glasnow and Logan Gilbert for first among all starting pitchers with a 7.5ft extension. Williams is deceptively tall compared to Glasnow and Gilbert, but at 6’6″ with a long stride, he is able to extend as well as anyone.

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With elite extension and velocity, Williams likes to work up in the zone and above the zone. He will attack both lefties and righties with fastballs away.

Williams’ fastball has a 54.8% strike rate and he can get whiffs both in and out of the zone. His 30.9% CSW on the fastball is propelled by a 13.8% SwStr%, which ranks in the 89th percentile among starting pitchers. Additionally, the fastball has a 30.2% chase rate.

This enables Williams to use his fastball over half of the time in 2-strike counts. When throwing the fastball in 2-strike counts, he can get significant whiff rates anywhere in the upper third and above.

Williams’ fastball has a .326 xwOBA and a 7.1% barrel rate, both of which are well below average for a starter’s fastball. This means that when batters are not getting whiffs, they are not doing much with it compared to other fastballs. The floor that Williams gets with his fastball allows him to develop his secondaries, which is useful for a young pitcher at the big league level.


The Slider


Williams primarily uses his slider as his secondary offering, but he uses it more against right-handed batters than left-handed batters (32% vs. 11%). Regardless of who is at the plate, he throws the slider down and glove-side and varies the velocity of the pitch. While the pitch averages 85 mph, Williams has maxed out at 88mph and has gone as low as 82 mph.

Often, this can be a pitcher using a deeper slider to attack right-handed hitters and a harder, more cutter-ish slider to left-handed hitters, but Williams throws both types of sliders to both types of hitters.

Here’s an 88 mph slider to Miguel Cabrera and an 81 mph slider to Nick Pratto:

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Although it does not grade well by Stuff+ with just a 79, Williams can put it in the right location with consistency.

The slider’s location compensates for its shape’s shortcomings with a respectable 32.8% CSW%, which comes from an equal called strike rate and whiff rate. Batters struggle against the pitch, hitting only .167 AVG against it, which is in the 87th percentile of SP sliders.

However, Williams struggles with command issues, resulting in many non-competitive misses when he misses. Although he can place the slider where he wants to, his misses are all over the place. While this works out with the slider, it can be a problem with the curveball.


The Curveball


Williams’ development hinges on his curveball, which is the most critical aspect at the moment. If he can master the pitch, he can transition from a solid two-pitch pitcher to a three-pitch pitcher, ensuring success against all types of hitters and increasing his longevity without relying on two pitches (see Spencer Strider’s recent struggles).

Williams throws the curveball 20% of the time to lefties and only 10% to righties. Although it grades out slightly better than the slider with an 86 Stuff+, it is commanded far worse. Williams has a 14.9% BB% against lefties compared to a 4.5% BB% against righties, indicating clear room for development.

The curveball has a low 24.7% CSW% and a paltry 10.3% strike rate. Williams’ 27.9% zone rate on the curveball ranks in the 7th percentile of all SP curveballs.

Although the pitch has potential, like the slider, he can only get whiffs when he locates it well. The curveball still has an above-average whiff rate and chase rate, even though he struggles to command it. Batters only have a .211 AVG against the pitch, but often it is not put in a position to even tempt a swing.

The scatter plot indicates that he struggles to get on top of the curveball, which could be due to his high extension and low release point.

There are an unusual amount of high and arm-side misses. These misses often come when he’s ahead in the count and contribute to the low inning count. He’s a strike-thrower with all of his other pitches except the curveball.

An example is this 2-2 pitch to Mookie Betts, which is a horrible waste pitch:

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Among pitchers with at least 300 2-strike pitches, Williams ranks 163rd out of 204 pitchers in strike percentage with 2 strikes. 34.2% of his 2 strike pitches are balls, which is tied with teammate Tanner Bibee. However, Bibee’s misses are not as egregious as Williams’, which makes Williams’ figure play worse than it is.

When Williams does locate the curveball down, it’s a masterful pitch. It tunnels well with the high fastball which is what can make it more useful, it just needs to be thrown down with consistency.

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This pitch to Kerry Carpenter shows an effective use of the curveball on someone who is sitting fastball. His eyes light up as the ball comes out of the hand at the top of the zone, but it buckles his knees as he swings right over it. Williams needs to continue to bury this pitch in the dirt, as doing so would equip him with a third legitimate weapon.


The Changeup


Williams’ changeup is a work in progress that he only throws to lefties. The pitch has a .455 AVG against it and struggles to get either whiffs or called strikes. It does not get much vertical drop compared to other changeups, making it easier to hit even if the batter is fooled.

Although giving the changeup additional separation from the fastball will increase its effectiveness, it currently has potential. Stuff+ oddly loves the pitch and grades it at a 133, making it the second-highest graded changeup among starts (min 20 IP).

However, the caveat to that is changeups often rely on deception for their effectiveness, which isn’t captured in the Stuff+ model.


Role Outlook


Williams already has two formidable pitches, and refining his curveball can make him an even better starter. Improving his command against left-handed batters can ensure success deeper into games and provide the opportunity to pitch deeper into games.

However, due to inefficiency, Williams has only pitched into the sixth inning twice, except for his recent injury-shortened start. This has also been the case in the minor leagues, where command has still been an issue. In college, however, he was able to go into the 6th and 7th innings on similar pitch counts, so these lower innings totals at the pro level are not due to caution.

Williams has a bit of an injury history, as he tore his meniscus in high school and had a lingering finger injury that caused him to drop in the 2021 draft. However, he has not shown any reason those injuries would hamper him now.

As Williams continues to find his groove at the big league level, he can become a frequent contributor to an already talented Cleveland rotation. By keeping his fastballs high and breaking pitches low, he will become a reliable arm who can provide strikeouts without a worrying amount of baserunners.


Photo by Frank Jansky | Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram)

Nate Schwartz

Nate is currently writing for the Going Deep team at Pitcher List. He is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals, devil magic, and Matt Carpenter salsa supporter. You can follow him on Twitter/X/whatever @_nateschwartz. Left-handed pitchers make him happy.

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