By Lauren Smith / The News Tribune
A quick scroll through Gerber’s timeline will give the reader a “unique insight,” Servais says, into what the rookie right-hander is all about.
“Joey’s a really fun guy to have in the clubhouse,” Servais said during a recent pregame video call with reporters. “He has a different perspective on a lot of different things.”
The 23-year-old laughed last week when asked about his quirky social media presence. The tweets are mostly a collection of random thoughts, he said, and somewhere along the line, someone told him to write them down.
He sometimes runs polls asking the reader to choose between this or that, once told a short tale about a double banana he found in his bunch of bananas — “or whatever you call a group of bananas,” he wrote — and asserts the word “bag” should be pronounced like the beginning of the word “bagel.”
“They’re definitely spur of the moment,” he laughed.
But, for all of the humorous, thought-provoking transmissions he has made from his listed location — Earth — since joining Twitter four years ago, one of Gerber’s latest tweets reflecting on his big league debut last Tuesday against the Angels is perhaps his most moving.
“Four summers ago I was playing town ball in rural Minnesota after posting a 7.50 ERA my freshman year of college,” he wrote late Wednesday morning. “Last night I made my MLB debut and faced Albert Pujols. A lot can happen in four years.”
Gerber was lightly recruited out of Minnesota’s Wayzata High School as a teenager, and eventually signed with Illinois, but his freshman season in 2016 wasn’t what he wanted it to be. He appeared in relief in five games, allowed five earned runs on 11 hits with three walks, two hit batters and three strikeouts across six innings, and ended up back home when the season ended.
“I didn’t play in a college summer league like most guys,” he said. “I got sent back home and I just played town ball, and I figured, you know, if I want to get innings, I’m going to have to throw harder.”
Gerber played that first summer of college with the Hamel Hawks, a Class A team in the Minnesota Baseball Association, which oversees amateur leagues across the state. It was a laid back environment, he said. He played with guys he went to high school with. He even had a couple at-bats. It was then he saw his baseball career start to take a turn.
“That summer, I guess you could say it sort of kick-started everything, the process for me to get better and put me where I am today,” he said.
Gerber’s main objective was to return to Illinois with better velocity — and he did. He used resources online, like Driveline Baseball, to learn how to build it. He worked with weighted balls, and started lifting weights more regularly and rigorously to improve his strength. He also studied javelin throwers “because they throw things really far, and you just have to be a good thrower to be a javelin thrower.”
Every process served its purpose. Gerber emerged as Illinois’ closer as a sophomore, and by the end of his junior season was the team leader in several pitching categories. He tied the program’s single-season record for saves with 14 as a junior. That mark ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 14th in the nation in 2018.
By that time he had developed the fastball that now sits between 95-97 mph, a slider that plays better for it, and the unusual delivery that so effectively keeps hitters off-balance.
“That kind of came when I was just trying to throw hard,” Gerber said. “When I was a freshman I was in the wind up, and my (velocity) always dropped whenever I went to the stretch, so I decided to change it so I was just going out of the stretch.
“For whatever reason that’s kind of what I came up with trying to throw it hard out of the stretch. I really don’t actually know why it works the way it does, but that’s alright. It plays well for me.”
The Mariners love it.
“It’s a very unique delivery,” Servais said. “It’s a lot of deception. When you just get a quick look at him, it’s hard to get comfortable. You just don’t see the ball very good off him.”
Seattle drafted Gerber in the eighth round in 2018, and watched him post a 2.59 ERA in 44 relief appearances — including finishing 25 games with eight saves — in his first full professional season last year between High-A Modesto and Double-A Arkansas.
He was invited to Seattle’s big league spring training, and was a candidate to make the original Opening Day roster after five scoreless outings, but the COVID-19 pandemic squashed that possibility.
Gerber didn’t have many options to keep his arm ready during the baseball shutdown — sometimes throwing at a tree or the shed in his backyard in Minnesota, sometimes throwing into a chain link fence at nearby abandoned fields, and sometimes throwing with a friend’s brother who is a Division III pitcher — which he believes contributed to a slower ramp up in summer camp.
But, there was still plenty to gain from three weeks pitching against the organization’s big leaguers and its top prospects in Seattle.
“You get really good feedback from some of the veteran guys about how your stuff is playing on a given day, or what you need to work on to actually get hitters out at the highest level,” he said.
“So, it’s been fun. I’m really happy to be around. The more talent you’re around, the easier it is to get better. I’m happy to be here, man.”
He spent about a week pitching at Seattle’s alternate training site in Tacoma before getting the call to join the Mariners’ bullpen Tuesday, and made quick work of the Angels that night in his debut. He needed just 13 pitches to retire the three batters he faced — including Pujols, who Gerber remembers having on his team while playing Backyard Baseball as a kid.
“I’m 10 years old and he’s on my team in a video game,” Gerber said. “To face him in real life, it’s pretty cool.”
Gerber said he was disappointed he didn’t get to see Mike Trout in his debut as well, but did face the Angels slugger in Thursday’s series finale — and got him to ground out. He tossed 1.1 scoreless innings in his second appearance on just 11 pitches.
“I love his demeanor,” Servais said. “Joey doesn’t get too high, too low, it’s a very calm heartbeat. He’s just going to do his thing, and I like it a lot. I think he’s got a bright future ahead.”