For relief pitching prospect Frank Gailey, 2011 will go down as one of the busiest years of his life.
After shifting back and forth all season between two levels of the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league system and winning the Eastern League Championship with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Gailey announced his engagement to his longtime girlfriend at the beginning of December. The very next day, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies — the hometown team he grew up rooting for as a kid.
Though he certainly had a hectic calendar year, Gailey’s 2011 was a contrast to his previous years in the Blue Jays organization.
A 23rd round pick by the Jays in 2007, Gailey, elated to start his career, signed quickly enough to throw 33 innings for Toronto’s rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League that year.
“When I got the call to continue my baseball career as a professional, I was slightly in shock. I couldn’t believe in was real,” he recalled. “But I was the happiest person in the world that day because I knew all of my hard work and preparation had paid off.”
After pitching less than five innings for the Auburn Doubledays, Toronto’s short-season minor league affiliate at the time, Gailey was promoted to the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts early in the 2008 season, where his numbers weren’t just good; they were utterly dominant.
In 35 innings for the Lugnuts that year, Gailey went 5-0 with a 1.26 ERA and allowed just 19 hits. He compiled 40 strikeouts to eight walks for an impressive 5:1 ratio, making a serious case for another promotion the following year in the process.
Despite his overpowering numbers, though, that promotion didn’t come, and a disappointed Gailey opened the 2009 season with Lansing once again.
“I wouldn’t say I was discouraged, but I was shocked because I did feel those numbers showed I could pitch at a higher level,” the left-hander said. “But it’s a business, and it’s not easy to move up quickly, so I had to keep my head up to show, year after year, what I could do.”
Gailey certainly showcased what he could that year in 2009, as he overpowered Midwest League hitters once again to the tune of just 14 earned runs on 48 hits with 60 strikeouts in a career-high 65 1/3 innings.
The 26-year-old’s four-pitch repertoire — fastball, changeup, breaking ball and splitter — has been one reason for his success in the minor leagues, while another has been his aggressive approach to hitters on both sides of the plate.
“My approach to left and right-handed hitters is about the same, keeping them guessing and working hard in and soft away,” Gailey said.
Finally earning a promotion to Advanced-A Dunedin in 2010, Gailey made the most of it and became the D-Jays’ most reliable option out of the bullpen in the most dominant season of his minor league career.
Establishing a new career-high with 91 2/3 innings pitched in just 45 games, Gailey earned the trust of then-Dunedin manager Clayton McCullough to consistently throw multiple innings in an outing. Finishing the year with a 2.55 ERA, Gailey allowed only 26 earned runs all season, including just two home runs.
That kind of success with Dunedin didn’t just come naturally for Gailey, though, as he was forced to make adjustments throughout the year and pitch differently than he did with Lansing.
“To me, the difference between Lansing and Dunedin was that there were more hitters in the Florida State League that would hurt you early with your fastball,” he said. “I had to make the adjustment to trust my off-speed stuff earlier in counts. The FSL had hitters that were a little less impatient at the plate.”
Despite facing tougher competition, those adjustments helped Gailey record 99 strikeouts in 91 innings and establish a new career-low walk rate of one batter per nine innings.
“I would say, over the years, that the constant work that I put in on my mechanics would be a large part of that success,” Gailey said. “Having proper mechanics makes it easy to throw all of my pitches at any time for strikes.”
In addition to posting an uncanny strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.9 in 2010, Gailey’s 10 walks were the lowest among all full-time Dunedin pitchers and, even as a reliever, he finished second on the team in strikeouts and fifth in innings pitched.
Despite putting together such a dominant season, it wasn’t enough for a promotion, as the southpaw found himself opening the 2011 campaign with Dunedin once again.
“I got a little frustrated because of the back-to-back good seasons I had, but I couldn’t let that affect my work ethic,” Gailey said of missing out on a promotion to Double-A New Hampshire at first. “I wasn’t sure what [the Blue Jays] were doing with me, but I had to just keep doing what I could do.”
Returning to the Florida State League only motivated Gailey even more, as he picked up right where he left off. In the first two months of the season, he surrendered just 14 hits in 28 1/3 innings and limited opponents to just three earned runs for a 0.96 ERA.
That kind of domination finally forced the Blue Jays’ hand, as Gailey was finally called up to Double-A New Hampshire on May 28, 2011. The promotion also reunited him with the two catchers whom he spent his entire 2010 season with — Travis d’Arnaud and Yan Gomes — and reconnecting with familiar faces upon his arrival helped ease his transition to Double-A.
“Working with Yan and Travis was amazing and a privilege to do,” Gailey said. “It makes it a lot easier on the mound when you have catchers that understand you and know what you’re thinking. Games move so smooth and quick, and it takes all the pressure off of me so I can just make the perfect pitch.”
However after roughly six innings with New Hampshire, Gailey was shipped back to Dunedin on June 11, where he dominated the Florida State League once again. He returned to New Hampshire three weeks after that, and this time he got an extended look.
But Gailey found Double-A to be more difficult that he had initially thought, as in addition to spending 12 days on the disabled list, he allowed 16 earned runs on 27 hits in 23 2/3 innings for a 6.07 ERA. Baseball analysts reiterate that the jump from Advanced-A to Double-A is the hardest in the minor leagues, and Gailey couldn’t agree more.
“To me, Double-A was certainly harder, and that statement would be 100% true according to my experience. Those hitters were no longer impatient,” he said. “They would hit the majority of your fastballs and off-speed pitches if you missed your spot, and it comes down to locating every pitch in any given count or time of the game.”
As a result, Gailey was optioned back to D-Jays on September 1, thinking that he had seen the last of Double-A for the year. It was his third trip back to Dunedin, and the constant maneuvering between minor league levels started to take its toll.
“The hardest part of bouncing up and down was staying strong mentally,” Gailey said. “There were a lot of questions going through my mind but I still had a job to do, which was to pitch as well as I could.”
On September 13, Gailey’s season took an unexpected turn. New Hampshire, fresh off a series win over Reading, had taxed their bullpen in a heartbreaking 10-9 loss to the Richmond Flying Squirrels in Game 1 of the Eastern League finals. They needed to add another reliever their roster, and Gailey was their man.
Down 1-0 in the best-of-five series, the Fisher Cats went on to win their next three games and capture their first Eastern League crown since 2004. For Gailey, finishing the year on a championship team made all of his ups and downs worthwhile.
“To win the Eastern League was the perfect ending to the season for me,” he said. “I had been up and down three times and I stayed positive throughout that, telling myself I will end up where I belong. Sure enough I meet up with the Fisher Cats again and we won the league with one of the best groups of guys I have ever been around.”
Gailey might have changed major league organizations, but he’ll always remember his exhilarating playoff run with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
“It’s an experience that will never be forgotten.”