During the 2018 amateur draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates went on a run of selecting right-handed college pitchers in the middle rounds. The sixth and final pick of that group was 21st round pick Will Gardner, who put up outstanding results for Bristol, before finishing off his first year of pro ball with Morgantown. He was a college senior from a smaller school, who had a tough end to his high school time and a rough start to his college career. Things seem to be on a much better track now for the 22-year-old as he attempts to work his way up the minors.
After every pick during the June amateur draft, we write up a player page for each selection. For the later picks, most don’t have much information because it’s just not out there. Some have brief scouting reports, while others just have their school stats and then we learn about them later.
Will Gardner had two seasons of college at Tennessee Tech, followed by a transfer to a smaller school, where he got a chance to pitch more often. There were no scouting reports available, so on the day of the draft, there wasn’t a lot for fans to be excited about. Behind every player there is a story, and Gardner’s tells so much more than you can get from the stats sheet.
As a high school junior, Gardner signed a letter of intent to attend Coastal Carolina University, which is known as a pretty good baseball school. He was an excellent athlete in high school, playing both baseball and football. He was a star pitcher and played first base when he wasn’t on the mound. In football, he was the quarterback. It was football that cost him a chance to attend Coastal Carolina, where he likely would have had a much easier path to pro ball.
During his junior year of football, Gardner tore his ACL. That ended up costing him half of his senior year of baseball and so much more off the field. Since he was hurt and Coastal Carolina had more seniors return for the 2015 season than they expected, Gardner lost his scholarship. To make matters worse, he wasn’t receiving any draft attention due to the injury, so going pro out of high school wasn’t an option. It was bad timing all around.
Losing his scholarship that late meant that he was looking for a place to play much later than everyone else. Big colleges already had their rosters set and scholarships handed out, so Gardner had to settle for Tennessee Tech. He grew up in Morristown, Tennessee and Tennessee Tech provided him with an option that was relatively close to home, along with a chance to play baseball at a high level. Gardner admits later that he probably made the wrong choice for a school, but the options and his time were limited once his scholarship was pulled.
“When I lost my scholarship to Coastal, it was March of my senior year, I had already signed my letter of intent,” Gardner said. “I was really rushed to find a place because everybody had already finished their recruiting class for the year. I rushed to a decision at Tech even though I knew it probably wasn’t the best fit for me.”
Gardner considers those freshman and sophomore seasons at Tennessee Tech to be lost years for baseball and it’s easy to see why. He had a 9.55 ERA in 21.2 innings as a freshman, then followed it up in 2016 with a 13.97 ERA in 9.2 innings over 11 appearances.
“I had a really rough couple of years there,” Gardner said. “I didn’t really develop any and played the worst baseball of my life.”
That led to him transfer to Carson-Newman University, which was just 15 minutes from his hometown. The change in baseball programs not only offered him a clean slate, but he would have a better opportunity to pitch. In fact, he immediately went from a seldom-used bullpen piece at Tennessee Tech to one of the key pitchers at Carson-Newman.
The change of scenery meant more innings and Gardner took full advantage of them in 2017. He made 11 starts and threw five complete games. He had a 4.73 ERA in a team leading 83.2 innings. The ERA might sound poor, but it was a high offense environment. His club finished with a 6.09 ERA on the season and still had a 29-24 record.
In 2018, he moved to the bullpen and lowered his ERA by 36 points, while showing a huge increase in the strikeout department. Gardner had 67 strikeouts in 83.2 innings as a junior, then racked up 55 strikeouts over 35 innings as a senior. The Pirates took notice of his pitching, though it wasn’t necessarily the improvements in strikeouts that sold them on Gardner.
The Pirates were already showing a lot of interest during his junior year and Gardner believed that he was going to be drafted in 2017. The area scout in Tennessee for the Pirates is Jerry Jordan and he got to know Gardner well over the last two years. The disappointment of not being drafted in 2017 was fleeting, as his ties with Jordan led to the 21st round pick this year and a trip to Bristol shortly after the draft to begin his pro career.
Bristol was a great beginning point for Gardner, despite the fact that being a college senior meant that he was too old for the Appalachian League from day one. It gave him a chance to play close to home, making the adjustment to pro life a little easier.
“When I found out I was going to Bristol not only was I excited to be close to home but to get to work with Joey Seaver, who coached at Carson Newman and the community college in my hometown,” Gardner said. “My first professional game was at the Greeneville Reds park, which is on our college rival Tusculum University’s campus. My parents and friends got to come out to games quite a bit.”
Working with Joey Seaver also helped ease Gardner into pro ball. It was another local person he was familiar with already, who was known as an outstanding coach and person. Unfortunately, Seaver passed away suddenly earlier this month at age 54. He received an outpouring of love from those whose lives he touched around the game, including Gardner.
” Joey was such a great mentor because he really connected with you on an individual level, which you really don’t find in professional baseball,” Gardner said about Seaver. “Joey treated all his guys the same and brought some East Tennessee mountain man love for all his players. He will always have an impact on my life.”
Gardner didn’t last long in Bristol. He debuted on June 21st and a month later, he was on his way to Morgantown. He earned that promotion by allowing one earned run over 11 innings and eight appearances, while picking up 15 strikeouts. He couldn’t match that 0.82 Bristol ERA with the Black Bears, but he still looked strong over 11 appearances, with a 2.45 ERA in 14.2 innings. He had 15 strikeouts and a 1.78 GO/AO ratio.
While talking to Gardner, I was also watching replays of a few of his outings while with Morgantown. What I saw was some nice velocity from a pitcher who mixes his pitches well. I also saw a breaking ball that was devastating to right-handed batters. He had a bit of control problems, but you wouldn’t classify him as wild. It’s an issue that can be helped just by making up for some of that lost time during his first two years of college and his senior year of high school. Except for 2017, he really doesn’t have many innings on his arm, so there is still room for growth and development.
Gardner’s main pitch is a four-seam fastball that sits 90-94 MPH, touching 96 once this year. He also throws a sinker in the 87-91 MPH range, which he said that he developed just this year in pro ball. His out pitch is a slurve in the 80-84 MPH range, which helped him hold right-handed batters to a .484 OPS in pro ball.
When Gardner throws the slurve harder, it’s extremely difficult for right-handed batters to pick up out of his hand. In one game, he had three straight right-handed batters bail on the pitch, only to have it break right over the plate. Twice it resulted in strikeouts and the third time it was called a ball, even though it appeared to be the best pitch of the three. Gardner also got another batter to bail on the pitch in his next appearance, which was a quick 1-2-3 inning. When he throws the slurve slower, it has more of a downward break to it.
Gardner is also working on a fourth pitch, slowly adding a splitter to his repertoire this summer. While we saw nice overall results in his first run through pro ball, he believes that he’s just getting comfortable with the sinker and it can be a much more effective pitch in the future.
Right now you would say that the slurve is a plus pitch, while the four-seam is at least average, and he’s working both on his control and two other pitches to help him as he moves up the ladder. His off-season goals are geared towards helping him continue improving on the mound.
“Really just continue to build explosiveness in my lifting,” Gardner said about his winter workouts. “I want to stay on top of arm care and throwing, and to come into Spring Training healthy and ready to earn a spot in full season.”
The Pirates are going to have a lot of competition for bullpen spots with their new affiliate in Greensboro in 2019. Some of the 2018 draft picks could move up to Bradenton to help ease the logjam, but some pretty good arms will end up in Extended Spring Training, competing to take spots in full-season ball as they open up throughout April, May and June, before the short-season teams begin play.
Gardner has a strong chance to be one of those arms in the Greensboro bullpen to begin the season. His placement could depend on how well his command of the sinker comes along. You have a pitcher who can get up into the mid-90s, with a plus breaking ball that is extremely tough on right-handed batters. He gets his share of both strikeouts and ground balls, which gives him a chance to move up the system quickly with some slight improvements to his third pitch, while possibly adding a fourth pitch to help keep batters guessing.
For someone who was in such a bad spot just two years ago, Gardner has already made some huge strides towards his overall goal of making the majors.