For Baltimore Orioles’ prospect Joe Gunkel, each of his three seasons in the minor leagues has presented a different set of challenges. Drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round of the 2013 draft out of Division II West Chester University, Gunkel was converted to a full-time relief pitcher. He handled that with ease, allowing just three earned runs in 21.0 innings, good for a 1.29 ERA, and saving five games for the short-season Lowell Spinners. The 2014 season saw Gunkel converted back to a starter in late May. That went well too, as he posted a 3.47 ERA in 27 appearances at the Single-A level. Now, in 2015, Gunkel has had to deal with an early season trade that sent him from the Red Sox to the Orioles for Alejandro De Aza.
As you may have guessed, the heady 23-year-old has handled that pretty well too.
“It was pretty wild, and it pretty much came out of nowhere,” said Gunkel when referring to the trade, “It was a pretty quick transition, but I like it over here. It’s been a pretty good fit so far, I’ve heard great things about the organization, and I’m excited to keep moving forward.”
As Gunkel deals with the trials and tribulations of advancing through the minor league system, he has handled each jump in level with ease. This season, the ever-crucial first season in Double-A, he is having arguably the most successful season of his career. Coming out of college, Gunkel had an advantage in age, experience, and maturity on most of the players faced in the short-season and Single-A leagues. Now at Double-A, he is on even footing with most opposing hitters, but that has not affected his performance. In 13 games at the Double-A level, he has posted a 3.10 ERA and a 6-3 record. He has been even better since the trade, pitching to a 2.82 ERA in nine starts for the Bowie Baysox.
“The key has been being able to make adjustments on the fly. As you move up in level, the hitters change — they have more experience and a better idea of what they’re doing. They have a better grasp on how to approach hitting on a day-to-day basis.”
The 6′-5″ Gunkel is armed with a high-80’s to low-90’s fastball with good downward movement that he throws with a four-seam or two-seam grip. It will not blow you away, but when properly located, it is difficult to square up. He will go to the two-seam grip when he needs a groundball. His secondary offerings include a slider and changeup which is still a work in progress. Gunkel has a very fluid, repeatable delivery, and he throws from a three-quarter arm slot, which combined with his tall frame creates a deceptive motion.
“I’ve always thrown from a lower arm slot. That’s felt natural, and no one’s tried to change that. I have a very fluid motion — it’s kind of low-effort and repeatable. As a starter, that helps me not waste much effort throughout the game, and work fast and be efficient in getting after hitters.”
After watching Gunkel mow down the Harrisburg Senators on Thursday night, it is evident that he is indeed an efficient pitcher. After four innings, his pitch count sat at just 36 pitches. He left after seven strong innings, allowing just three hits and two runs, one earned. Gunkel struck out three, walked only one, and threw 58 of his 83 pitches for strikes. The strong start came on the heels of a rough outing against the Senators on July 18 in which he allowed five earned runs in just three innings.
“Harrisburg is a good hitting team, and they got me pretty good the first time,” Gunkel said when looking back on his previous start, “They were hitting bad pitches over the plate, but I didn’t try to change anything going into the next outing. I wanted to pitch to my strengths, get ahead in counts, and get them to put balls in play.”
Gunkel has mostly put his defense to work this season. He has struck out just 5.5 per nine with Bowie, but more importantly, he was walked just 1.3 per nine. Over his 219.1 career innings, Gunkel has a walk rate of just 1.9.
“That’s when I’m at my best, when I attack the zone and get them to put the ball in play early,” he said.
Over the remainder of the 2015 season, Gunkel will look to build upon his success to this point.
“I need to work on being efficient and focus on being able to throw all of my pitches for strikes,” he said, “Being able to make adjustments when I need them will also be key, so when any kind of adversity comes, I can be able to make the adjustments I need to on the fly.”
Joe Gunkel may have been under the radar coming out of an unheralded baseball school, but he should not be under the radar any longer. He is a consistent pitcher with a good head on his shoulders. He understands pitching and has a good approach to his craft. Perhaps Gunkel is not armed with the most overpowering fastball or sharpest-breaking slider, but he knows how to use what he is armed with to perfection.
Things may not have worked out as the Orioles planned with Alejandro De Aza, but Gunkel looks poised to provide a very good return on the trade. He has been successful at each stop of his journey to date, and there is no indication an end to that trend is coming.