Gilliam was no ordinary prospect coming out of high school. Entering the draft at only 17, Gilliam spurned the Cubs in the 23rd round of the 2014 draft to attend Chicola College for a year. It was then in the 2015 draft that the Yankees snagged him in the 20th round, even signing him to a reported overslot bonus of $550,000 where his slot would have been $100,000. The extra money may be in part due to Baseball America rating him as the 151st best prospect of the class before the draft.
“He can hit,” said Pulaski hitting coach Kevin Mahoney to PinstripesPlus. “He’s got unbelievable hands.”
His rookie numbers supported this last year in the Gulf Coast League as Gilliam batted .296/.359/.415 through 42 games.
His Pulaski results, however, have been mixed. An early season slump saw his numbers decline heavily from his rookie totals before a recent resurgence at the plate has had him looking like the promising prospect he could be. With his batting average dipping into the low .200’s for much of the season, Gilliam had 4-hit games on July 19 against Danville, July 22 against Kingsport and July 26 against Elizabethton.
His power also shone through by hitting home runs in three consecutive games in the Elizabethton series. His recent stellar play has seen his numbers climb to .302/.336/.492, and he already has more doubles and home runs than he did all of last season.
“I’m pretty content right now, finding some things out,” Gilliam explained. “Previously I was struggling with the way I hit so I had to spend some extra time in the cage, figure some things out, let the game slow down for me. It seems to be working right now so I’m trying to keep the momentum.”
Watching a player fight for consistency can be hard from a coaching perspective, but Pulaski Manager Tony Franklin knows it is ultimately up to the players to figure it out.
“’Let’s go’!” said Franklin when asked what to say to an inconsistent performer. “I say that in jest but there are a couple things you say to the youngsters about sustaining what you do well, because that’s what you’re judged on in this game. How long can you prolong your hot days? And it’d be great if he could prolong them for a number of months. But they’re young, and like many things in the game you have to learn it and grind through some things. That’s what’s facing these guys and sometimes it’s overwhelming.”
Franklin is more than confident Gilliam can find that consistency.
“He’s done okay. Like most of the guys here, they’re young in their career and trying to find their way,” he continued. “He’s got a little bit of a roller-coaster going. He’s had a few 4-hit days which has boosted his average a bit, and he’s had 0-hit and 1-hit days. You’d like to see him get on a roll and sustain some things but that’s going to come in time. He’s got some very good tools to work with. He’s got a chance to play in this game.”
Performance aside, Gilliam’s biggest strength comes in his bat. He is a switch-hitter and has shown the ability to hit well from both sides of the plate. Combined with his above-average power, Gilliam could have the tools to be a force on offense.
“I think I can hit any pitch that comes into the strike zone on any given count,” Gilliam claimed. “I cut down on strikeouts during Extended Spring Training, so my contact is a lot better than last year. I feel like I’m more consistent with power [too].”
“He’s got power, and he’s got power from both sides,” Franklin added. “He does have the ability to hit to all fields so he’s not limited, and it’s difficult to play against a guy who can spray it and still hit with power. I think that ability will get better as the season goes on and as he starts to grow into his career at higher levels. It’s just a matter of how much more he’s going to develop. He’s got some power and he’s going to use it.”
As Franklin mentioned, Gilliam has found success in hitting it to all fields so far through two seasons. In his four career home runs entering Wednesday night, two have gone left field and two have gone right field. You may be able to attribute this to his split time from both sides of the plate, but it is still a skill Gilliam has worked on with his coaches.
“They want us to dominate the fastball and tag it with authority, no matter where it’s pitched, not have a pull approach because then you’ll get yourself out more with the off-speed,” Gilliam said.
And how much time is spent trying to teach hitters at this level to hit it anywhere?
“As long as it takes,” Mahoney answered. “If it takes me two years to do it or two weeks to do it, whatever it takes for them to become full complete hitters, there’s no time limit. It could take a couple weeks, it depends on the player and it depends on how quick they can understand and feel things.”
His switch-hitting is something that has come in use for Franklin and the Pulaski Yankees. With a plethora of left-handed pitchers the team has faced this year, Gilliam has been asked to hit right-handed more than twice as much as left-handed, which he says is almost the opposite of his rookie season. With a switch-hitter, though, comes a different approach to his development.
“He has to learn to swing twice,” said Mahoney. “He’s got to learn how to be a left-handed hitter and a right-handed hitter, and he’s learning how to do that daily. There’s a nice big light at the end of the tunnel for him.”
Defensively, Gilliam made the switch after being drafted from first base to the outfield, where he’s spent time on both the right and left side.
“Defensively I feel I have good arm strength,” Gilliam said. “I can pretty much cover my position well. I communicate well in the outfield. I know the situations and I’m good at anticipating those situations. [I improved on] making better reads defensively [in the offseason].”
“He’s doing well,” Franklin said about Gilliam’s defense. “He plays both sides, left field, right field, and the more positions you can play the more you can help your club. We encourage all the youngsters to play more than one position. His ability to play defense is good. Like everything else, you work on consistency and what you do well out there.”
As for his future, his coaches know progress will be made, and with that progress likely will come consistency.
“I mean, he’s done well in every category,” reasoned Franklin. “But I will tell you for the majority of these kids, it’s their thinking that they need to improve and it’s probably their thinking that they do improve on.
“They have the ability to play. That’s the thing I worry about the least, is their ability to play. Their approach to the game on a daily basis, their ability to sustain what they do, their ability to play a consistent game, but most importantly their ability to think during a two-and-a-half month season. Mentally prepare yourself to do these things and keep everything in perspective and slow the game down and slow your brain down. That’s probably the biggest thing before them that they have to do. He’s doing well with that, he’s coming around.”
“He’s learning,” concluded Mahoney. “He’s starting to learn what it takes to compete daily and he’s starting to learn what it takes to be a big hitter. He’s also starting to learn how to grind as well, and be able to come in every single day whether he’s tired or not and start competing. I think he’s starting to turn the corner and learn how to do that, and it’s exciting.”