As a former third round pick, who has enjoyed success at every level he’s pitched at, there may be no Brewers prospect who gets more overlooked than pitcher Drew Gagnon.
Originally drafted out of high school by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the tenth round of the 2008 draft, Gagnon came quite close to pitching for one of Milwaukee’s rivals in the National League Central Division.
“It was one of the toughest decisions I had to make” said Gagnon. “Basically it depended on my SAT scores. I really wanted to go to college but if I wasn’t able to pass I was going to sign.”
Gagnon wound up passing and headed off to college at Long Beach State University where he was immediately inserted in to the starting rotation as a freshman. He appeared in 14 games his freshman year, then made 15 starts in each his sophomore and junior seasons, earning Second Team All-Big West honors in 2010.
Three years after being selected by Pittsburgh, Gagnon re-entered the draft following his junior year at Long Beach and the Pirates loss turned out to be the Brewers gain, when Milwaukee used their third round pick – number 100 overall – to select Gagnon.
In need of pitching depth throughout the organization, Milwaukee used their first four picks in the 2011 draft on power arms, getting Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley in round one, Jorge Lopez in round two, and Gagnon in round number three.
Coming in to the Brewers system in a pitching-heavy draft class allowed Gagnon to gauge his stuff against some other top arms.
“It’s good seeing what other people have” he said. “What other people have got to work with. What’s the difference between you and them. I think it helps you to a point.”
Upon signing with Milwaukee, Gagnon began his pro career at Helena in 2011. He moved up to Wisconsin to begin the 2012 season and went 6-1 with a 2.83 earned run average in 14 starts for the Timber Rattlers. That showing earned Gagnon a spot on the Midwest League All-Star team and a promotion to High-A Brevard County in late June. He made 11 more starts with the Manatees to finish out the season and enjoyed similar success, posting a 2.82 ERA.
Gagnon returned to the Florida State League to start 2013 and made ten more starts for Brevard, including a dominant seven inning, ten strikeout performance against Bradenton in which he did not allow a hit. That earned him a promotion to Double-A Huntsville where he started 16 more games, but struggled to a 4-9 record with a 5.57 ERA.
“That step’s been my biggest jump so far” said Gagnon of moving from Single-A to Double-A. “You don’t get away with some mistakes very well, very often, and if you do, you’ve kind of got to step off and shake it off a little bit. Act like nothing happened and then go from there again. It’s basically just execution. You’ve got to execute pitches. You’ve got to throw and throw behind in counts. You can’t be afraid. Even if a pitch isn’t working, you’ve got to still show it. You’ve got to use all of your pitches. Definitely the biggest step from High-A to Double-A.”
Gagnon took what he learned in the second half of 2013 and returned to Huntsville in 2014 with greatly improved results. He went 11-6 in 28 starts for the Stars, recording a 3.97 ERA as one of the aces of the Huntsville pitching staff. A strike thrower who commands both sides of the plate and does a good job of mixing up his pitches, Gagnon’s 154 1/3 innings pitched were tops in the Brewers system and he finished among the organizational leaders in both wins and strikeouts as well.
“I’ve always been mechanically based” said Gagnon. “I like to think about mechanics. When it came down to pitching I got to the point where if you think about location and execution, your delivery will eventually fall in to place and I did more of that than the year before. Having that year I had (in 2013), it wasn’t good, but it helped me learn a lot. So I think that’s what triggered success in 2014.”
Another key to Gagnon’s increased success was having more control out on the mound. While the Brewers like to have their pitchers work on development and command of their pitches at the lower levels, they have a little bit more freedom as they advance to the higher levels.
“Most of the time I do call my own game” said Gagnon. “I usually don’t shake often, but when I really want to throw a pitch or really disagree, I’ll throw what I want to throw. Most of the time I’m comfortable with all of my pitches at any given point. Except the curveball. I’m not gonna throw that every time in a 3-1 count or a 2-0 count. I’ll usually throw changeup or fastball if I’m behind in a count, but if I’m feeling good I’ll shake to it and throw that.”
After showing that he could handle Double-A hitters last season, Gagnon should move up to Triple-A in 2015 where he’ll be a key part of the rotation for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Pitching in the thin air and high altitude is certainly not a pitcher’s dream, but it’s a challenge that Gagnon is ready for.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it” said Gagnon. “The high altitude, I’ve noticed that. It will be different from Nashville (Milwaukee’s previous Triple-A affiliate), but at the same time you’ve got to execute pitches. It’s going to be different obviously from Alabama and Florida but it’s something we’ve got to deal with and it’s basically going to be out of our control.”
With the 2015 season just around the corner, Gagnon is looking forward to taking the ball every fifth day to do his job, knowing that as long as he executes his gameplan, the results will continut to follow.
“Going in to this year I feel like it’s going to be a huge stepping stone” Gagnon said. “I just want to execute. That’s it. Just execute my pitches. Not think about delivery and just get outs. Do what I need to do. Do what they signed me for.”
While Gagnon may not get the same publicity and headlines as some of his peers, he’s been afforded the advantage of being able to fly under the radar, and uses that lack of attention to motivate him. “It’s a boost really” said Gagnon. It’s kind of like a boost to sneak past people I guess.”
Gagnon may not be able to sneak past people much longer. If he continues to pitch likes he’s capable of and has the same success at Triple-A that he’s had at his other stops along the way, the headlines will come and Drew Gagnon will soon become a household name among Brewers fans.