There's More Than What Meets the Eye With Kyle Gibson
The road to glory hasn’t been easy for Minnesota Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson. Originally projected as a top selection in the 2009 MLB draft, Gibson fell to the Twins at pick number 22 -- three picks ahead of Mike Trout -- due to pre-draft questions about a stress fracture he suffered in his right forearm.
And while Gibson hit the ground running in the Twins system, he was again waylaid by arm issues as Tommy John surgery cost him the bulk of the 2012 season. As a result, the projected fast-mover through the system of whichever team landed him didn’t end up debuting in the big leagues until late June 2013 -- nearly four full years after he signed with the Twins.
In short, Gibson isn’t as young as his track record may portray. He’s nearly two full years older than Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, yet has thrown fewer than half the number of big league innings (425) Bumgarner has (1171). And while ace-type stuff wasn’t ever really on Gibson’s plate, he’s been slow to reach even the number-two status some projected, as he’s been more of a groundball type pitcher with subpar strikeout rates in a league that keeps seeing the average strikeouts per nine innings rise year-by-year.
But is there more than what meets the eye with Gibson?
When it rained it poured for Gibson in 2014. On the surface, his numbers from that season are respectable but little more. A 4.47 ERA is a bit scary, though a 3.80 FIP suggests room for optimism. So too might a 54.4 percent groundball rate, which was good for seventh among 88 qualified starters in 2014. A strikeout rate of 5.4 batters per nine innings made him the prototypical Twin, though his 2.9 walks per nine likely didn’t endear him to a staff that typically ranks among the MLB’s elite at not issuing free passes.
Inconsistency dogged Gibson throughout 2014. He finished 13-12, and in wins he allowed a .522 OPS and a 1.42 ERA. In losses, he was pummeled for a .974 OPS and an 11.04 ERA. For some added context, the average AL pitcher had a 1.90 ERA and .562 OPS against in wins in 2014. In losses, the ERA mark was 7.63 and the OPS .928. In other words, for Gibson the highs were high and the lows were low, but it was quite a disparity between him and the rest of the league in that respect.
Gibson tailed off significantly at the end of the 2014 season -- 3.92/5.17 ERA splits -- as his three highest OPS-against months came from July on. A number of factors could have been at play there however, including a solid innings jump post-TJ surgery as well as a largely hittable pitcher just going through the rounds and seeing teams on multiple occasions.
One thing that stood out with Gibson’s 2014 season was that he picked up strikeouts as the season wore on. More accurately, the 7.3 K/9 mark he posted in August was far and away his best of the 2014 season, and while he couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain again in September, the 5.3 mark he posted that month was still his second-best of the season.
Perhaps that laid the foundation for his 2015 emergence. Strikeouts didn’t come fast and furious for Gibson this season. In fact, it was quite the contrary, as Gibson fanned just six batters in the entire month of April (2.4 K/9) before steadily ratcheting that mark up throughout the year:
From June 1st on, Gibson fanned 115 batters in 132.2 innings, good for a 7.8 K/9 mark that is just above the 2015 average mark for AL starters (7.6). Combined with another 50-plus percent groundball rate, and it’s possible to have another poor-man’s Dallas Keuchel in the offing. Well, an older version.
Where did the strikeouts come from? By glancing at FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x, it appears as though Gibson’s slider has evolved into a solid out pitch for him since surgery, peaking with a 20.3 percent whiff rate last season. The changeup -- reportedly an emphasis with the arrival of new Twins pitching coach Neil Allen from the Tampa Bay system -- also took a significant jump, settling in with a whiff rate of 18.4 percent, up from 13.8 the year before.
The continued evolution of the slider bodes well with his bowling-ball sinker, which induced a groundball rate of 64.6 percent last season. The sinker-slider repertoire works well due to directly contrasting travel paths as the gets to the plate, and when a pitcher’s command sharpens and he can use both in most counts, he gains a definitive upper hand. That command can still be something Gibson struggles to repeat at times -- 3.0 BB/9 in 2015 -- which still can lead to games where he gets hit around.
Another issue for Gibson is the number of home runs he allows for such a groundball-heavy skill set. Of the nine qualified starters with better groundball rates than Gibson last year, five had higher home run rates per fly ball than he did (11.4 percent). That would seem to suggest that it’s not exactly a unique problem, but might also not be on that’ll just get better through sheer accumulation of innings, either. Alas, it makes sense that 10 of his 18 home runs allowed in 2015 came on fastballs of some type; a two-seamer/sinker up is not only flat but fat, while his four-seamer was peppered to the tune of a .387/.452/.613 line overall. In an ideal world, he’d never have to turn to the four-seamer, but that’d probably be contingent on sharpening his control. Fortunately, last season he reached the point where he could throw the two-seamer nearly twice as often (1,237 instances) as the four-seamer (637). That would seem to represent progress.
For the second year in a row Gibson was drastically better in the first half than the second in 2015. He carried a 2.85 ERA into the break and a 5.22 ERA after it, though his struggles appear to be more of a game of hopscotch when looking at the season at a glance:
That’s the sort of inconsistency that’ll keep fantasy owners from jumping on Gibson as though there’s helium in his stock. He’s showed an increased ability to adjust and get better as he’s gone on, but it’s worth wondering how much more room he has to improve before it’s contingent on a huge leap someplace else -- such as home run rate or walk rate. If he can make a significant dent in one or the other, he could become a fringe number-two starter in the league and a viable mixed league candidate across the board.
But entering his age-28 season, how much more room does he have to improve? That’s the question fantasy baseball owners will have to ask about him in the latter rounds of drafts this spring.