Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Who Is This Kyle Gibson?

So here we are, the 2015 Major League Baseball season is quickly rumbling to a finish, and the Minnesota Twins have made it a relevant year. In the playoff hunt, and playing meaningful September baseball, the Twins are in a good place. With the performance though, there are no doubt players that have taken steps forward. The question is, does Kyle Gibson qualify among them?

Coming into the season, Gibson was a pitcher I expected a lot out of. A former first round pick and top Twins pitching prospect, Gibson needed to push the envelope. Now 27 years old, his experience was teetering into veteran territory, and there's no doubt that Minnesota was hoping the results would follow. With new pitching coach Neil Allen getting to work with him for the first time, Gibson had plenty of opportunity in front of him.

The lone full season in his career at the big league level, 2014, Gibson owned a 4.47 ERA in 31 starts for a bad Twins team. He pitched 179.1 innings, struck out 107, walked 57, gave up 12 home runs, and owned a 1.310 WHIP. For all intents and purposes, the numbers were mediocre across the board. On a team with bad starters, Gibson was an ok-at-best back-end option. With a retooled 2015 rotation, the Twins were hoping Gibson could push towards possessing the middle-to-top type stuff he once was billed as.

In 2015 (as of this writing), Gibson owns a 3.87 ERA. He's started 28 games and has pitched 172.0 innings. The former Missouri Tiger has struck out 119 batters and walked 57, while allowing a career high 16 home runs. All told, he's compiled a 1.291 WHIP in 2015. On the surface, it's somewhat difficult to suggest what context that gives the year-by-year improvement Gibson has seen. Taking a closer look starts to open things up however.

First, the start Gibson has was simply brilliant. From April 15 through May 30, Gibson was one of the best in the big leagues. A span of nine starts saw him throw to the tune of a 1.85 ERA and just a .237/.302/.363 slash line against. An rough stretch in the middle of the year inflated things, but then has once again been evened out by a strong finish. In four starts since August 22, Gibson owns a 3.20 ERA and has allowed opposing hitters to slash just .228/.291/.315 off of him.

Continuing with a beginning and end trend, Gibson actually has fared the opposite over the course of games themselves. In 2015, the first inning has been one of his worst. Allowing 17 first inning runs and 34 hits, Gibson has been hit around to a 5.46 ERA in getting the first three outs of a game. As contests go on as well, his finish has been difficult. Reaching the sixth inning in 24 of his 28 starts (and advancing beyond just 11 times), the righty owns a 6.52 ERA.

What he has done well though is bounce back. In the second inning, and high leverage situations, Gibson has been at his best. In the second, Gibson owns a 2.25 ERA, and has allowed just eight runs. After pitching to less than advantageous situations, he's allowed opposing hitters to bat just .219/.319/.281 (his lowest slash line allowed across three possible situations).

Quite possibly the biggest improvement Gibson has seen in 2015 is being great when good, and well, less bad when bad. To be fair, every pitcher has better numbers when generating a win than a loss, but Gibson has bee drastically more impressive. In 2014, the Twins starter owned a 1.42 ERA, 1.045 WHIP, and 5.7 K/9 in wins. He was hit around to the tune of an 11.04 ERA, 1.962 WHIP, and just a 4.6 K/9 in losses. 2015 has been a different story. This season, it's a dazzling 0.87 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, and 6.2 K/9 in wins, with a better 7.38 ERA, 1.752 WHIP, and 6.0 K/9 in losses. Capitalizing on success, and limiting the damage, it's been a complete improvement for the former top prospect.

Having taken a deeper diver into the good, it seems that Gibson is, if nothing else, targeted in his excellence. Needing to settle in and focus, he's at his best. Being stretched out and coming into a game, he can be taken advantage of. It's not all positive however.

Arguably the most concerning numbers Kyle Gibson has produced in 2015 fall into the peripheral statistics category. Looking at FIP (fielding independent pitching) and BB/9, there's some cause for concern. Gibson owns a 4.07 FIP last year (compared to a 3.80 FIP in 2014) and a 3.0 BB/9 (up just 0.1 over 2014). There's some explanation for the former, but maybe not for the latter.

A season ago, the Twins were historically bad defensively, especially in the outfield. For a guy who utilizes the ground ball, pitches shouldn't get to the outfield. Owning a 54.4% ground ball rate in 2014, the 52.7% mark this season is a step backwards. His increased line drive percentage (19.0% in 2014, 20.2% in 2015) also doesn't help things. While the outfield defense is markedly better now, Gibson is also making it work harder behind him.

Although Gibson isn't walking a a much higher rate of batters, the fact that it hasn't decreased is less than ideal. Improvement in the strikeout category is a nice plus, but for a guy fanning only six per nine on average, three walks per nine is hefty. Gibson has utilized his changeup the most in his career in 2015 (19.5%), likely in large part to Allen's instruction. The increased pitch usage could be helping the strikeouts, while making the zone a bit more difficult to maintain. Right now, Gibson's walk rate isn't a problem, but toeing right in the middle of the line, you'd rather not see it become one either.

So, here we are, some ups and some downs, but that's probably what you're going to get with Gibson. I'm not sure he ever looked the part of a one or two pitcher, but at this point it's fair to pencil him in as a solid number three. If the Twins make the playoffs, he can be trusted on the mound to keep you in the game, and really, that's about all you should be asking for. He's taken steps forward this season, and in an improved rotation, he's a big part of it.

Kyle Gibson probably isn't ever going to be the guy, but he's proven he's far more than just a guy too.

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