Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kyle Gibson And The Next Step Forward

In 2015, the Minnesota Twins had to know that their pitching staff was going to need some help. Considering that Ervin Santana was going to miss half of the season, and an expected contribution from Ricky Nolasco wasn't realistic, a different arm had to emerge. While Trevor May and Alex Meyer both served as prospect types that could fit the bill, it was another guy who stepped up; Kyle Gibson.

During his second full season at the big league level, the former first-round pick and Missouri Tiger took significant strides forward. He nearly touched 200 innings pitched (194.2), and for stretches, looked to be the ace of the staff. When the dust settled, Gibson's 3.84 ERA ranked 20th among AL starters, and was tops among the Twins staff.

Improvements came virtually across the board for Gibson. He saw new career best marks in strikeouts per nine (6.7), strikeouts as a whole (145), hits per nine (8.6), WHIP (1.289), ERA+ (108), and he tossed his first complete game. What may be even more exciting is that Gibson likely also has some untapped potential. His walk rate actually increased a season ago (3.0 BB/9) and his FIP nearly touched 4.00 (3.96).

Behind the decreases the Gibson experience in year two, a major culprit seems to be the long fly. Surrendering 18 homers in 2015, Gibson saw just about 11.5% of his allowed fly balls leave the park. Despite being a pitcher who relies on ground balls (53.4% in 2015) Gibson gave up more hard contact than in his 2014 campaign (27.3%).

An adjustment period could have also been happening for Gibson. As with all Twins pitchers a season ago, they were getting accustomed to new pitching coach Neil Allen. Allen noted for his changeup expertise, had Gibson make a significant tweak in his repertoire. After previously throwing just about 12% of his pitches as changeups, Kyle threw them nearly 20% of the time a season ago. With his fastball and slider percentages down, Gibson was able to focus more on keeping hitters off balance with his off speed pitch.

It is in that transition that we can attribute some of Gibson's upward trending success when it comes to attacking hitters. In 2015, Gibson posted a career best 35.7% outside-of-the-zone strike percentage. With hitters chasing, he was more able to find himself in pitcher's counts. Attacking early was a plus as well, throwing over 60% of his first pitches as strikes for the first time in his career. In total, the changes equated to hitters swinging and missing on a career best 9.8% of Gibson's pitches (up a full percent from his previous career high).

Although fWAR for pitchers is not the indicator it is for hitters, the number is still a useful qualification of overall effectiveness. Following a 2.5 fWAR a season ago, it's fair to believe that Gibson has a good deal more to offer the Twins. As a late peaking player due to injury, Gibson at 28 should now be entering the bulk of his prime.

Expecting him to make the eventual leap to something like a 3.0-3.5 fWAR pitcher is not out of the realm of possibility. In 2015, just 10 AL pitchers reached that mark. The list include: David Price, Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Chris Archer, Jose Quintana, Carlos Carrasco, Collin McHugh, Sonny Gray, and Danny Salazar. Although Gibson may not have the name recognition as most of that group, seeing him break into it is something the Twins could witness, and no doubt it would be for the better.

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