Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Will The Real Kyle Gibson Please Stand Up

Entering the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins greatest need is starting pitching. Obviously, that is a similar narrative for many teams across the sport, but there's little denying that things line up for the hometown team to make a big splash in the starting rotation. While Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana are locks among the five this year, Paul Molitor will have to quickly find out what Kyle Gibson he has in 2018.

The former 1st round (22nd overall) pick by Minnesota in 2009 has been the focus of many stories wondering if it will ever all come together. Making his big league debut at the age of 25 back in 2013, Gibson now embarks on his 6th MLB season, and will be doing so at the age of 30. He's yet to pitch more than 195 innings in a season, and his career 4.70 ERA speaks of mediocrity in the truest sense of the word. A pitch-to-contact type, Gibson's career 6.2 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 doesn't leave much to get hyped about, simply showing a level of predictability.

Rewind back to mid-2017 however, and Gibson appeared to buck his own narrative. Despite looking like a non-tender candidate for the early part of the year, the former Mizzou Tiger landed a 2018 arbitration deal that will come in somewhere around $5 million. Now the question is, how did he get there and will it continue?

A year ago, Gibson's first 17 starts for the Twins added up to a 6.29 ERA and a .920 OPS. He was sent down to Triple-A, and was dealt a hard dose of reality. After posting a 5.07 ERA in 2016, the 3.84 ERA from 2015 looked like a distant memory. Then, in a get-right opportunity, Gibson turned things around against the hapless Detroit Tigers on July 22nd. Twirling 7.1 IP of three-run ball, it was the first time since September 13, 2016 that he pitched at least seven innings. From that point on, a period of 12 starts, Gibson owned a 3.57 ERA and allowed opponents to tally just a .699 OPS. The change was drastic, and the sample size was indicative of it being sustainable. Going forward though, can he replicate what drove that success?

First and foremost, Gibson missed significantly more bats. In his first 17 starts from 2017, Gibson generated strikeouts just 14.1% of the time, while walking 10.4% of batters he faced. Those numbers are a far cry from the 22.1% strikeout rate, and 6.2% walk rate posted in the final 12 times on the mound. By getting more batters out on his own, he also increased his strand rate from 68.1% to 79.2%.

Virtually all of Gibson's balls put in play remained comparable by the percentages. He didn't have a drastic change in line drive, ground ball, or fly ball rates. He was able to shave just about 5% off of his HR/FB rate however. The dip in balls leaving the park could potentially be attributed to a slight swing (roughly 4%) of outcomes taken away from hard contact, and added to soft contact. What that also suggests however, is that we dive into the repertoire.

In looking at Gibson's offerings, I think there's a few takeaways to consider. First and foremost, there was a drastic change in regards to how Kyle attacked the strikezone. After predominantly working in the lower half of the zone through his bad stretch, Gibson attacked higher in the zone and on the corners down the stretch. Not being a high velocity pitcher (averaging 92.7 mph on his fastball) forcing the ball up in the zone can help to get it on hitters quicker. Obviously the swing plane changes based upon pitch location, and the added advantage of going up and in suggests Gibson felt more comfortable challenging opposing hitters.

Secondly, there was one pitch that jumped off the page during his success. After using his slider just 14% of the time through his first 1,495 pitches in 2017, the usage jumped over 20% through his final 1,115 pitches on the season. The numbers didn't equate to the career high 22.1% of sliders he threw a year ago (in fact he was at just 17.8% on the season), but it was clearly an offering he felt comfortable going back to. Notably, the slider also became somewhat of an out pitch. Looking at Gibson's pitch types by count courtesy of Baseball Savant, favorable counts saw a significant amount of the sweeping pitch. Despite being more of an afterthought early in the year, the slider generated 5% swinging strikes in the second half (compared to 3% in the first).
Finally, the slight changes allowed Gibson to see a difference in the results of batted balls against him. Launch angle for opposing hitters decreased, while barreled balls fell off a cliff. Gibson was generating slightly more weak contact, and the quality of balls being put into the field of play as a whole had sunk. Likely an indicator of the process as a whole, as opposed to any one single scenario, Gibson was seeing a payoff for his new tactics.

As a whole, it's hard to suggest that 2018 will see a full season of Gibson at his best. While the positive signs were shown down the stretch, none of the changes were revolutionary, and the differences were rather minor in the grand scheme of things. With a new pitching coach in Garvin Alston, maybe Gibson will find even more success with his slider than before. What we don't know, is whether the slight differences translate to sustainability for a 30 year old over the course of 30-plus starts. I do think that there's enough reason to believe Gibson can be more of his 2015 self than he's been each of the past two seasons however, and that would give Minnesota a quality back end option.

Even before adding another high-level arm into the fold, the Twins will have a stable of options to round out the rotation. With youth as a disadvantage, pitchers like Gibson and Phil Hughes will have to put their best foot forward on a nightly basis to set themselves apart. I'm not going to suggest Gibson will live up to his pre-debut hype, but serviceable seems to be a fair bet in 2018.

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