Even the most ardent Kyle Gibson fans came into 2018 with muted expectations. The path to the big leagues was bumpy for the 2009 first-round pick, and those bumps didn’t really subside once he planted his roots in Minneapolis, either.
His first very solid came in 2015 as a 27-year-old and was backed with consecutive years with the exact same ERA — 5.07.
So not only did Gibson get a late jump on things as a college pitcher, but he also had Tommy John surgery which delayed his arrival in the big leagues, and his initial results were far from terrific.
Overall, it added up to a career ERA of 4.70 and a FIP of 4.35 coming into this season — Gibson’s age-30 year. It wasn’t a walk year for Gibson — he’s eligible for free agency after next year — but it was very much a pivotal year for the tall righty as his price continues to go up via the arbitration system.
In short, it wouldn’t have been unheard of for the Twins to consider non-tendering Gibson after this year, with a raise from the $4.2 million he’s making most likely rising in his final year of club control.
Now with that said, some of that worry has been rendered moot with a strong start for Gibson. Though that comes with the caveat that it is early — this is game No. 50 for the Twins, so less than one-third through the schedule — but Gibson enters his 11th start of the year with a 4.02 ERA (3.76 FIP) and drastically improved peripherals.
After fanning a career-high 6.9 batters per nine last season, Gibson has found an entirely new level in 2018, as he’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning this year (9.3 K/9). It helps that he’s kept the ball in the yard more this year (0.8 HR/9) than last (1.4), but the strikeouts really stand out in a year where Gibson is inducing fewer grounders (46.7 percent) than ever before.
Though to be fair, that’s still higher than the AL average (42.6 percent). Grounders, strikeouts and limiting walks are considered the modern-day trifecta for a pitcher, and Gibson is hitting on two of the three, with walks (4.3 per nine) still a bit on the high side.
But the path to success is far, far clearer with a strikeout per inning than it was otherwise for Gibson.
A big reason for his renewal as a pitcher has been the development of his slider.
According to Sports Info Solutions, no pitcher is getting a higher miss rate on the slider than Gibson:
But that’s just among sliders. Andrew Simon of Statcast says Gibson’s slider is the best pitch whiff-wise in baseball among those which have seen at least 50 swings:
The swinging-strike rate on Gibson’s slider has always been among the most redeeming qualities of his repertoire, but that his spiked in a big way this year. Fangraphs has Gibson with a swinging-strike rate of 29.4 percent on his slider — swinging strikes/total offerings — a full seven percent better than either of his last two years, which were the high-water marks of his big-league career to this point.
“It would be my eyes that would tell me,” manager Paul Molitor prior to Tuesday’s game. “I don’t study my guys’ stuff and spin and all those things. I get a report daily from one of our analytics guys that breaks down each pitcher’s performance as far as velocity and carry and spin and glove-side and arm-side. It’s fairly simple to understand in that regard. But when I read about Gibby’s pitches, it’s a lot about improved depth.
“The changeup is getting depth, the slider is getting depth, you’re getting more swings and misses. It’s kind of simple in that regard. I think the velocity has ticked up on some of those pitches consistently, not a ton, but I think it’s effective when he’s throwing a little harder with his fastball, it makes his slider better too. Kind of a combination of things.”
OK, but what’s depth? It’s a word we hear in baseball quite a bit, but to the average fan, it might not mean much.
“Your slider is an east-west pitch,” Molitor added. “But if it’s going north-south at the same time, you have a lot better chance of getting misses. When they get flat, they have a tendency to be a bit cutter-ish and at that velocity, it plays right into some guys’ strengths.”
It would be easy to want to correlation Gibson’s success with the arrival of new pitching coach Garvin Alston, but he’s not hearing any of it.
“I’ll never say that I helped in anything,” Alston said. “The only thing I do is give information. Whatever information they take and clicks with them? Outstanding. The main thing I talk about with the slider is not over-exposing it. That’s the first thing. Guys hit sliders because they see the break and understand it. If you don’t over-expose it, you’re good to go. If you pitch in enough, it becomes more effective.”
Garvin is a self-professed “slider guy” as he told Zone Coverage earlier in the season, which again would seem to feed the idea that he and Gibson work well together. But a lot of times, it’s about what surrounds the slider rather than the pitch himself.
“What we worked on and talked about were two things: using his four-seamer and two-seamer more,” Alston said prior to Tuesday’s game. “With using them more, and sinking the ball in more a lot as far as location, he can get hitters’ eyes going in. Now the slider plays a bit better going away. That’s been one of the things we’ve worked on.
“The other thing that’s a credit to him is how hard he’s worked on his own. He has so many different drills that he does that are helping him come into his own. It’s just basically a maturation process for him as he’s growing, seeing and understanding.”
If you’ve heard of a sinker-slider pitcher, that’s a very common thing simply because the two pitches carry opposite trajectories.
“It’s tunneling, basically,” Alston said of the concept that sites like Baseball Prospectus have dug into in recent years. “So basically when it starts to tunnel and they come out at the same spot, and they’re traveling an equal distance the same way before splitting off.”
Alston is a big fan of Gibson’s changeup, too. While opposing batters are hitting a meager .069/.100/.138 on his slider, the changeup has been similarly difficult with a slash-line of .143/.195/.314.
“His changeup is probably, to me, one of his better pitches,” Alston said. “Especially since he pitches in and it comes out of the same slot and has the same spin as his fastball.”
According to Alston, some pitchers are able to get their changeup action to mimic their fastball action, which is equally difficult to handle from a trajectory standpoint.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Alston said of the goal of a truly great changeup. “Not all guys do it. It’s a certain talent, to me, to be able to do that. Stay in the same spot, keep the same hand speed and have the ball come out the same area, and one being slower and one being harder. (Gibson) is getting close to mastering that.”
So what is the ideal gap for velocity between a fastball and a changeup? It varies.
“For me, it doesn’t even have to be 10 mph,” Alston added. “Anywhere from 6-12 works. Anything (lower) and we’re looking for soft contact, and that works too.”
Considering opposing batters are hitting just .225/.316/.358 against Gibson this year, that seems like an awful lot of soft contact.