The Underappreciated, Hard-Luck Legacy of Kyle Gibson
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsWhen he joined the organization as a first-round draft pick, Gibson looked a fast-track type pitching prospect, especially while rocketing through three levels of the minors in his first full season. While the Twins were making a playoff run in the first season at Target Field in 2010, a 22-year-old Gibson was rapidly climbing through the minors, coasting through Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A with outstanding numbers at each stop.
He entered the 2011 season as Baseball America's No. 34 prospect, imminently ready to step in as Minnesota's next rotation centerpiece. But just as he was seemingly knocking on the door around the summer's midpoint, his numbers at Triple-A took a dive. A torn UCL was discovered he went for Tommy John surgery. Gibson's meteoric ascent came to a crashing halt.
He spent most of 2012 rehabbing, and came back strong. Gibson reached the majors in 2013 and struggled, as many rookies do. In 2014, he – somewhat surprisingly – made the big-league rotation out of camp, and put together a respectable first full season, with a 4.47 ERA and 3.80 FIP in 180 innings. Gibson took another step forward in 2015, posting a 3.84 ERA and 3,96 FIP in 194 innings, albeit with modest strikeout and swing-and-miss rates. At 27, it looked like he had arrived as a quality mid-rotation piece whose raw stuff might never reach its pre-surgery potential.
Then, in 2016, things went south for Gibson, as they did for most of the team. His velocity sagged to career lows and hittability became a major issue. Though his surgically repaired elbow was holding up, Gibson was now afflicted by nagging back and shoulder soreness. He admitted later that he didn't make a start all year without anti-inflammatory medication.
In the ensuing offseason, Gibson decided to take radical action with hopes of relieving the pain and turning around his career. He visited the Florida Baseball Ranch, where he embarked on a program designed to develop – in the words of Star Tribune's Phil Miller – "an entirely new way of delivering the baseball, about as fundamental a change as a pitcher can make."
The new exercises and drills, Miller wrote, were "meant to retrain Gibson and alter his throwing motion, so he holds the ball more upright, at an angle of less than 90 degrees, which enables him to reach his release point more directly. That, combined with a de-emphasis on extending his arm after releasing the ball, has dramatically reduced the amount of stress on his pitching shoulder."
The overhaul did not pay immediate performance dividends, as Gibson scuffled through the first half of 2017 and finished June with a 6.11 ERA. But in the latter half of the year, he began to find it. The velocity was ticking up. The breaking balls gained sharpness. His strikeout rate rose. Posting a 3.55 ERA in August and September, and propelling the Twins to a 9-2 record in his starts, Gibson was a key factor in Minnesota's unlikely post-deadline charge to the wild-card.
In 2018 he kept it rolling. With the highest strikeout rate of his career (8.2 K/9), the right-hander turned in a 3.62 ERA over 197 innings, ranked second among Twins pitchers in WAR (2.6), and put his vastly improved arsenal on display with an 11.5% swinging strike rate that shattered his previous watermark.
Heading into his final year before free agency, Gibson had come full circle. His path was hardly straight or smooth, but finally the former first-round pick was a valued staple in the rotation, boasting legitimate standout stuff and worthy results.
And then – of course – calamity struck again.
On a mission trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic last winter, Gibson contracted E. coli. The illness took a physical toll on him, causing him to drop a ton of weight from an already somewhat slender frame. He showed up to spring training looking gaunt, and by his own admission wasn't quite back to full strength by the start of the season.
Nevertheless, he shook off a few bad early starts and pretty much resumed where he left off. As recently as early August, Gibson's ERA sat at 4.02 and he looked like a playoff starter. But in the late stages of this 2019 campaign, the righty has unraveled completely, amidst the revelation he's been dealing with ulcerative colitis and its ravaging effects since spring.
At this point, the 31-year-old is a mere shell of what he was even two months ago. His stamina has tanked. His command is gone. His outings have grown increasingly poor, with Thursday night's total meltdown (1.2 IP, 3 ER, 4 BB with 25 of 52 pitches for strikes against the hapless Royals) setting a new low. It would be surprising – and, frankly, upsetting – to see him pitch in a Twins uniform again this year. A role in the playoffs is essentially out the window.
It sucks. For him most of all, I assure you.
So many fans, for whatever reason, hold a scornful disdain for Gibson. They lament his every misstep, they accuse him of "nibbling," and they dismiss whatever success he's experienced as flukey and fleeting.
But let's be clear: Gibson was no flash in the pan. From August 1st, 2017, through July 31st, 2019 – a full two-year span – he logged a 3.75 ERA (to go along with a 4.03 FIP and 3.78 xFIP) over 376 innings, compiling the 22nd-highest WAR among MLB starters. He emerged as a legitimate second-tier pitcher and he did it through a willingness to do whatever it took.
“It wasn’t easy at first, because there’s a lot of modern thinking about the throwing motion and I’m more of a traditional baseball guy,” Gibson said in 2017 of his trip to the Florida Baseball Ranch, and his adoption of its unconventional methods. “I had to open up a little bit to accept new ways of thinking. And I’m glad I did.”
It paid off until he was completely derailed by circumstances that go beyond baseball.
The Twins will face an interesting decision this offseason, as a free agent exodus opens up several vacancies in the rotation. The decline of Gibson obviously comes with bad timing for him, but could create an intriguing opportunity for whatever team is willing to take a chance on him. He's shown when healthy that he can be a force. Even this year, with all the embattlement, his swinging strike rate is tied with Yu Darvish for 13th-best in the majors.
Gibson could very well be a bargain for someone. Perhaps familiarity and cost-efficiency will lead to the Twins being that team. Or, perhaps Minnesota's front office will look elsewhere for a fresh start with a more known commodity.
If so, this is a somber end to Gibson's time with the organization that drafted him a decade ago. In some eyes, I'm sure his legacy will be viewed poorly, but I think that's really unfortunate. The fairer narrative portrays a very talented pitcher who repeatedly got dealt bad blows, and went above and beyond to overcome them – including a total mechanical overhaul in his late 20s.
Through it all, he's been a good organizational soldier, an appreciated teammate, a forthcoming favorite for media interviews, and a generous contributor to the community.
The story of Gibson as a Twin (if this is the end) is an inspiring and admirable one. I hope fans won't let the fact that it's ending the same way it began – defined by injury and disappointment – cloud the general traits of resilience and reinvention he has embodied, all the way up until the bitter end.
- nicksaviking, brvama, woolywoolhouse and 14 others like this