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The Underappreciated, Hard-Luck Legacy of Kyle Gibson

From the very beginning, Kyle Gibson's career was defined by injury and disappointment. Coming out of the University of Missouri in 2009, he was widely viewed as a likely Top 10 draft selection, but a stress fracture in his forearm caused him to drop to Minnesota at 22nd overall.

This would sadly prove to be a harbinger for Gibson's tenure as a Twin, during which the pitcher's tenacity and determination have been overshadowed by a constant plague of misfortune that continues to follow him.
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
When 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.

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61 Comments

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Cooper Carlson
Sep 19 2019 08:05 PM

Great read. I'd love for him to come back next season. He was the best Twins starter in 2018 (27th in MLB ERA leaderboard) and the ability is definitely still there. Just a sad story this season.

    • brvama, jbissell, DocBauer and 3 others like this
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Parker Hageman
Sep 19 2019 08:12 PM

they shoulda drafted mike trout. 

    • birdwatcher, beckmt, GCTF and 3 others like this
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Cooper Carlson
Sep 19 2019 08:13 PM

 

they shoulda drafted mike trout. 

Ok only one of Trout and Gibson is currently on the IL so think again.

    • nicksaviking likes this

i dunno, Nick ... to what would you attribute Kyle losing all contact with the strike zone when he gets runners on base (as he did tonight)?

 

It's been happening way too often the last couple of months.

 

If he's not healthy, we shouldn't be running him out there.

    • denarded, Thrylos, Bamboo Bat and 1 other like this

Nice story, move on.Gibson has always been a pitcher of promise, but seldom have we seen him as the guy we want to pitch a crucial game.It is a heartless profession and we need arms that can deliver. 

    • Thrylos, beckmt, Dman and 6 others like this
I have always been a bit of a fan. Plus he's the kind of person that seems like he's a good human. Fans don't seem to understand how good he was once he figured it out. Then the illness, which he tried to pitch thru without taking banned drugs..... But it didn't work.

He can't be on the post season roster. Whether they sign him or not, that depends on health.
    • SQUIRREL, Thrylos, nokomismod and 14 others like this

I have defended him over the years. He's a little like the 2nd version of Liriano. He's not as good as people were hoping for so many write him off as bad and as pointed out above and many times he was actually quite good for a long stretch.  Whatever his problems are it feels like no one has needed 4 month off and the reset button pushed more than Gibson.  I found myself in the unique position tonight of hoping he would get in trouble early without giving up too much damage so our bullpen can come in and give the offense time to come back.  Worked out perfectly but it is not the ideal wish. No problem bringing him back. I am guessing he won't get any big offers and might be open to a smaller contract for one year to prove he can hack it.

    • brvama, Minfidel, Wizard11 and 3 others like this

I remember a mid summer game i think in 2017 when he was struggling and there was talk about him being done, and against Baltimore he was struggling, but the offense scored a bunch in the middle innings and he just kind of figured it out. He started striking out hitters both in that game and then for the next 1.5 years on a good slider and a high four seamer. It was a great stretch for him and like others have said he is an easy guy to root for. 

I do not think that means he shoudl be on the post season roster this year though.

    • wabene likes this
Nick, I absolutely love this piece! I have argued for some time about Gibson, and his career, and have often felt be has been a victim of expectation.

Understand, this is NOT me tooting my own TD horn, but I wrote a piece in the Forum days ago that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Were I a bit more computer say, I might include the link here. I also wonder if my post might have lead to your post. No ego, just wondering.

Gibson is not only a good guy, and a good Twin, but he is simply not the poor pitcher some have made him out to be. A few moments of search will show that.

Early 30's, coming off the best 1 1/2yrs of his career, he was poised to help lead the rotation for this team. But illness, double illness, possibly related, he gutted out a ML average performance before running out of gas.

Whatever happens for Gibson tomorrow, I pray and hope for 2 things:

1] Control of his ailment, whether it means diet and medication allows him to continue his career with the Twins or somewhere else, or retire and move forward with his life.

2] People will actually look at his career numbers honestly and objectively and realize that he really was, over all, a pretty good MLB SP, and not a disappointment for speculation.
    • brvama, LA VIkes Fan, JW24 and 5 others like this
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mickeymental
Sep 19 2019 11:55 PM

good story. always good to be reminded that they're men, not machines.

    • SQUIRREL, birdwatcher, brvama and 8 others like this
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operation mindcrime
Sep 20 2019 12:24 AM
No matter what the future holds for Kyle Gibson I wish him nothing but the best! Here's to his health and happiness!
    • Thrylos, brvama, Minfidel and 6 others like this
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Channing1964
Sep 20 2019 02:30 AM
To me he is a Twin for life. He is the kind if guy we want the children to look up to. I hope he gets it together and has a successful career. The struggles he us going through don't change the kind of leader and role model he has always been. If he isn't on the post season roster, none of that will change for me. Here's hoping he pitches his way into the playoffs and excels in every opportunity he gets. Guys like Kyle Gibson are easy to cheer for.
    • Dantes929, DocBauer, tarheeltwinsfan and 5 others like this
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Mike Frasier Law
Sep 20 2019 04:57 AM
This story read like a eulogy to me - and it makes me sad. I am a fan of Gibson and I think he’s likely to have a very good year next year. I doubt it will be with the twins.

He reminds me most of Scott Baker. A pitcher whose results were regularly good to very good but almost never outstanding. I was consistently frustrated with casual fans complaining about “merely” being good and not great.
    • brvama, Dantes929, DocBauer and 5 others like this
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notoriousgod71
Sep 20 2019 05:25 AM

His player comps according to baseball ref are Tony Armas, Jerome Williams, Matt Moore, and Scott Kamieniecki.

    • Thrylos, mikelink45 and Bamboo Bat like this
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notoriousgod71
Sep 20 2019 05:25 AM

 

 

His player comps according to baseball ref are Tony Armas, Jerome Williams, Matt Moore, and Scott Kamieniecki.

 

And Roberto Hernandez (who I thought was the White Sox closer, but it turns out to actually be Fausto Carmona).

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Twinsoholic
Sep 20 2019 05:35 AM
He does nibble. He gets 2 strikes and then refuses to throw the third one. Batters know this and lay off his next pitches. His pitch count escalates. Jack Morris has had Gibson’s number on this for quite a while. Morris also notes that Gibson is reluctant to throw fastballs inside to right hand batters with 2 strikes. Hitters have figured this out as well and know they don’t have to look for this pitch. Escalating pitch counts hurt Gibson’s effectiveness. I also agree with the comment above about his problems once he gets a runner on base. I definitely wish him the best—I certainly could not be a major league player. I root for him but he is fairly predictable and that has something to do with his results.
    • spanman2, rv78, Bamboo Bat and 3 others like this
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clutterheart
Sep 20 2019 06:00 AM
Do folks think the FO wont try to keep him?
Why?
I dont have great confidence in the guy but he's a fine #4 or #5 guy.

If he could be kept for reasonable amount of $$ and years do it.

Great discussion of his situation, Nick, thanks!

 

It is sad to see a very good pitcher and better person go thru what he is dealing with right now.As I said elsewhere, I might give him one more start but only after the Twins have clinched.But I don't know the total medical situation and if it is as bad as it appears probably is best to just shut it down for the year.

 

As for the future, there will be risk to both Gibson and whatever team signs him.I hope that it is the Twins, although it would have to be a one year incentive laden contract.Will someone else offer more? 

    • SQUIRREL, DocBauer, tarheeltwinsfan and 2 others like this
Doc’s “victim of expectations” and mickeymental’s “human, not machine” sums up my thoughts. Some of the comments I’ve seen on the game posts, IMHO, have been mean and nasty. It seems we often have expectations of perfection of professional athletes and forget they struggle in life like all of us. The human is a complex creature, not like a programmed robot.

And Nick, thank you for reminding all of us his history to this point in his career. While I get frustrated with his pace and nibbling, I have also thought he was an important part of our staff. I hope he can get his condition under control and built his strength and i’d be happy to see him back next year or two.
    • SQUIRREL, Riverbrian, LA VIkes Fan and 7 others like this
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diehardtwinsfan
Sep 20 2019 06:55 AM

Given what he's dealing with righ tnow, I really think he should be shut down. Nothing against the guy, I hope he gets his condition under control and has several more good MLB seasons... but right now his health needs to be his priority. 

    • nicksaviking, brvama, LA VIkes Fan and 7 others like this

Do folks think the FO wont try to keep him?
Why?
I dont have great confidence in the guy but he's a fine #4 or #5 guy.

If he could be kept for reasonable amount of $$ and years do it.


It will all depend on his health... We will have PLENTY of time to discuss bringing him back or not. If free agency continues the way it has been it will move at a snail's pace.

Given Gibson's age and health situation there won't be a line out the door bidding for him until Feb/March.

The Twins can spend the winter aiming higher, and if they miss, bring back Gibson.
    • SF Twins Fan and MN_ExPat like this

I remember coaching a pitcher once who had all the talent in the world, but he was his own worst enemy. He would over-analyze everything and would be prone to giving up multiple runs. He suddenly couldn't throw strikes and he would implode. I wonder if Gibby is much the same way. He has the stuff and can be pitching well, but he is prone to having the bad inning. I don't think Gibson loses command. Or maybe I should say that his own mind causes him to lose his command. I do not think this is a medical issue at this point. The stuff is there, but the results are not. The mental part of the game should not be discounted.

 

    • birdwatcher likes this

Mike Sixel
Yesterday, 10:58 PM
I have always been a bit of a fan. Plus he's the kind of person that seems like he's a good human.

Yes, in his mission work, which cost him his health (and from getting sick doing it probably millions of dollars). Gibson has truly chosen the better part.

    • birdwatcher, brvama, LA VIkes Fan and 5 others like this

I've never liked Gibson very much. Sure, he's an average MLB pitcher and I know it's good to have those guys on your team.But frankly....Gibby's not very fun to watch.

 

He's got to be one of the slowest workers in the game. We're talking about a minute between pitches. It feels like 10 minutes per batter. When he struggles, the half-inning can take 30 minutes or more. His bad outings get magnified because they're so painful to watch.

 

Another star-crossed Twin is Byron Buxton. But fans seem to be much more in Byron's corner, because it's fun to watch him play. Gibson's brand of pitching, on the other hand, is one of the reasons MLB is testing out a "pitch clock" in the minors right now. 

 

I know he's a good dude and I've got nothing against the guy personally. But Gibson's slow pace (and mediocre career numbers) haven't won him any fans.

 

 

    • birdwatcher likes this

 

Given what he's dealing with righ tnow, I really think he should be shut down. Nothing against the guy, I hope he gets his condition under control and has several more good MLB seasons... but right now his health needs to be his priority. 

I would be curious if the Pineda suspension has resulted in the Twins reluctance to shut Kyle down. I imagine Gibson wants to be out there pitching and helping his team, and even more so after losing Pineda for the rest of the season. I have a ton of respect for him battling through his ailments all season and never once using it as an excuse. He is a true professional.

 

I feel terrible for Kyle. I hope he is able to regain his health this offseason. I am sure he does not take for granted being able to put on a Twins uniform every day, and I hope he can be healthy enough to do it again next year.

    • birdwatcher, adjacent, tarheeltwinsfan and 2 others like this

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