Whiff Of Success: Gibson Making Bats Miss
Image courtesy of Dan Hamilton, USA TodayIn 2005, the Twins used their first-round pick to draft Matt Garza, a pitcher who has gone on to throw 1,700 major-league innings in an altogether successful career (albeit one spent mostly outside of Minnesota).
Since then, the organization has used 10 first-round selections (including supplemental picks) on arms, with a woefully low hit rate. The list is a collection of washouts, disappointments and case studies in the perils of prospecting young pitchers – with two exceptions.
Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson. The former has entrenched himself as an ongoing rotation staple. The latter had seemingly erased himself from that conversation during the past two seasons.
But now, when the team needs him most, Gibson is making a late case by – at long last – getting the most out of his stuff.
I've always counted myself as a Gibson fan. I remember on draft day in 2009, when the Twins landed him with the 22nd overall pick, thinking what a steal he was. Following an outstanding career at the University of Missouri, he slid to the late first round due to concerns about a forearm issue, enabling Minnesota to snag a talent worthy of going in the Top 15. He was the prototype of a quality pitcher: tall and lanky, with a hard sinker that careened downhill from his big frame.
He made the Twins look smart with a phenomenal first year in the pros, rising all the way to Triple-A in 2010. He was on track for a fast MLB debut before Tommy John surgery in 2011 stalled his momentum, but came back strong and joined the big-league ranks in 2013.
Gibson followed the same progressive path that many young players do. He struggled mightily in his first exposure to the majors, then showed moderate improvement in Year 2, and finally seemed to come into his own the following season (Byron Buxton, anyone?).
That third year – 2015 – signaled that the right-hander was putting together all the pieces: he ranked among the top 10 grounder rates in the majors, posted the best strikeout rate of his career, and averaged more than six innings over 32 starts.
At age 28, he appeared poised to keep growing in 2016, but much like the team as a whole, it was Total System Failure for Gibson. All of his promising trends turned the wrong way as he struggled through a tumultuous campaign, finishing with a 5.07 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.
Afterward, he acknowledged he'd been dealing with back and shoulder discomfort for much of the summer, even outside of his five-week trip to the disabled list. He battled through 25 starts, frequently relying on anti-inflammatory meds.
Searching for answers, Gibson went through an offseason program that involved completely overhauling his routine and mechanics. As Star Tribune's Phil Miller put it, the revamp was "an entirely new way of delivering the baseball, about as fundamental a change as a pitcher can make."
Sounds like something that could take a while to coalesce, but during spring training it looked as though Gibson's efforts were paying immediate dividends. In Grapefruit League play, he was as good as ever, dominating opposing lineups while flashing electric stuff and, by his account, feeling great.
Once the season started, however, things went totally off the rails for Gibson. He didn't record a quality start for the Twins until June 8th, spending much of May in Triple-A. By late July, when he and his 6.08 ERA were sent back to Rochester in order to make room for newly acquired Jaime Garcia, it appeared Gibson had essentially played his way out of the team's plans.
But in August, the embattled starter came back with a vengeance. With an excellent outing in Toronto on Sunday, Gibson wrapped up the best month he's had in a long time. Suddenly, he had resolved the issues that plagued him for the better part of two years. He was throwing in the zone (seven walks in five starts). He was keeping the ball down (only three homers).
And most notably, Gibson was finally missing bats. His 12.8% swinging strike rate towered over his career norm, and is in line with the season rates for top-tier strikeout artists like Stephen Strasburg and Zack Greinke.
In his August 22nd start against the White Sox, when he tossed seven innings of one-run ball, Gibson induced 17 swings and misses. Only two Twins have produced more whiffs in a start this year: Ervin Santana (26 in a complete game win against the Padres on 8/2) and Berrios (19 in his 11 K game against Colorado).
With his hard sinker and sharp slider, Gibson always seemed like a guy who should get more hitters to miss. This month, it's been happening in fairly consistent fashion, and the results are beginning to reflect a pitcher with renewed confidence and legit comfort on the mound.
Is it possible his alterations and adjustments just took a few months to fully reach fruition? It is still too early to draw such conclusions, but lately Gibson is truly looking as good as he has in years. And he's doing it at a time where the Twins, in the thick of the postseason race, desperately need it.
Whiffs, grounders and wins. Music to their ears.
- brvama, Sconnie, PDX Twin and 4 others like this