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Between the Chalk: Inside Kyle Gibson's Struggles

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Seven starts into his major league career, things have not gone as planned for Twins rookie Kyle Gibson.

Gibson entered this season as one of the organizationís most hyped pitching prospects in recent memory. That probably says more about the sad state of Twins starting pitching in recent years than it does about Gibson himself, given his likely ceiling as a number three starter and the fact that he is less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery. Regardless, a lot was expected of him when he finally debuted at the end of June, and the early returns leave much to be desired. Following his most recent outing, which saw him give up four runs on nine hits in just three innings against the lowly Astros, Gibsonís ERA sits at a robust 6.69 over 36.1 innings pitched (his 4.97 FIP and 4.51 xFIP are not quite as bad, but thatís just polishing the turd). Simply put, he has not been good.

Gibson spent the first three months of the season at Triple-A Rochester, where he compiled a 3.01 ERA (2.96 FIP) with 79 strikeouts over 92.2 innings as one of the International Leagueís best pitchers. Despite a struggling major league rotation and earlier calls for his promotion, the Twins opted to keep Gibson in the minors until the end of June to work on his ďconsistencyĒ (whatever that means). Thus, though he has made only seven major league starts, he has already thrown a combined 129 innings between Minnesota and Rochester this year. Given this is his first full season following Tommy John, that number is not insignificant.

This last point has lead some to speculate recently that Gibsonís problems may just be the result of fatigue, suggesting that it might simply be time to shut him down for the season. To be sure, only once in his career has he thrown more innings than this year Ė his 2010 rookie season in which he logged 152. But looking at his game-by-game PITCH/x numbers, his fastball velocity has largely remained consistent over each of his seven starts, and the same is true of his power sinker.

A review of Gibsonís PITCHf/x usage data does reveal an overreliance on his hard stuff of late. More than 75 percent of the pitches heís thrown over his past four starts have been either the four-seam or sinking fastball. In that time, his use of the changeup has been cut by almost two-thirds, and he has stopped throwing his curveball entirely. Gibsonís recent dependence on the fastball may stem from his inability to consistently get ahead of hitters (a 50 percent first strike percentage, compared to the 60 percent MLB average). Collectively, the failure to change speeds and work ahead in the count likely go a long way towards explaining his struggles.

Fortunately for both Gibson and the Twins, the numbers suggest that his poor performance to date might have just as much to do with bad luck as anything he is (or isnít) doing. His high BABIP (.344), high HR/FB rate (14.3%), and low LOB rate (63.2%) all suggest that he is underperforming considerably right now, and once those numbers regress to more typical levels, his results should see a corresponding improvement. Gibsonís reduced strikeout rate (11.9%) is of some concern, but his walk rate (7.1%) is solid and he is getting a lot of ground balls (51.9%), which is what you would hope for given his affection for the sinker.

With an innings pitched limit rumored to be in the 130-150 range, Gibson may have only three or four more starts to improve upon his debut season. He is probably a lock to crack the 2014 roster no matter how well he finishes, but you can bet there will still be a lot of eyes watching in Twins territory. A couple of strong starts to end the season would be welcomed by both Gibson and the Twins front office, which faces a third straight offseason full of questions about the starting rotation. #p2c

Originally published at pitching2contact


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