Kyle Gibson has been a bit of an enigma for the Twins. The former first round draft pick made his major league debut in 2013 and was knocked around almost immediately. Okay, whatever, you figure out what opposing teams are going to do and you adjust the next season. Armed with a sinking fastball, Gibson limited the hard contact and turned in an adequate 4.47 ERA the following season while making 31 starts. He followed that up by dropping his ERA down to 3.84 in 2015, demonstrating that he would be a fixture in the rotation in spite of a low strikeout rate.
However, in the era where whiffs are in fashion, Gibson just couldn’t keep up. Over the next two years, he gave up a few more home runs, his control was slowing eroding, and it started to seem that the Twins would be content with Gibson leaving once his affordable arbitration years were up. He was simply too hittable to be anything more than filler for the back of the rotation.
Turn the page to this season and, well, Kyle Gibson is a whole different pitcher. Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn drew the early headlines due to the novelty of being new to the organization while Fernando Romero is grabbing the current headlines with his high-90s fastball and 11 2⁄3 scoreless inning streak to start his career, but Gibson has been flying under the radar throughout the first month and a half of the season. The team needed someone to fill the shoes of Ervin Santana while he was out and Gibson has done that and more. A 3.49 ERA (3.12 FIP) while boosting his strikeout rate from the mid-teens to nearly 27% (2018 major league average: 22.7%) has turned him into the de facto ace of the staff in the early going.
How has he done it? Well, it’s not due to a change in his pitch mix. He’s still throwing 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs three out of five times, while adding in a slider, change-up, and curve. It’s not a change in where he’s throwing his pitches, as this year (top) looks very similar to last year (bottom).
(Source: Baseball Savant)
If you look at Gibson’s plate discipline numbers, you start to get a better idea of what’s going on. Last year, he threw his pitches in the strike zone a career high 40% of the time (league average: 45%). This season, it’s dropped down to 36%, but that’s where he was back in 2016. As he’s been throwing more pitches out of the zone, hitters have also been making contact less often as his contact rate on pitches out of the zone has plummeted from 62% to 54%. This has caused his overall contact rate to also drop from 78% to 72%. The names in MLB that are similar to Gibson in out-of-zone contact rate are Noah Syndergaard, Lance McCullers Jr., and Max Scherzer. For overall contact rate, the names are Chris Archer, Zack Greinke, and Carlos Carrasco. These improvements may be due to better pitch sequencing, something that may relate with the addition of former major leaguer Jeremy Hefner to the front office last year.
Whatever it may be, Gibson has become a godsend as the Twins have weathered the struggles of Odorizzi and Lynn. Combined with Jose Berrios and Romero, it now appears the team has three reliable pitchers to carry them until Santana returns.