Kyle Gibson won’t be at the top of any team’s wishlist for starting pitching, but any team looking for rotation help this winter should be interested in his services. Gibson has been easy to overlook. He enters free agency at 32 with a career 4.52 ERA over seven seasons, and in 2019, he pitched to a 4.84 mark. Advanced run estimators haven’t been much kinder. FIP had him at 4.26 this season while DRA had him at 5.60. The previous two seasons, though, Gibson has made some real improvements that should entice potential suitors.
Gibson’s tenure with the Minnesota Twins has reflected their pitching philosophy. Prior to Derek Falvey and Thad Levine taking over the front office in 2016, Gibson was a strikeout averse pitcher. His highest per nine rate was 6.7. It took a couple years, but Gibson, like the rest of Twins roster, started striking batters out. A 9.0 strikeouts per nine and a 22.7 percent rate are modest numbers for 2019, but they indicate changes in Gibson’s repertoire and how he implements it.
Gibson is one of the last sinker-slider pitchers. As the league drops the sinker in favor of the four seamer or slider, Gibson has kept it as his primary fastball and for good reason. His sinker yields better results than his four seamer. Neither pitch is particularly effective at getting swings and misses or limiting opponent’s slugging, but the sinker is slightly better in both categories. The sinker is also a much better tool for inducing ground balls.
Kyle Gibson FA vs. SI 2019
Those are 2019 numbers, but they are consistent with his career averages. The sinker might not be an exciting pitch, but it helps him keep the ball on the ground and he can more reliably get it in the strike zone. Perhaps if Gibson weren’t pitching in front of an infield that combined for a combined -18 defensive runs saved in 2019, the sinker would have been even better for him. The juiced ball also didn’t help keep what few sinkers were hit in the air in the park.
While it’s unusual that Gibson’s sinker is better than his four seamer, the sinker itself isn’t what makes him intriguing. That would be the slider. The slider has always been his best secondary pitch, and it gets better and better with each passing year. That’s most evident when looking at his vertical movement which has increased every year since 2015. Since Statcast data became available, Gibson has added nine inches of drop on the slider.
Naturally, that has also helped the pitch’s swinging strike rate, as that number has increased every year except 2017.
The increase in vertical drop has been a major driver in Gibson’s overall swinging strike rate climbing to its highest mark of 13.1 in 2019. In a more spacious home ballpark and with a more competent defense behind him, Gibson could be in for the breakout he has deserved the past two years. Even if he doesn’t improve, Gibson is generally good for 2-3 WAR and 150+ innings. Pitchers like that are hard to come by. There is always, of course, the risk that Gibson takes a step back, but an inexpensive option with this much upside is a risk worth taking.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.