The Minnesota Twins drafted Gibson with the 22nd-overall pick in the 2009 draft out of the University of Missouri. Scouts originally projected him to go much higher, but a stress fracture in his forearm scared many teams away and he tumbled into the Twins’ loving arms in the latter third of the first round.
Gibson quickly shot through the Twins’ minor-league system upon returning to the mound in 2009. He cruised through High-A and Double-A to finish the year with the club’s Triple-A squad in Rochester. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as one of baseball’s top-101 prospects in 2010, 2011, and 2013. His omission in 2012 came after he underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2011, though his encouraging rehab outings in late autumn brought him back into the top prospect conversation a year later.
The right-hander dominated Triple-A in 2013 before getting a brief cup of coffee after the All-Star break. Unfortunately, it was a bitter taste, as he stumbled to a 6.53 ERA in 10 starts. He struggled to miss bats, surrendered too many home runs, and looked rather overwhelmed. Still, a mere ten-game sample didn’t tell us much about his long-term value. He would be far from the first rookie to fall on his face during his first go-round and subsequently recover to have a lovely career. As such, Gibson had a chance to improve in 2014, as the Twins penciled him into the starting rotation.
What Went Right in 2014?
Gibson took the baseball every fifth day and started 31 games for the Minnesota Twins last year, illustrating his durability, which had become a question mark given his stress fracture in 2009 and his TJ surgery in late 2011. Innings are often undervalued in fantasy baseball, and Gibson has the makings of a ground-ball workhorse who flirts with 200 innings on an annual basis. Accumulating innings is a phenomenal way to make up for a low strikeout rate. Hiroki Kuroda exemplified that a year ago.
Furthermore, it’s often said that it takes roughly a year for the physical body to rehab from Tommy John surgery, but it truly takes another year for the pitcher to return from the injury. In that way, we should not be surprised that his swinging-strike rate jumped from 7.9 percent in 2013 to 8.8 percent a year later. He began throwing his slider more often, which could reflect a growing confidence in his arm and his elbow. His velocity didn’t peak, but Brooks Baseball suggests that his velocity remained consistent from 2013 to 2014. All of that suggests the Tommy John surgery was successful and that Gibson wasn’t suffering from any ill effects from the procedure.
Gibson is often characterized as a ground-ball pitcher, which is certainly accurate. His 54.4 percent ground-ball rate is comfortably above the league average. What fantasy owners don’t often realize is that the right-hander was one of the best at reducing line-drive contact and limiting powerful fly balls. Gibson was one of five pitchers to compile a ground-ball rate over 50 percent and an infield-fly rate of over 10 percent. The other four: Clayton Kershaw, Jeff Samardzija, Dallas Keuchel, and Garrett Richards. Those four pitchers were all top-40 fantasy starters in 2014. That’s nice company for Gibson, even if the run-prevention numbers didn’t match that of the other four pitchers
What Went Wrong in 2014?
Two things negatively tipped the scales last year and prevented Gibson from being a top-100 fantasy starter: (1) his strand rate sucked, and (2) his swinging-strike rate didn’t translate into strikeouts.
The right-hander compiled a 66.3 percent strand rate, which is well below the league-average rate of 73 percent. While I reflexively desire to categorize this strand rate as poor luck or something of the sort, it’s important to recognize that Gibson had an almost identical rate in 2013, and that the Minnesota Twins had the worst team strand rate (68.9 percent) in the league. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the quality of their team defense, more than a sign of bad luck for Gibson, which would be a bad omen for the upcoming campaign.
Secondly, the increased swinging-strike rate never resulted in more punchouts, which severely limits his fantasy value. It’s a bit strange, as only one qualified starter had a strikeout rate under 6.00 K/9 with a swinging-strike rate above 8.5 percent. That’s Tim Hudson. In that way, one wonders whether Gibson’s increased whiff rate suggests that more strikeouts could be lurking beneath the surface, or whether it signifies a lack of an “out pitch” and that his strikeout woes will continue for the foreseeable future. Either way, the low strikeout rate in 2014 eliminated any fantasy value that he could have accumulated, especially given his middling 4.47 ERA.
What To Expect in 2015
I’m cautiously optimistic about Kyle Gibson in 2015. The combined ground-ball and infield-fly rates suggest that opposing hitters made poor contact against him a year ago, and if that trend continues, I like his earned-run average to decline to better match his FIP and for his BABIP to remain palatable. For Gibson to make a run for the top-50, though, his strikeout rate must increase. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be league average (7.36 K/9 last year), but it has to at least approach that number.
That’s where the cloudiness enters the picture. For me to project a higher strikeout rate, I have to feel comfortable that he possesses an out pitch. He must be able to put guys away. On one hand, his 17.08 percent swinging-strike rate on sliders is better than that of Wily Peralta, who had a 15.12 percent whiff rate on his slider and struck out over a batter per inning more. On the other, though, Gibson’s fastball/sinker doesn’t miss many bats and his changeup is mostly a show-me pitch to keep lefties honest.
Considering Gibson is currently being drafted as the 132nd-overall starting pitcher—that’s two spots behind Hiroki Kuroda, who is pitching in Japan next year and who has been mentioned twice in this article—there isn’t much of a gamble. I admit that I’m intrigued by his ability to be a top-100 starter in 2015, and in most leagues, he’ll be available on the waiver wire. Deep leagues may want to keep Gibson on their waiver wire shortlist, while AL-only fantasy owners could acquire a solid back-end starter for little-to-no money.
The Great Beyond
Kyle Gibson’s long-term outlook likely depends on the development of his changeup. Against right-handed batters, he’s exclusively a fastball-slider guy. That results in solid strikeout numbers (20.1 percent) and plenty of grounders. Against lefties, though, things fall apart as his changeup hasn’t become a viable weapon to this point. His 8.9 percent strikeout rate against lefties is unworkable, and while his high ground-ball rate allows him to somewhat limit the damage, it’s one of the key reasons he has been unable to post league-average strikeouts.
The changeup often lags behind other pitches, and while the Tommy John surgery gives him a bit of an excuse, he’s also 27 years old. The notion that a guy can suddenly learn the feel of a changeup at this point in his career is dubious. If it can become marginally better, though, there’s a top-100 starter in there with perhaps a fringe top-50 year thrown in once in a while.
Don’t look at me like I’m trying to suggest that’s exciting. But considering fantasy owners wrote into the Bat Signal last year asking questions about possibly picking up Dylan Axelrod, a guy like Kyle Gibson can hold value in deeper leagues and AL-onlies in the 2015 campaign. It’s not sexy to keep tabs on a guy like Gibson, nor will it be a pick for which rival owners will congratulate you on draft day. However, these are the pitchers who save fantasy rotations when unexpected injuries occur. These are the pitchers who can become unsung heroes in deep dynasty leagues.
And, ultimately, these are the pitchers that I celebrate when they become relevant in standard mixed leagues because I saw the unheralded—the ones that I don’t draft because I’m a sucker for strikeouts and often don’t practice what I preach. How the latter will work out for me in parenthood is one of life’s most easily solved mysteries. Let’s just be happy I don’t have to worry about that yet.