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Kyle Gibson had Tommy John surgery on September 7, 2011. The Twins won that day, but they had lost the five games prior to that one, and they would lose the next 11, as they hurtled toward a 63-99 car wreck of a finish. It didn’t much matter, since Gibson wasn’t quite on the doorstep of the majors when he went under the knife, but it would turn out to be bad timing. See, Gibson was back on the mound in miraculously little time, making seven rehab appearances for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League club in July 2012. By the end of that month, though, the Twins were far from contention again, and they traded the expiring contract of Francisco Liriano to the White Sox. Gibson debuted in Minnesota on another losing team a year later, but the ships had passed in the night. Improbably, the Twins developed two pitchers with the same radical, nearly unique approach to their craft within just a couple years of each other, but the pair never shared a starting rotation.

Gibson and Liriano are remarkable, at first blush, for their differences. Gibson is tall and slender, with long legs. Liriano is no shrimp, but he’s a wider, more squat specimen. Gibson, of course, is a right-hander, whereas Liriano is a lefty. Gibson debuted at 25 years and 249 days old, by which age Liriano had logged over 325 innings in the majors, despite also having undergone Tommy John surgery. Their developmental arcs and their reputations are very different. Their strikeout rates and their health records are, too. Once they start pitching, though, Gibson and Liriano bear positively eerie resemblance to one another.

Let’s first consider the following, clipped from the bottom of the Zone Rate leaderboard in our sortable stats section. These pitchers throw pitches in the strike zone less often than any others in baseball.

Lowest Zone Rate, MLB Pitchers, 2015 (min. 1,500 pitches):

Pitcher

Zone %

Francisco Liriano

39.3

Kyle Gibson

40.0

Dallas Keuchel

40.1

Wade Miley

41.0

Ivan Nova

42.0

No one skirts the zone more than these two, and it’s not (primarily, anyway) a failure of command. Both pitchers were aggressive avoiders of the zone last year, too, with Liriano again posting the lowest zone rate and Gibson, still honing his craft, the eighth-lowest.

In The Bill James Handbook 2016, Baseball Info Solutions provides an analysis of pitchers’ ability to use the edges of the strike zone. They put each pitch thrown into one of three bins: clearly outside the zone, on the edge, or in the middle of the zone. Among pitchers who threw at least 2,500 pitches last season (the only ones in the Handbook’s chart), only three pitchers had at least 34 percent of their pitches binned as clearly outside the zone and less than 25 percent of them binned as being in the middle of the zone: Liriano, Gibson, and Keuchel.

(It’s worth noting that the BIS numbers differ somewhat from those kept by Bill Petti, who invented Edge % online a few years ago. Petti’s data does list Gibson, Liriano, and Keuchel (that order, this time) as the pitchers who most assiduously avoided the “Heart” of the plate, but whereas the BIS chart had all three pitchers near the top of the list for Edge %, Petti’s formula has Liriano second from the bottom of the league in that stat, and considers Gibson and Keuchel pedestrian on that front. The difference might be purely semantic, the distinction between talking about expert painters of corners and talking about guys who rely on batters to chase bad balls. Still, consider yourself advised.)

There were 141 pitchers who attained 100 innings pitched in the big leagues last season. Of those, Keuchel had the fourth-highest groundball rate, Gibson had the 13th-highest, and Liriano had the 17th-highest. The approach these three share, and which no other pitcher in the league seems able or willing to execute as well, allows them to get a whole lot of contact with a low potential for damage.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, by now, that this article is no longer about the connection between the twin Twins (I think Liriano would be the Schwarzenegger, and Gibson the DeVito, for the record). It’s becoming about something more interesting, or at least as interesting: the question of what separates Keuchel from these two, and even about whether anything necessarily does.

We’re not going to find the divide in their respective repertoires. To a man, they throw a sinker as their primary fastball (and most ubiquitous pitch, overall), and then mix in a slider, a changeup, and a four-seam fastball. Keuchel also has a cutter, and Gibson a show-me curveball, and Gibson blends the slider, change and four-seamer pretty evenly (whereas the other two are clearly sinker, slider, changeup, four-seamer), but the differences in pitch mix are too small to map out. In addition to attacking the same areas and avoiding mistakes and fat pitches equally well, these three more or less throw the same arsenal at opposing hitters.

Let’s piece together the key features of each pitch for each pitcher, and see where differences crop up. First, the sinkers:

Sinker Attributes:

Pitcher

Swing % (Rk, of 74)

Whiff % on Swings

Ground Ball %

Liriano

35.0 (73)

14.9 (15)

55 (35)

Keuchel

39.7 (63)

15.0 (13)

72 (2)

Gibson

45.6 (32)

9.8 (54)

62 (11)

Slider Attributes:

Pitcher

Swing % (Rk, of 39)

Whiff % on Swings

Ground Ball %

Liriano

49.2 (26)

44.9 (5)

49 (19)

Keuchel

45.7 (33)

41.8 (8)

50 (16)

Gibson

50.6 (19)

41.2 (9)

37 (37)

Changeup Attributes:

Pitcher

Swing % (Rk, of 92)

Whiff % on Swings

Ground Ball %

Liriano

56.1 (26)

43.4 (2)

53 (37)

Keuchel

56.8 (23)

37.1 (18)

58 (24)

Gibson

57.8 (15)

32.1 (42)

63 (9)

Right now, Gibson is outclassed with regard to the pitch all three guys throw most often: the sinker. He still has a pretty good sinker, in truth, getting a lot of groundballs and a lot of swings on it, but unless something changes and that pitch ever starts missing bats more consistently, it’s unlikely he’ll take a step into Keuchel territory. It’s perfectly possible that will happen, though. Keuchel was the guy we thought might never miss enough bats, just a couple years ago. Time will tell whether Gibson’s right-handedness might simply preclude him from getting as much out of this approach and this skill set as Keuchel and Liriano do; I haven’t found a way to splice that yet that yields a firm answer. For now, though, file this away: Despite the unimpressive strikeout totals and the tepid FIP, Kyle Gibson’s success over his first two full seasons in the Twins’ rotation is real. He’s getting the job done in a very unorthodox way, but the men who have blazed (and are blazing) the trail he walks provide cause for optimism, and anyway, all those groundballs add up.

Thank you for reading

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ProBeauNO
1/05
Nice article... as a Gibson owner I hope you're right. Could velocity and movement of said pitches help to explain the differences in results we're seeing? If so (that Gibson's is worse) how likely is that to change (get better) as he ages?
gibbonsg27
1/06
Great read - I had been looking at Gibson in a Dynasty as a back end option as he was available for cheap. He had a small but nice increase in k/9 in the second half last year which piqued my interest initially. He did show decent good strikeout numbers in the minors, so maybe we'll see them tick up a bit. He's basically the same exact stat line as Wade Miley.