There are times I write about pitchers that I truly believe in. The ones that seem destined to break through the filter of mediocrity and into the spotlight of the masses. Kyle Gibson is not one of these pitchers.
But he did do something in 2017 that I think you should know about. It could be a gamechanger, it could be nothing, but it was at least something, and let’s be honest, that’s a lot more than we expected when talking about career 4.70 ERA and 16.0% strikeout rate Kyle Gibson.
Take a look at this table that will make you raise an eyebrow or two:
|First 21 starts||6.05||1.71||15.0%||10.0%||9.4%||32.2%||16.4%||84.0 mph|
|Final 8 starts||2.92||1.14||23.7%||5.2%||11.8%||38.7%||20.4%||85.2 mph|
I know, I know. It was eight starts! How could I possibly put weight into this? And you’re completely right, but indulge me as I think there’s more than just small sample size at work here.
Plenty of ink has been spilled detailing the changes Gibson has made in the second half of 2017, including a change of arm slot, four-seamers in the zone, and utilizing his legs more during his delivery. They could all be the real factors at play here, though I want to point out one more element, which may have been obvious from the table above: His slider approach.
A four-point usage increase isn’t all too much and far from enough to bring credence to a massive improvement across the board. But what about how he used it? Direct yourself to these heatmaps of Gibson’s slider locations through the year with his first twenty-one starts on the left and his final eight on the right:
Not only was Gibson throwing his slider more often, but he also began using it as a chase pitch nearly exclusively. And it worked.
What good is this without some GIFs to showcase this – and yes, I will be cherry picking again because, well you know, this is still Kyle Gibson.
Here’s Gibson trying to sneak a slider for strike leading to a single from Mikie Mahtook:
Watch this slide piece that Gibson wanted to throw off the plate, but found its way to the middle for a hard liner to center from Ruben Tejada:
And an 0-0 slider that hung in the middle of the plate for Adam Jones to blast into the seats:
Three poorly located pitches, one with the mindset of getting a chase, and the other two failing to work as a “strike-getter.” Pitches like these are what led to his slider’s .253 ISO allowed in the 316 thrown prior to August 22nd, making a poor -4.6 pVal in that time.
Now observe what the pitch looked like in his final eight starts and promoted his strikeout growth. First we have a pitch from his August 22nd start, quietly killing it as we were all focused on Lucas Giolito’s ChiSox debut:
Then he displayed no fear turning the pitch into a strikeout offering against left-handers:
And still had it in his final start of the season on September 29th, this time showing Mahtook a better slider than before:
Across the 147 thrown starting on August 22nd, Gibson’s slider held a .086 ISO and .143 BAA, en route to a solid 2.6 pVal mark. It may surprise you that Gibson’s slider held a 21.3% whiff rate across of all of 2017, and you may be stunned that the slide piece held a remarkable 26.5% clip in those eight starts. It’s laughable to compare Gibson in any way to Corey Kluber, but I find it entertaining to compare that 26.5% whiff rate to 28.0% mark on Kluber’s slider. Yes, sample sizes and other metrics make the pitches very distant, but let me have my fun.
It makes a lot of sense that an increased ability to locate sliders off the plate would not only bump up his strikeout rate, but in turn make his fastball more effective as batters become more hesitant to swing at any pitch they see beginning inside the strikezone. Gibson suddenly held a 7.3 pVal with his sinker in his final eight starts after a horrid -8.2 mark prior. Maybe they’re connected, maybe his sinker’s improvement allowed Gibson to tweak his slider.
The new location of Gibson’s sliders could also have been a change of approach or a product of the aforementioned mechanical tweaks that allowed him to properly execute the pitch more frequently. Regardless of the many possible catalysts, Gibson’s slider is in a better place now and we should take note of it.
I’m not telling you to draft Kyle Gibson on your twelve teamer. I’m not even sold that this eight-game sample should sell you on making him a target in a fifteen teamer. But if you’re trying to find arms with very little to spend, there’s a chance this spills into 2018, turning a perennial waiver wire recluse into a sturdy backend option.