It seems like it’s been a decade that we’ve been waiting for a Kyle Gibson breakout. But, this is only his sixth MLB season. Surprisingly, to me at least, he’s actually already 30 years old. It’s not often that a 30 year old pitcher with six seasons under his belt suddenly breaks out.
The knock on Gibson is that he has never posted even an average strikeout rate. He’s always induced grounders at an above average clip and his control typically teetered around average. But he just didn’t miss bats. Heading into the season, his career high strikeout rate was just 17.7%. That’s not good in any particular season and it’s even worse when it represents your best. Interestingly, his SwStk% has ticked upward. In fact, it has risen every season in the league, beginning at just 8.2% in 2013, and gradually increasing to his current career high of 10% last year.
Of course, the league SwStk% has also risen, so Gibson’s mark has remained below the league average all this time. Until this year. Although the league SwStk% is now at 10.6%, he’s sporting a 12.2% mark, a meaningful difference. He has allowed the lowest rates of contact both in and out of the zone, but it has been primarily his improvement in out of zone contact that has driven that SwStk% mark.
Surprisingly, his pitch mix is virtually the same as it has always been. He still comes at hitters with four pitches (five if you separate the four-seamer and sinker), leaning on his slider as his most frequent non-fastball of choice. There is one difference, however — his velocity. His four-seam velocity has risen to a career best of 93.4 mph, from 92.9 last year, while his sinker is a full mile per hour faster at 93.3. Oddly, his peak velocity is no higher than before, so perhaps he’s just holding his velocity better and remaining more consistent.
The jump in velocity isn’t huge, but any little bit helps and directly correlates to a jump in strikeout rate. It hasn’t actually helped those fastballs improve their SwStk% marks yet, though. But, his slider, which has always been good, if not borderline elite, is now full-on, no doubt about it elite. The pitch’s SwStk% has surged to 30%, which likely ranks him among the league leaders. Both his changeup and curve are sporting career best SwStk% marks as well.
The slider has really been otherwordly so far, and you wonder whether it would make sense to throw it more often. The pitch’s O-Contact% is a tiny 26.8%, versus a 40.8% career average, while its Z-Contact% is 52.9%, versus an 81.2% career mark. Those are ginormous improvements.
Not everything is sunshine and rainbows though, as some red flags do exist. First, he has struggled to throw strikes, as his percentage of strikes thrown sits at its lowest mark since he debuted in 2013. It’s the first time it has sat below 60% (league average is 63.4%). The lack of strikes has led to his highest ever walk rate into the double digits. That’s a concern, but it’s much easier to fix than a velocity or stuff problem.
The other minor issue is a decline in ground ball rate to a career low. He has offset the lower rate of grounders by inducing pop-ups at by far a career best clip. That combination should really help his BABIP, which had been around .330 the previous two seasons. Sure enough, his BABIP is at a career low of .279.
While I’m not betting on him maintaing his current 3.57 ERA, I feel confident he’ll finish with a sub-4.00 mark and beat all his rest of season ERA projections, except perhaps THE BAT, which might hit the nail on the head.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.