Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson and the First Pitch Blues

Kyle Gibson struggled in 2016. This is hardly news for Twins fans after a 103 loss season. In the midst of the #DealDozier sweepstakes the Twins have several other areas that will have to improve if they are going to compete with a division which is weakened from 2016, but with an emerging super power in Cleveland. The primary reason the Twins must trade Dozier lies in his value reaching its peak; this fact, combined with the difficulty mid-market teams face in producing enough front-line pitching talent to win a division (never mind the World Series) also bring us back to Gibson. If the Twins are to take a step forward in 2017, Minnesota’s 2009 first rounder will have to rebound to help anchor a rotation made up largely of unreliable pieces outside of Ervin Santana.

In 2015 Gibson appeared to be developing into the number three starter the Twins had hoped for when drafting him as a first round value play in 2009. In 194 plus innings he posted his best ERA 3.84, WHIP 1.28, SO/9 6.7 while posting a 3.96 FIP, all very tidy numbers. By contrast in 2016 his numbers jumped to a career worst ERA 5.07, WHIP 1.56, and FIP 4.70. What’s interesting in Gibson’s case, is some of the numbers which underlie his 2016 struggles.

Anecdotally, Gibson seemed to struggle early in the count in 2016, with hitters being very aggressive at attacking his first pitch. Below is a heat map of Gibson’s pitch percentage on 0-0 counts against lefties with his two seam fastball (the pitch he most typically starts off a hitter with). As you might expect from a ground ball hitter, the majority of Gibson’s pitches were located down and away versus left handed hitters.

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Here’s a similar look for right handed hitters in 2016. As you can see, Gibson typically locates down and in or down and away to right handed hitters.

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The biggest issue Gibson faced in 2016 was that opposing hitters picked up on this tendency and drilled his two seam fastball. On the first pitch of an AB, opposing hitters crushed Gibson to the tune of a .467 average while slugging .907 off him. Gibson also gave up 17 XBHs including 8 HR on the first pitch of an AB. In 2015, hitters slugged a much more respectable .538 in first pitch situations, giving up 10 less XBHs. Below is a similar heat map for Gibson’s two seam fastball location in 0-0 counts in 2015, his best season as a Twin, where he spread the ball around the strike zone significantly more.

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One of the few clues we have been given about the proclivities of Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine came through their signing of Jason Castro, an offensive struggler known for his pitch framing. This is perhaps indicative of a desire of the front office to put a greater emphasis on more detailed statistics and analytics than Terry Ryan. Castro is undeniably a defensive upgrade over Kurt Suzuki, who struggled in various defensive metrics throughout his tenure with the Twins. One attraction of Castro in addition to his pitch framing is his experience and quality in leading a staff and as a signal caller. Gibson struggled significantly with Suzuki in 2016 to the tune of a 6.15 ERA with opposing hitters managing a .359 BaBIP, compared to a 3.72 ERA and .293 BaBIP when caught by Juan Centeno or John Ryan Murphy. This trend is also true of 2015 (Gibson’s best season as a Twin) in which he performed significantly worse when Suzuki was behind the plate compared with Chris Hermann or Eric Fryer.

Whatever the exact reason behind Gibson and Suzuki’s lack of chemistry one would think Castro will be a shot in the arm to a pitcher the Twins desperately need to take a significant step forward in 2017.