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Greenfield's Gibson finding his way with Twins

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Friday, Kyle Gibson will make an Independence Day start against the New York Yankees at Target Field for the second straight year.

When the hitters of baseball’s most famous franchise step into the batter’s box to face the Minnesota Twins’ starter, they’ll be encountering a far different pitcher than they did in 2013, when the Yankees touched up the Greenfield-Central product for 11 hits and eight runs in five and a third innings.

The 26-year-old right-hander has the same name. He still stands six feet, six inches tall.

But Gibson is more confident in himself, in his pitches and in is place in the major leagues – and it’s showing, as Gibson has recently flashed his potential through a 22-inning scoreless streak, the sort of dominance locals grew accustomed to seeing during Gibson’s days as a Cougar.

“I’m a little more comfortable out there. I’m more used to it. I know I’m executing better, which helps,” Gibson said after Minnesota’s 4-0 loss to Kansas City Wednesday. “That was a part of my problem last year, I wasn’t executing when I needed to. I’ve been more accustomed to situations and been a little more prepared.”

Gibson takes a 7-6 record and a 3.77 ERA – the latter represents nearly a three-run improvement from his 2013 ERA in 10 starts – through 16 starts into Friday.

In spring training, Gibson was focused solely on winning the No. 5 spot in the Twins’ rotation. Instead of proving he simply belongs in the big leagues, Gibson has thrived.

Gibson has recorded six starts of throwing between six and eight scoreless innings while boasting an opponents’ batting average of .239, the 15th-best mark in the American League. With a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 1.4, he’s tied with Minnesota closer Glen Perkins as the club’s second-most valuable pitcher behind starter Phil Hughes (3.1 WAR).

Gibson’s improvement has been noticeable to the rest of the AL, including the man who was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 World Series.

“That kid, that pitched for them today, wow,” Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said to reporters after Gibson struck out eight during seven shutout innings in the Twins' 2-1, 10-inning loss at Boston on June 18. “He’s very impressive. For a young kid to have that sense to know what he’s doing and spotting his pitches the way he did, very impressive. This kid was spotting every pitch he threw. That’s why he did so well.”

Then there’s the scoreless streak, which was the third-longest in club history by a starter. In three starts vs. Houston, at Detroit and at Boston from June 7-18, Gibson went seven scoreless frames in each game. He yielded 10 hits, struck out 16 and walked five over the three starts.

“It culminated with maybe the best outing I’ve ever had,” said Gibson, referring to his June 18 start at Boston. “I don’t know if I’ve felt much better than I did that night. I was getting ahead and executing pitches. I’m beginning to pay more attention to the swings (hitters) are taking.

“It was obviously a whole lot of fun putting up a lot of zeroes in a row. I had a good defense behind me that was making plays, too.”

How has Gibson gotten his groove back? By doing what he does best, which is getting hitters to beat the ball into the ground. Fifty-five percent of the batted balls produced by hitters off Gibson are of the ground-ball variety, the seventh-highest ground ball rate among qualified pitchers in the majors.

Though his 2014 strikeout rate has dipped from 2013 (5.12 to 4.48), Gibson has slashed both his walk (3.53 to 2.61) and home run (1.24 to 0.58) rates this year. Gibson’s bad luck on balls in play from 2013 has also regressed tremendously (.350 to .263) in his favor.

“The last seven to 10 outings I’ve been trusting my stuff and staying aggressive. There were a couple games where walking guys caught up to me,” said Gibson, who also said he’s had better command of his sinking fastball and off-speed pitches (changeup, curveball, slider). “Recently I’ve been trying to make them earn it and make them string hits together. I’m trying to limit extra-base hits and home runs. I’m trying to get into pitcher’s counts.”

When Gibson spoke to the Daily Reporter on the eve of spring training in late January, he cited getting behind in counts as a source of frustration for him in 2013 and vowed to improve in that category. Gibson has been a man of his word, pitching in counts with the batter ahead 40 percent of the time, down from 47 percent in 2013.

“I feel like I’m doing a whole lot better,” Gibson said of getting ahead in the count. “I don’t feel like I’m working back from 2-0 and 2-1 as often. That’s definitely been part of the reason why I’ve been able to have the success I’ve had – getting ahead and making sure I’ve been getting to a position where I can get strikes.”

As for Gibson’s team, the Twins are 38-45 after Wednesday’s setback, 10 games behind the American League Central Division-leading Detroit Tigers and in a tie for fourth place with the Chicago White Sox. While Minnesota doesn’t look to be headed to its fourth straight season of at least 96 losses, the team’s postseason hopes are looking dimmer by the day in wake of a recent rough patch – the Twins have lost six of their last nine games and franchise first baseman Joe Mauer recently hit the disabled list.

“We’ve struggled mightily the last two weeks. Outside of the White Sox series (a four-game Twins’ sweep), we haven’t played well. We haven’t had a streak where we’ve put it together,” Gibson commented. “In Anaheim, I had a terrible start. In Boston, we ran into good pitchers and scored twice in three games.

“When we’re healthy hitting and pitching-wise, we like our chances to compete with the Royals and Tigers atop the division.”

Gibson, who had reconstructive surgery on his throwing elbow in September 2011 and was shut down after throwing 152.2 minor and major-league innings in 2013, added that he doesn’t expect to be placed under an innings limit this year.

Though his place in Minnesota’s rotation and the club’s long-term plans appears secure, Gibson isn’t taking his foot off the improvement pedal – not for one second.

“For a guy in my position, you can’t get out of that mindset. You have to keep that edge, keep that level of hunger to make sure that you’re not losing sight of the fact that your job security is not completely there yet,” he said. “I have to know that if I have five to six bad outings in a row, I could get sent down. We have good pitchers in Triple-A coming up.

“I know that if I consistently give us a chance to win, there’s not too much more I can do.”



>>Comparing Greenfield-Central graduate and Minnesota Twins’ starting pitcher Kyle Gibson’s statistics from his first go-around in the majors in 2013 – Gibson also pitched 101.2 innings at Triple-A in 2013 –  to his current season. Gibson’s next start is Friday in Minnesota against the New York Yankees. First pitch is 3:10 p.m.

Statistic                                             2013   2014

Games Started                              10       16

Innings Pitched                              51.0    93.0

Win-Loss Record                           2-4     7-6

Earned Run Average                     6.53   3.77

Strikeout Rate                                5.12    4.48

Walk Rate                                       3.53    2.61

Groundball Rate                            50.3    55.5

Batting Average on Balls in Play      .350 .263

Batting Average Against                .324 .239

Wins Above Replacement               0.0   1.4

Notes: FanGraphs.com states that the average BABIP for a major league hitter is between .290 and .310 … Wins Above Replacement summarizes a player’s contribution to the team in one statistic.

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