With the season having passed its halfway point, let’s play another round of “Is It Legit?” with two of our most surprising first-half stars.
Kyle Gibson standing atop the American League ERA leaderboard at midseason is nothing short of astounding. After putting up ERAs of 4.84 and 5.35 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, the veteran starter has delivered a miniscule 1.98 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, with 81 strikeouts and a 6-0 record in sixteen starts. Will the universe continue to mock us, or will Kyle Gibson return to his traditional form as a mid-4s ERA guy?
First off, make sure to check out Cole Bailey’s insightful article on how Gibson’s cutter has helped him reach new heights this season. We know that additional pitches can help starters go deeper into games, and now Gibson features a whopping six pitches, and throws each at least 9.5% of the time. And Gibson isn’t just throwing more pitches this season; a look at the numbers reveals that his stuff is significantly sharper this year:
As you can see above, every single one of Gibson’s pitches has better vertical movement than last season, with the sinker and change seeing the best movement of his career. Expectedly, Gibson’s sharper movement has translated into better results. Besides his curveball, each of Gibson’s five other pitches has been more effective at limiting in-zone contact than they were last season. When batters are making contact, they are doing so to the tune of a .330 xwOBAcon, which marks Gibson’s career best. At last reporting of Eno Sarris’s Stuff+ metric, Gibson had elevated to a 96, which is about average for a starting pitcher. Average stuff doesn’t sound all that impressive until you pair it with a 114 command+, which indicates that Gibson has been an elite command artist this season. His mid-career renaissance makes it more than likely that the struggling Rangers will trade him to a contender at the deadline, which should help his opportunities to log wins in the season’s final weeks.
Verdict: LEGIT. With a 8.9% HR/FB rate, a 86.8% LOB% and .243 BABIP, Gibson has been over-performing his peripherals and getting a bit lucky. His 13.7% K-BB% is also a bit underwhelming. However, it’s safe to say that Gibson is simply a better pitcher this season, as his repertoire, velocity and movement are all improved, and these advances should fuel a successful second half. Gibson should be able to put together Hyun-Jin Ryu type numbers, and because he has less of a track record, he could be easier to acquire than Ryu in your league. Put me down for something in the neighborhood of a 3.60 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, with 6 wins and 75 strikeouts in the second half, which are significantly better than his projections.
I have to admit, I didn’t believe in Taijuan Walker one bit going into the season. While he finished the 2020 season with a 2.70 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, I wrote him off because his success wasn’t at all supported by his peripherals (4.60 SIERA and 4.82 xFIP). Walker’s go-to offering, his four-seam fastball, has averaged between 93.2 and 95.2 mph over the course of his career, and that heater seemed way more impressive back in 2015-2017, before virtually everybody was throwing gas. After an injury-plagued 2018 and 2019, Walker has finally put it all together this year in what is still just his age-28 season, posting an outstanding 2.44 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, with 87 strikeouts and a 7-3 record in 15 starts.
Before diving into the numbers, I was convinced I would be applying a “Not Legit” label to Walker’s first half, but taking a deeper look at Walker, I was surprised to see a resemblance to Jack Flaherty. Like Flaherty, Walker supplements his four-seamer with a sinker and slider. While Flaherty has the better slider, Walker actually has the better fastball and he has deeper repertoire, with a splitter that gives him another weapon against lefties. Looking closely at Walker’s four-seamer, it gets better than league-average ride, 3 full inches more horizontal movement than league average, and above-average velocity (94.3 mph). That four-seam velocity is Walker’s highest since 2016, and this has helped the pitch induce a .165 BA while generating a 28.6% whiff rate and 29.2% put-away rate. Part of what has made the four-seamer so effective is that batters can’t simply sit on it the way they might have in the past; Walker has boosted the use of his sinker by roughly fifteen percentage points since last season, to 26.0%. The emergence of the sinker has given Walker another reliable strike-getting pitch, which drops 5 inches more and runs 5 inches more on the hands of a right-handed hitter, and batters have generated just an 86.6 mph average exit velocity against it. On the whole, Walker has shown us plus command and stuff in 2021.
Like Gibson, Walker has also enjoyed more than his fair share of good luck, as his .248 BABIP allowed, 77.9% LOB%, and 7.4% HR/FB are all better than his career norms. But, as Jeremy Siegel notes in his Going Deep piece, Walker has always been good at outperforming his peripherals. In the second half, look for batters to get more aggressive against Walker, who is throwing first-pitch strikes 65.5% of the time and lives in the zone more than most pitchers. So far, Walker has delivered an uninspiring 9.3% swinging-strike rate, but he has also achieved a whopping 20.7% called-strike rate. Look for the strikeout rate (currently 25.9%) to regress towards his career average (21.9%), but the 2021 version of Walker, a seemingly healthy and more wily version, should be a good bet to deliver a strong second half.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)