Last year, you may remember that Lance Lynn made some fun changes that I wrote about. In doing so, he went from being a solid starting pitcher to one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, and it only took a few tweaks. This year, I reason that the Rangers are going to do this again. Jordan Lyles should be a fun project, but I’m not going to be writing about him. At least not yet. I want to talk about Kyle Gibson. But before we get there, let’s talk a little bit more about Lynn.
Lynn throws one of the most dominant fastballs in the league. Since 2011, he has one of the best fastballs in the league by pitch value, and that’s despite the fact that he’s thrown it anywhere from about 40% to nearly 60% on any given year. It’s a special pitch. So it makes sense that, in 2019, Lynn finally faded his sinker in favor of fastball. His fastball crept up to a 54.1% usage rate (which is virtually tied as a career-high), while his sinker usage sunk to a career-low of 17.2%. Add in that he shifted on the rubber and threw his cutter a touch more and, voilà, we have ourselves a brand new pitcher. The hope is that Gibson can do the same.
It stands to reason that Gibson will make some changes that are ever so vaguely similar. While Lynn’s got a plus fastball, Gibson’s fastball has accrued a -59.5 pVAL and 181 wRC+ over his career. It’s really bad, and Gibson likely knows this, as his 18.2% fastball usage was his lowest since 2013. The hangup is that while its usage was the lowest of his career against righties, it remains his most-used pitch against lefties. While that’s not ideal, his fastball is workable against lefties—it’s righties he wants to keep it away from.
Gibson has options. You may not know it, because people don’t talk about Gibson a great deal because he hasn’t exactly been a standout, but he wields one of the best pitches in baseball in his slider. By swinging-strike percentage, Patrick Corbin’s slider is the best pitch from a starting pitcher in baseball at 27.6% (unless you count Dinelson Lamet or Corbin Burnes!). The next best pitch, though? Gibson’s slider.
Let’s compare the two:
Across the board, Corbin’s slider is just a smidge better than Gibson’s, aside from xwOBAcon (which is pretty noisy). It’s important to note that Corbin’s slider is really two pitches—a slow slider, and a faster slider. I’m not sure if this is more impressive for Gibson or Corbin, but I’m also not sure that matters. They’re both great pitches with similar outcomes.
With that in mind, Gibson has several options in terms of optimizing his repertoire. Despite their similarities in swinging-strike percentage, Gibson’s slider isn’t the strike-getting pitch that Corbin’s is. But it’s close! Corbin threw his slider 41.0% and 37.1% of the time in 2018 and 2019, respectively, so it’s feasible that Gibson can significantly increase his slider usage without seeing its outcomes suffer too much.
It’s pretty interesting that Gibson has thrown a sinker-fastball combo so frequently, given that he has a host of options. His slider, curveball, and changeup can all play against lefties and righties, provided he uses them judiciously. That is, backfoot sliders to lefties and down and away to righties, curveballs below the zone, and changeups below the zone to his arm-side. He can throw all of his secondaries more if he wants to, regardless of batter handedness. That’s rare, especially for a changeup.
In thinking about Corbin and Lynn, they had somewhat similar reasons for their breakouts; they took their best pitch and threw it a lot in favor of pitches that aren’t so great. For Gibson, the easy change is fading his four-seamer almost completely, but in a way, Gibson has more flexibility than the other two. That may be something of a hot take, especially because Corbin and Lynn are such unicorns. No one throws their fastballs as much as Lynn, and few throw one secondary pitch as often as Corbin, but bear with me here.
Throwing strikes matters a lot. That should be painfully obvious. But what gets lost in poring through any given assortment of statistics is that we forget to consider whether the pitches that any given pitcher throws often go for strikes. Since the league average CSW in 2019 was 28.5%, the (somewhat arbitrary) threshold that I like to use for pitches (and pitchers) is 30%. What I want to see is that, generally speaking, a pitcher should have a few pitches that he can throw for strikes 30% of the time or more.
Let’s consider our trio here. Corbin has the slider, which he throws for strikes 36.7% of the time, while Lynn has his fastball that he throws for strikes 34.1% of the time. Now, Gibson’s strike percentage on his slider is 33.5%, but he also has his curveball that he tosses in for strikes 31.9% of the time. Most of those are called strikes, and so there is likely a point of diminishing returns, but he can (and should) bump up the usage of his secondaries.
Of course, Lynn saw a significant increase in strikeouts because he was using better pitches in favor of inferior pitches, but a key factor is that his sinker allows a lot of balls to be put into play. In lowering his sinker usage, it allowed him to get deeper into counts, which led to an uptick in strikeouts. Lynn moved from a sinker with a 22.1% ball in play percentage to his fastball’s 14.6%. Gibson’s ball in play percentages are similar, but he doesn’t have the luxury of making that change, because his fastball isn’t good. It’s bad. He already throws his breaking and offspeed pitches a lot more than most, but if he’s going to boost his strikeout percentage, he’s probably going to have to throw them even more to make up for the fact that he has a bad fastball, and a contactable sinker.
On the whole, Gibson is probably one of the more underappreciated starting pitchers in baseball. His ERA- and FIP- will lead you to believe that he’s a slightly below-average pitcher, but in terms of actual tools and skills, I don’t think it’s out of the question for him to be a helluva lot better than average. The changes are obvious, and the Rangers have a limited track record helping facilitate these changes. He’s already good against righties, but if he starts using his secondaries more against lefties, he should take a leap. And so, for Kyle Gibson, there’s a path forward. The only question is if he’ll take it.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)