When going down a theoretical list of pitchers to look out for in the 2021 season before it started, you likely would’ve had to go a very long way before finding Kyle Gibson’s name. This wasn’t for no reason, either, as the last two seasons hadn’t been very kind to the 33-year-old righty at all. The 2019 campaign saw him post a very pedestrian 4.85 ERA and 4.26 FIP in his final year with the Twins, and those figures ballooned to a career-worst 5.35 ERA and 5.39 FIP in his debut season with the Rangers last year.
Over the first month of this season, however, Gibson has looked more interesting than he has in a long time. In the four outings since his disastrous Opening Day start against the Royals, Gibson has been nothing short of excellent, giving up just two earned runs across 27 innings while running a very good 22:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s done this against some pretty good lineups as well, as three of those starts came against the White Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays, all teams that made the playoffs last season. This great stretch has been a mini-resurgence of sorts for Gibson, and a big reason why it’s happened is a new addition to his arsenal that has paid dividends for him so far this year.
A Cut Above
Over the last few seasons or so, one specific pitch type that has been increasing in popularity among some pitchers across the league is the cutter. Guys like Corbin Burnes, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove introduced the cutter as a primary weapon in their arsenal in recent times and have achieved great success using it as a result. The idea of adding this pitch makes sense for a lot of pitchers, as it serves as a middle ground between a regular fastball and a slider, perhaps the most popular combination of offerings used today. It oftentimes falls in between the two velocity-wise, and it offers a level of glove-side movement that, while less than a slider, is not normally seen by pitches in its velocity range.
Given all of this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Gibson decided to hop on the cutter hype train as well, as he made it a priority of his to add the pitch to his repertoire and refine it during this year’s Spring Training. His commitment to the pitch has stuck so far this season as well, which you can see in his overall pitch usage:
Through his first five starts, Gibson has thrown his new cutter 15.2 percent of the time, which has made it the third most common offering in his arsenal so far. This was an adjustment a few months in the making, as according to the man himself, he came up with the idea to add the pitch at the end of last season and even tested it out briefly during one of his last starts of the year against the Angels. Gibson did this with one main goal in mind: getting back to his roots as a groundball pitcher.
“The one thing I love about ground balls is that they can’t leave the ballpark,” Gibson said. “I gave away too many home runs last year. So if I can even increase those ground balls, that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
“I think [the cutter] could be a strikeout pitch [and] a ground ball pitch. If I have one emphasis that I want to do this year, just keep the ball in the ballpark and let the defense do the work that they’re really good at doing.”
Quotes via Inside the Rangers
Gibson’s assessment of his own inability to keep the ball out of the air is pretty accurate, as he gave up the fifth-most home runs in all of baseball last year while also seeing a more than four percent increase in the number of line drives against him. In 2021, the cutter has helped Gibson show some decent improvements. He has yet to allow a single homer in his first five starts of the season (Brandon Woodruff, Taijuan Walker, and Nathan Eovaldi are the only other qualified starters that share this distinction), and that line drive rate that spiked in 2020 has come back down to 25.3 percent, which is right around league average.
More than just this, though, Gibson’s cutter has shown itself to be very effective at two really important things: getting strikes and avoiding hard contact.
|SwStr%||Called Strike%||Contact%||Average EV|
|Rank (out of 50)||5th||9th||3rd||6th|
The cutter has actually proven to be Gibson’s best strike-getting option out of the four pitches he throws at least 10 percent of the time right out of the gate, with its identical 20 percent whiff rate and called strike rate both ranking among the top 10 of all cutters thrown at least 60 times this year. This can help explain the lack of contact made against the pitch, as only Ryan Helsley and Dustin May have lower contact rates on cutters than the 21.7 percent mark that Gibson’s has posted thus far. This shows that hitters aren’t consistently putting the ball in play against this pitch, and even when they are, the 83.3 miles per hour average exit velocity against it illustrates that they aren’t really doing any significant damage against it.
As you can see, Gibson’s cutter has performed very well on its own, showcasing qualities that are very impressive considering how recently he started throwing it. Its best attribute so far, however, might be how it has affected Gibson’s slider, which has arguably been his best pitch for most of his nine-year career. Even when he struggled in 2019 and 2020, the slider still graded out as a pretty good pitch for Gibson, but it has taken a big step forward so far this year:
Gibson’s slider has improved as both a whiff pitch and a soft-contact getter, and perhaps the biggest reason for this is the great relationship that it has with his new cutter. The two pitches are similar in the fact that they both break glove side, but they also have qualities that make them hard to differentiate as a hitter. For starters, there is a notable velocity difference between them, with the cutter coming in at 89 miles per hour on average and the slider more than five ticks behind that at 83.4. Additionally, the cutter breaks a total of 45.5 inches when combining vertical and horizontal movement, while the cutter comes in behind it at 34.4 inches. The combination of these things leads to the two looking like this when paired off of one another, which understandably has had hitters confused:
Interesting small sample size notes re Kyle Gibson:
– 15% FC usage
– 24% SwSt on SL
– 2.40 FIP / 3.99 SIERA
– 0 HR thru 21.1 IP
This FC/SL overlay has me very, very intrigued. pic.twitter.com/OWavJm3aMn
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) April 19, 2021
It isn’t just the velocity and movement profiles that have made those two an effective pair, though, as location has been just as important. The GIF below shows the location heatmaps for both pitches (cutter first, slider second), and when looking at where Gibson’s been living with the two, you start to see another reason why he’s been able to find so much success with them.
Gibson has pretty much lived on the glove-side part of the zone with both of these pitches, and his ability to locate them with such accuracy has allowed them to play off of each other even further. Hitters can’t be sure whether the pitch is going to keep cutting to the outside edge or drop below the knees when it comes out of Gibson’s hand, which has helped him reach a level of deception that he never really has in his career up to this point.
The Sinker Dilemma
The cutter-slider relationship has been a huge positive for Gibson in 2021, but one big elephant in the room still exists in the form of his sinker, which is currently seeing more usage than the latter two pitches combined. This isn’t anything unusual, as the sinker has been Gibson’s most common offering for every season of his career, but where things start to get dicey with it is the steady decline in performance it has seen in the past couple years. When Gibson had arguably the best season of his career back in 2018, it was largely off the back of the sinker and its success, but when he struggled in both 2019 and 2020, the pitch got hit around often:
These numbers show that Gibson’s sinker had been in decline leading into this year for a little bit now, which is likely a big reason for his poor performance in general. In 2021, it’s been…fine. The .304 batting average and .296 xBA against it show that it’s still been pretty hittable, but the slugging percentage against it has dropped more than 150 points and its whiff rate has risen from 11.4 percent all the way to 21.3 percent, easily the best of his career. This is likely due to the fact that he’s been locating it in a much more favorable location, as you can see here:
The first image in this GIF is from 2020 and the second is from 2021, and it becomes pretty clear what Gibson has set out to do with the sinker this year. He’s been living in the heart of the zone a lot less with it, instead opting to use it on the arm-side edge of it with more regularity. This has definitely been a necessary adjustment, as the frequency in which the pitch was getting hit around likely had to do with the less than ideal spots that he was throwing them to much too often.
All of this shows that Gibson’s sinker has been better than it had been in recent times, but whether it deserves to be used almost 39 percent of the time in a six-pitch arsenal is debatable, especially when you consider how well his slider and cutter have performed with significantly less usage. Seemingly, it might be in Gibson’s best interest to fade his sinker a bit in favor of those other two pitches. It doesn’t have to be by a significant amount because a pitch with arm-side run like the sinker can still serve as a good change of pace to the glove-side movement of both the cutter and the slider, but any change that can give the great dynamic between those two pitches more of a shine should definitely warrant a test run at the very least. If Gibson can commit to this, we might be able to see an even better — and more sustainable — version of him moving forward.
At the very least, Gibson’s new cutter has made his overall outlook a lot more interesting, which is not something most expected coming into 2021. Whether he can keep up something resembling this level of production or not will likely come down to how his confidence level with the cutter develops as the season goes on, but if the early returns are anything to go off of, the signs definitely look encouraging. Gibson may not have the upside of some of the guys he’s performed on the same level as so far, but he’s definitely turned himself into someone to keep an eye on in the near future.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)