Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. The Minnesota Twins are finding that out in an unlikely way. Former right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Gibson is having a career year with the Texas Rangers.
The former first-round pick signed with the Rangers in free agency after the 2019 season, and it’s unlikely that Minnesota’s front office made a competitive offer to retain him. Gibson’s time with the Twins wasn’t glamorous and became an afterthought for many fans with the emergence of other starters, including Jose Berríos.
Gibson debuted in 2013 and was always a serviceable starter, but rarely looked like a first-round pick. It didn’t help matters that he was chosen three picks ahead of Mike Trout. Gibson had a 4.38 career ERA in seven seasons with the Twins, pitching 1244.1 innings and averaging 4.71 runs per nine innings. Gibson had peaks and valleys in Minnesota but settled into his role as a back of the rotation arm who consistently pitches north of 150 innings in a season. When his contract was up, however, it felt as though he was in need of a change of scenery
To be fair to the current front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, Gibson wasn’t ever their pitcher. He was drafted during the Terry Ryan-Bill Smith regime and was coached up to pitch to contact and induce ground balls. Gibson wasn’t the kind of modern pitcher that the Twins were targeting, so hemoved on and signed a three-year, $28 million contract with the Rangers.
Gibson had a 5.35 ERA in the pandemic-shortened season last year. But Gibson is throwing better than he’s ever been this season. He is leading the American League with a 2.00 ERA, fourth in all of baseball, in 90 innings this year. He’s also recorded a 1.8 WAR so far this season and has held opponents to a .199 batting average and a WHIP of 1.01 — both career lows.
Did the rebuilding Rangers find some tweak to unlock Gibson’s potential? Not really. He has added a cutter to his arsenal but that’s been largely ineffective. The sinkerball pitcher has still relied on his two-seamer about 34 percent of the time and his ground ball rates are still hanging around 50 percent because his location has been terrific this season. His K/9 rate has actually dipped since leaving Minnesota.
So what’s been Gibson’s key to success? He has been able to raise his runners left on base percentage and lower the number of home runs he gives up. His 85.1 percent left on-base clip is a career high by over 10 percent, and he’s limited his walks averaging just 2.60 BB/9. A career-low barrel percentage of 4.4 percent is paired with career low in averaging 0.6 HR/9.
Those numbers might not seem that impressive because the Rangers new ballpark has been pitcher friendly so far according to EV Analytics, averaging 0.95 home runs this season. But it’s worth noting that that’s the same number EV Analytics has for Target Field. Still, it’s been impressive considering the high powered teams in their division like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, and Oakland A’s.
A season this good may seem like a mirage, and in some ways that’s true. It would be unrealistic to think that Gibson has turned a corner. But even if he can’t throw at the level he is right now for an entire season, he would still be a valuable No. 4 or 5 starting pitcher on any rotation as long as he can consistently locate his sinker. He would have been better than many of Minnesota’s other options the last two years.
The Twins replaced Gibson with Rich Hill, 40, who had had recent success with the Los Angeles Dodgers but was in the twilight of his career. Hill signed a one-year, $3 million deal. Hill was effective in the shortened 2020 season but it was a small sample size and he rarely went past the fifth inning. In eight starts last year, Hill only pitched 38.2 innings with a 3.03 ERA, a FIP of 3.99, and his pitch velocity was the slowest of his career, averaging 87.9 MPH per pitch.
Hill didn’t do enough to be brought back for another season and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason. In need of two starters after Jake Odorizzi signed with Houston in the offseason, Minnesota signed veterans J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker.
Signing Hill made sense because his deal was only taking up over one-third of the salary that Gibson is making in Texas but now Happ commands $8 million. After pitching for New York Yankees for the last two-plus seasons and coming off a 2020 season where had a 3.47 ERA, the Twins were hoping to find their left-handed starter for another playoff run.
Safe to say the signing hasn’t gone according to plan. Happ has regressed so far this season, recording a 5.83 ERA in 71 innings pitched with his 1.45 WHIP and .303 BABIP reaching his highest clips since 2013. In addition, Happ has also been hit the hardest in his career with a 12.1 percent barrel rate. Whether it’s through a trade or being designated for assignment, Twins fans are not expecting to see Happ finishing the 2021 season in Minnesota.
Another arm the Twins have tried to fill the back of the rotation with has been Shoemaker. He was signed on a minor-league deal and won the No. 5 starter job out of spring training. With a deal worth $2 million, the Twins bought low on the right-handed Shoemaker hoping for a bounce-back season that hasn’t come. Career highs in the wrong areas have popped up for Shoemaker with a 1.58 WHIP, a .289 BABIP, and a 7.18 ERA. Shoemaker now resides in the bullpen where he has found some success but still owns a minus-0.3 WAR so far in 2021.
Texas gave Gibson a good payday with an average annual value of $9.3 million per year. Hill, Happ, and Shoemaker were cheaper options but haven’t made as much of an impact as the team would have liked. Locking Gibson down on a short-term multi-year extension solidifies a position the Twins haven’t been able to fill in both off seasons since he left. He may have been a flawed pitcher but consistently was a starting caliber arm in terms of WAR for most of his career.
Even if the success of his 2021 season is an outlier, there is still value in having a league-average arm with experience in the back of your rotation. Gibson was never going to be a top of the rotation starting pitcher but he could have given the Twins a solid No. 4-5 starter who gives them stability at a position that’s been anything but since his departure. Hindsight is always 20/20 and there were reasons to part ways. But looking back now, a reunion for Gibson and the Twins after 2019 doesn’t sound half bad.