Kyle Gibson Offers Orioles Stability, and Perhaps Stagnation, Too

Kyle Gibson
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With the avalanche of transactions crashing down during the Winter Meetings, I wouldn’t blame you for missing the Orioles’ signing of Kyle Gibson. General manager Mike Elias confirmed on Monday that the deal was official for one year and $10 million, identical to one that Gibson reportedly turned down from Toronto. But while you may not have noticed the deal, Orioles fans certainly did, as it was the club’s most significant move of the offseason thus far. In fact, apart from a pair of minor league signings in Josh Lester and Nomar Mazara, Gibson’s deal was Baltimore’s only move made in San Diego.

Yet, despite a reputation as a smaller-market team, the O’s seem to be on the precipice of competing, and they have been in on bigger names in the free-agent pitching market. They have been linked to all of Jameson Taillon, Carlos Rodón, and Noah Syndergaard. In the same breath as his confirmation of the Gibson deal, Elias indicated that the Orioles were not done spending just yet.

That’s good news for a club whose starting pitching ranked 19th in WAR last year. The group’s 3.97 ERA came in at 17th, but Baltimore outperformed its FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, and its K-BB% ranked 21st. That’s hardly a playoff-caliber rotation, despite missing out on the last AL Wild Card spot to the Rays by just three games. By contrast, Tampa Bay’s starters ranked 11th in WAR.

Needless to say, I didn’t think the Orioles would enter 2023 with a rotation headlined by Dean Kremer. Don’t be fooled by his shiny 3.23 ERA over 125.1 innings; a 4.54 SIERA indicated that the right-hander benefitted from a good deal of batted-ball luck. And he wasn’t alone in doing so; Austin Voth’s 3.04 ERA in his 83 innings with the O’s this year belied a 4.24 SIERA. The two epitomized the overperformance of the Orioles’ starting staff.

Kremer graduated our prospect list with a 45 FV and a fourth/fifth starter outlook, so this isn’t to say that he won’t be a useful piece going forward. Similarly, Voth showed some real breakout potential in his Baltimore audition by dropping his four-seamer usage to a career low and upping the usage of his cutter and curve to career highs; he too could stick in the rotation in some capacity. But a playoff-bound team would not have those two fronting a rotation.

At the same time, a playoff-bound squad wouldn’t have Gibson leading a staff either. The no. 22 pick in the 2009 draft by the Twins, the 6-foot-6 right-hander has shown glimpses of living up to his potential. His lone All-Star season, which came in 2021, saw him post a 3.71 ERA in 182 innings, and through his first 113 innings that year in Texas, he put up a 2.87 mark. But he began to struggle after being traded to Philadelphia at that year’s trade deadline, and his difficulties bled into this season. As a Phillie, he limped to a 5.06 ERA in 236.2 innings.

What changed after he was dealt? His most meaningful tweak was a greater reliance on his cutter, moving from a 12.3% usage as a Ranger in 2021 to a 20.9% usage during his time in the City of Brotherly Love. But the pitch actually improved with increased utilization, moving from costing 0.70 runs per 100 tosses to preventing 1.44. But all of his other pitches suffered in the wake of that choice:

Kyle Gibson, w/C
Rangers, 2021 1.17 -0.7 0.44 2.11 0.63 1.85
Phillies, 21-22 -0.17 1.44 -0.19 -0.55 -2.26 -0.95

That might be because, from a spin-mirroring standpoint, the cutter doesn’t pair as well as the sinker and four-seamer do with the slider and curve, respectively. The sinker/slider and four-seamer/curve combos typically approximate the optimal 180-degree (or six-hour) spin-axis differential. Gibson’s pairings don’t quite get there, but they are still better than when the cutter is paired with either the slider or the curve:

Gibson’s other fastballs, though, suffered from a decrease in velocity, as he lost 0.8 and 0.6 mph on the four-seamer and sinker, respectively; the cutter gained 0.1. Maybe the other fastballs, not the cutter, are to blame for his struggles. But you could just as easily chalk the righty’s issues up to regression, as his SIERA with the Rangers (4.48) was actually worse than with the Phillies (4.12). Maybe the Orioles can work some batted-ball magic on Gibson the same way they did for Kremer and Voth this past year in order to return the veteran to his Rangers’ self.

Is there any reason to believe the Orioles do have some kind of secret sauce when it comes to generating good pitching fortune? Some regression for their staff on the whole is likely on its way, but Camden Yards’ preseason renovations might have been a factor as well. Gibson’s cutter, with its mediocre 37.7% career ground ball rate, would otherwise be an obstacle in rebounding from a career-high 24 homers allowed in 2022. But three of the 24 dingers would’ve remained in the ballpark due to the pushed-back fences in Baltimore’s left field. That reconstruction also added six feet to the left field fence’s height, which may have reined in a few of the wall-scrapers against Gibson in that direction. At least one big fly in the opposite direction seems likely to have been corraled by Camden’s monstrous 25-foot wall in right. Here are Gibson’s 2022 home runs set against Camden’s current dimensions:

Entering his age-35 year on the heels of his lowest sinker velocity season since 2017 and his lowest four-seamer velocity season since 2016, perhaps it is time for Gibson to start leaning on other pitches and discovering new pairings. This past year and throughout his career, his most-utilized offering has been the sinker, so there is plenty to give from there. On his career, the four-seamer has been his weakest offering per 100 tosses, and with a velocity decline, we shouldn’t expect improvement. He could continue shirking these pitches in favor of the cutter, his most effective pitch per 100 tosses across his career. Though it has a low ground ball rate, Gibson’s arrival in fly ball-friendly Baltimore presents the perfect opportunity to ditch his more grounder-happy fastballs. The veteran just needs to find a way to pair the cutter more efficiently with his breaking balls. Maybe he’ll scrap the slider given its similarity to the cutter in terms of spin-axis and movement, or the curveball because it’s historically been his worst pitch besides the four-seamer.

Gibson would be hard-pressed to implement more drastic changes at this stage of his career; why would he take on substantially more risk when he’s on a one-year deal, and when this version of him netted a $10 million paycheck? Perhaps that one-year deal means the young O’s see him as a bridge, providing more depth and stabilization to a largely unproven staff. This would be similar to the role Jordan Lyles played last season, and Gibson’s reliability as an innings-eater has been even more well-documented; while Lyles has made 25 starts in five of his 12 MLB years, Gibson has made it through 25 turns in eight of his 10, the lone exceptions being his short rookie season and the disrupted 2020 campaign.

That stabilization also allows the Orioles to take their time and not rush top prospect Grayson Rodriguez back from injury or second-ranked pitching prospect DL Hall into a starting role. In the meantime, Gibson can hold down the fort, mentoring mid-20s arms like Kyle Bradish and Kremer.

As for the team’s competitiveness, barring a more game-changing signing, this one seems to indicate that the club would be comfortable allowing another year for development despite Elias’ assertions. I wouldn’t completely rule out the Orioles making a splash, but another playoff run could materialize unexpectedly even without one, as it did this year, especially with a full season of Adley Rutschman on the horizon.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Radhames Liz
1 year ago

I like the signing and think there’s a little more upside than people think. Somewhat lost in this article is one of Gibson’s reported reasons for signing with BAL, namely their infield defense – something the 2021 Rangers also did pretty well (at least by measure of DRS). The Phils, not so much. This would seem to go a good way towards explaining the increased cutter usage and the declining effectiveness of the sinker in Philly. I think we see more of the latter pitch in 2023.