Kyle Gibson turned a corner midway through last season, and an eye-opening email was a big reason why. The 30-year-old right-hander received a valuable piece of information from the Minnesota Twins brain trust, and he’s used it to his full advantage. Gibson went 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA over the second half, and this year he’s been even better. In 22 starts for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s ball club, he has career lows in both ERA (3.47) and FIP (3.73), and his 8.80 strikeout rate is also a personal best.
Gibson talked about his career-altering adjustment, and his overall approach to pitching, when the Twins visited Fenway Park this past weekend.
Kyle Gibson: “When I got sent down last year, Derek and Thad emailed me, breaking down each of my starts over the past two years. It was the percentage of time I got my fastball in the strike zone, and it was astounding. When my fastball had an in-zone percentage over 50%, I hadn’t been beaten. That really opened my eyes.
“It was at that point when I started to figure out how my four-seamer plays early in the count, and how I can use my fastball to get guys to be more aggressive. My outlook on how I use that pitch has really changed. Before, I’d been thinking about executing fastballs in the right part of the zone. I’d been overcomplicating things. Now I’m simply trying to throw more fastballs in the zone.
“It’s about attacking middle early. You can’t pitch in the middle of the zone, but you can try to pitch to thirds. It started with, ‘Get more fastballs in the zone.’ Like, OK, how can we… my sinker, right? I relied so much on chase my first two years in the league — throwing sinkers in the zone and then just out of the zone. Well, let’s figure out how to keep the sinker in the zone. Let’s figure out how the four-seamer plays, both up and down. From there, let everything else fall into place. My fastball usage hasn’t increased. I’m just more efficient with it, and it’s helped make my offspeed better.
“I was sitting down with Garvin [Alston], our pitching coach, a couple weeks ago, talking about what I think an optimal pitch mix is. You can have this idea in your mind of what makes you not predictable, but part of not being predictable is sometimes throwing 90% heaters and sometimes throwing 50% heaters. Sometimes it’s using your slider a lot, and sometimes it’s using your changeup a lot and not throwing your slider. There are a lot of different ways you can avoid being predictable. It doesn’t mean that if you have three pitches you always want to be 33%, 33%, 33%.
“I’ve learned a little bit from Lance Lynn, as well. Lance is unpredictable because you don’t know when he’s going to throw his offspeed pitches. You know he’s going to throw them, but you don’t know how much, and you don’t know when he’s going to throw them.
“Part of it is knowing the reports on which pitches guys hit better, but it’s also knowing what is working that night. A guy might be able to hit sliders, but if my slider feels really good, and my fastball command is good, then I’m not as worried about throwing him a slider. Over the last year, especially… when I got sent down, all I told [Mitch] Garver before my first start — Garver was the catcher in Triple-A at the time — was, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t know any of these guys, but they’ll tell us what we need to throw. The way they take pitches, the way they swing at pitches. That will tell us what we need to throw.’
“Sequencing goes off the hitter. I can have this idea of… let’s pick a hitter. Xander Bogaerts. Say the best sequence to him — and I don’t know if it is — is fastball away, curveball below the zone, slider away. Well, if I don’t execute the fastball away, and leave it middle, it doesn’t matter. Or if I’ve done that sequence two times in a row, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best sequence. I probably need to do something else.
“The scouting report and situation is the starting point, and from there you go pitch to pitch. If I’m trying to keep someone off balance and throw him a first-pitch curveball, and he’s way out in front of that pitch, then maybe it’s time to throw another curveball. If he takes it down the middle, or if he has a good take on a pitch below the zone, then maybe it’s time to go hard in. You try to see how he reacts to pitches.
“Sometimes it takes more than one pitch, and sometimes you don’t recognize it at all. Sometimes you’re out there saying, ‘He didn’t tell me anything on that, so let’s go to our best pitch.’ That’s when you have to know the reports. Especially where guys like fastballs, right? You look at a heat map and its, ‘OK, with this guy, if you’re going to throw a heater behind in the count, this is where to go.’ You try to remember those spots, and when in doubt, you go to that location. But you try to read hitters as much as possible. If he’s swinging, I’m reading the swing.
“You have to be realistic about your pitches, as well. If I throw what I feel is a really good slider, and he takes it, that tells me something. OK, he obviously wasn’t looking for a fastball down and away, because if he was looking for a fastball down and away, and I threw a good slider, he should have swung. If I throw a bad slider in the strike zone that he should have hit, that tells me something. Each time… you only have a few seconds, but each time you try to process what just happened. You process the swing, or the take, and hopefully you’re on the same page with your catcher.
“You have to trust your catchers. Bobby [Wilson] and Mitch do the same thing. If they see a guy swinging, or a guy taking, they know what to do, too. The goal is to be on the same page with what you see together. Most of the time, when I’m shaking a lot, it’s because I’m overthinking and not really trusting what Bobby or Mitch is doing. When that happens, they’ll come out — or maybe it’s between innings — and say ‘Hey, what’s going on here? What can we do a little different here?’ But both of those guys are really good when we want to shake. If I shake a couple different times on a specific hitter, when we get back to the dugout I’ll say, ‘Hey, Bobby, this is what I was thinking,’ or ‘Hey, Mitch, this is what I was thinking.’ Then you talk and see where they’re at, why they wanted a fastball versus a slider, or why they wanted to go in versus away.
“A lot of times,when you’re unsure, it’s because you’re thinking a lot. You end up making things too complicated, instead of understanding, ‘OK, I’m unsure of what to do, and Bobby is calling for a fastball, so let’s execute the fastball where it’s supposed to be.’ If you do that, more times than not you’re going to get the out.
“Sometimes you can think less and just execute pitches, and sometimes you can be really in-tuned to how you feel like your pitches are working that day. Then thinking is good. Rather than just throwing an offspeed pitch… sometimes it’s better for me to throw a curveball over a slider. Even though they break somewhat similarly, the curveball is slower. If I’m not thinking and just throw a breaking pitch, I might be throwing the one they’re on time for.
“Is my curveball better this year? I don’t know that it is. I think I’m just using it in better situations. It’s still the same curveball. You can have a good curveball and throw it at the wrong times and it could get hit. I don’t think I have an above-average curveball, but if I use it in the right location and in the right situation, it can be a really good pitch for me.
“I don’t know what the spin rate is on my curveball, but just like I don’t have a four-seamer that rides, I don’t have a Verlander or a Morton curveball. I use my curveball in different ways than those guys do. I don’t know how many strikeouts I have on my curveball, but I bet it’s not very many. It’s not really a strikeout pitch for me. It’s a disrupt-timing pitch.
“Has data made me better? I wouldn’t say spin-rate data or anything like that, but talking with Jeremy Hefner, and [Jeff] Pickler, and Corey [Baker], and all of our advance guys, and what they see… yeah, that’s definitely made me better. They’re other sets of eyes. Their job is to understand how I pitch, and to couple what they know about me with what they see with the hitters. I trust what they come up with, and then we settle on a plan.
“But again, it’s pitch-to-pitch. I can come up with a plan on how I want to strike out player X with a slider, but if I don’t execute my pitches to get to that slider, it doesn’t matter. And maybe the best time to throw a slider is on the first pitch, and then not use it again in the at-bat. In the past, sometimes I got stuck on the report and only following the data. I was only throwing ‘what I’m supposed to throw.’ If you’re not reading the hitter, and adjusting to the situation, you’re going to get stuck doing the same thing. You’re going to get predictable.
“Circling back, the biggest thing for me has been figuring out what trusting my fastball means. When I got called up in 2013, our pitching coach in Triple-A at the time was Marty Mason. He was big on, ‘Listen, you can get a lot of outs out of the strike zone here in Triple-A, but when you get called up you have to get outs in the strike zone.’ I don’t know that I necessarily knew what that meant. The last year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot better idea of what that meant — particularly with my fastball. I’ve learned where I can execute both of my fastballs in the zone. I think that’s why I’ve been better this year.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.