Kyle Gibson on Pitching to Contact

Kyle Gibson is a tall pitcher with a low K rate. The Minnesota Twins right-hander is 6-foot-6 and has fanned 5.76 batters per nine innings this season. Last year, that number was an even-more-contact-heavy 5.37. Strikeouts aren’t what he does. Gibson relies on ground balls for the majority of his outs.

A first-round pick in 2009 out of the University of Missouri, Gibson had the fifth-highest ground ball rate (54.4) among qualified starters in the American League last year. He’s a shade lower (52.8) in the current campaign, but even more successful. After going 13-12, 4.47 in his first full season as a big league starter, the 27-year-old boasts a 3.35 ERA in 14 outings for one of the junior circuit’s most-surprising squads.

Gibson talked about his approach when the Twins visited Fenway Park earlier this month.


Gibson on height and mechanics: “ I’ve had similar mechanics since I was 15 years old. I wouldn’t say there are only so many ways a tall guy can throw, but for me to repeat my delivery I need to have certain mechanics. My dad – he pitched in junior college and was a high school coach – and I worked really hard on them from a young age. I was never a guy who threw really hard, so I’ve always had to be able to throw strikes. The best way for a kid to throw strikes is to have clean mechanics and a good release point.

“Not everyone is exactly the same. If you look at Justin Masterson and Rick Porcello, those guys are both tall and they have very different mechanics. A lot of it has to do with your arm slot – I’m high three-quarters – and how your arm works. You can’t force somebody to throw a certain way because of their arm slot. A lot of variables go into it, but at the same time, there are certain things that need to be consistent. That goes for any pitcher. You need to have checkpoints in your delivery to keep on you target – keep you on plane – to allow you to have a repeatable delivery.

“It’s fairly easy for me to get out of control, because of my long levers. My head is six-and-a-half feet off the ground, and if it starts going one way or the other, it’s going to start a chain of events that are hard to recover from. Again, that’s with any pitcher. But my center of gravity is different, so it’s going to affect me differently than it does a shorter pitchers.”

On his release point and his secondary pitches: “The more I get out front, the better my sink is going to be. If I let my sinker go five inches before I normally do, it’s going to be flat, just because of how my hand is. With my change-up, I don’t try to turn it over, because of the pronation I have, but if I’m not getting out front, it’s not going to be as good of a pitch. From that aspect, I focus a lot on getting out in front, otherwise my hand can’t do the work it needs to do.

“There are days where my slider is really good and it’s my second-best pitch. There are also days where I’m feeling really good with my change-up and it’s my second best pitch. I’d say my slider and change-up are right up there next to one another.

“One of the things (former pitching coach) Rick Anderson and I talked about was throwing my change-up more. I really didn’t have a chance to do it last year, because I was trying to win games and that’s not the time to be experimenting a pitch you haven’t thrown an awful lot. (Current pitching coach) Neil Allen came in with all his experience in the Rays organization, throwing change-ups. I’ve had more conversations with him, and now I’ve been able to execute that pitch a lot better.”

On command and approach: “There are certain times my stuff plays differently. It also depends on how the opposing team is going to approach my stuff that day – if they’re aggressive or not aggressive. There’s a big difference between them chasing because of that aggressiveness, or if they’re making me work harder. Sometimes it play to my advantage when they’re taking, because it’s strike one, strike two, and I’m ahead. Other times it’s ball one, ball two, and I’m behind.

“How much my sinker is moving plays into it. At times, if I throw it to the bottom of the strike zone, it’s going to be a ball. There are times I have to make an adjustment if the team is taking. If I’m not in the strike zone and just keep throwing the same pitch, well, I’m going to have an issue getting ahead of guys. Big League hitters have basically seen any pitch that anyone is ever going to throw at them – they’ve seen a sinker just like mine – and I have to adjust to how they’re reacting.”

On elevating up in the zone: “I get asked that a lot by Glen Perkins, and it’s something I’ve tried to do in recent starts. I was talking to Mike Pelfrey – another sinkerballer – about it the other day, about how it tends to mostly surprise guys. I don’t get too many swings on pitches just above the zone, because when guys are facing me, they’re keying down, down, down. When they get a pitch letter high, it looks chin high, because they’re looking for the ball down. I think it can be a good pitch for me, but mostly to just kind of stand them up and change their eye level. Then I can go right back down to the bottom of the zone.”

On pitching to contact: “There’s a difference between pitching to contact in the middle of the zone and pitching to contact early in the zone to get an out. Something Twins fans have heard a lot of in the past few years is: ‘The Twins pitch to contact, the Twins pitch to contact.’ Because we were struggling, it was kind of assumed that we were trying to let the hitters hit a pitch.

“I have this debate with Glen quite a bit: How effective an out on two or three pitches is as opposed to a strikeout. For me, a soft ground ball is just as effective if it’s within the first two or three pitches. If I’m able to keep my hard contact rate low, ground balls are almost automatic outs for me.

“When hitters puts balls in play, they’re going to get a hit sooner or later. But if I get five ground balls in a row, I’m more than likely going to get out of the inning. Offensive numbers will tell you that. If they only get a hit three out of every ten times they put the ball in play, that’s less than two out of five, so I like my chances.”

On his low walk rate (2.86 last year, 2.93 this year): “I really hate walking guys, but that’s something that I’ve thought about a little more this year. There are times where, if my sinker is working well and I’ve got a lefty up with first base open, a righty on deck, and it’s a 3-1 or 3-2 count, it’s not a situation where I want to give in. If I’m able to get ground balls that day, and I like my chances with the guy on deck, making him hit a pitchers pitch works in my favor. If I end up with runners on first and second, I’m back to the chances of getting a ground ball that’s going to be a double play.”

On defensive positioning and shifts: “(Paul Molitor) and our analytics department have done a good job with positioning guys. Our coaches are always looking at the spray charts and trying to set our defense up in the right position with the right hitters. I think it’s been working out pretty well. The other day David Ortiz hit a hard line drive up the middle and Danny Santana was waiting on it.

“If you get a ground ball right where the shortstop is usually going to be, and no one is there, you can get frustrated in the heat of the moment. But in the grand scheme of things, if he hits a ground ball there 10 percent of the time, and ninety percent of the time he hits it on the other side of second base, it’s smart to put an extra guy over there. You have to trust the process. Baseball is a process-driven game, and you have to understand that at certain times the numbers might get you, but most of the time the numbers are going to hold true.”

On succeeding with a low K-Rate: “Maybe someday someone can explain FIP and xFIP to me, and I’ll get it. It’s pretty interesting to see how analytics have worked their way into the game, and are taking a prominent role.

“I don’t go out there trying to prove analytics wrong, I’d benefit from increasing my strikeout rate, but the same time, you have to know what your strengths are. Going after strikeouts for 27 out of 27 guys isn’t my strength right now. Sure, there are times where I’d like to get more strikeouts, but 27 outs are 27 outs. Whether it’s 27 strikeouts or 27 ground balls doesn’t matter to me.”

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.

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Eric R
7 years ago

“How effective an out on two or three pitches is as opposed to a strikeout. For me, a soft ground ball is just as effective if it’s within the first two or three pitches. If I’m able to keep my hard contact rate low, ground balls are almost automatic outs for me.”

Is the number of pitches really relevant? He’s averaged 15.9 pitches per IP, 20914-2015

The top SO/9 pitcher in that time frame is Chris Sale and he’s thrown 15.8 pitches per inning. Top 5, 15.4; Top 10, 15.5; top 25%, 15.8… so it’s not like he’s throwing less pitchers per inning with his high contact strategy.

Maybe it is more on a per batter basis? Gibson 377 pitches per 100 batters. Sale does throw 7% more pitches per batter with his high strikeout rate, but the top 5 and top 10 are only +2%. The top 25% are +3%.

If you are on roughly a 100 pitch limit, the difference between him and the top 25% is only about 0.8 extra batters.

For the 96 pitcher sample, there was no correlation [-.08] between fWAR rate and pitches per PA, so getting through batters using less pitches doesn’t seem to indicate anything about pitcher quality.

Probably should have limited to AL only– not sure if it would make much difference

Jay Stevens
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

I’m not crunching any numbers here, but it seems logical to assume fewer pitches per inning corresponds to more innings pitched, which has value, especially if the quality of that pitching is comparable to high pitches per inning guys.

Jay Stevens
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

I’m not crunching any numbers here, but it seems logical to assume fewer pitches per inning corresponds to more innings pitched, which has value, especially if the quality of that pitching is comparable to high pitches per inning guys.

As of today — 6/23 — he’s 46th in IP in the MLB.

Also, comparing Gibson’s pitch strategy to other pitchers may not be the point. Perhaps what we need to think about is a comparison on how Gibson would perform if he tried to be a high-pitch-count, strikeout pitcher. Maybe his style isn’t as effective as other pitchers’, but it enables him to be the most effective Kyle Gibson…if that makes sense.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jay Stevens

No, it makes perfect sense, and it better reflects the way athletes think: “what’s my best strategy, given my skillset and abilities.”

If “Be Chris Sale” was a viable strategy, everyone would do it.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

Well, obviously the best way to limit number of pitches is to reduce baserunners. But not everybody can be Chris Sale.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eric R

So in the interest of science you compared a right-handed sinkerballer with a 92 mph fastball and a 5.7 K/9 with a left-handed fireballer with a 95 mph fastball and a 12 K/9 ratio this year.

Is the number of pitches relevant? Yes. Is this comparison? No. Apples and hand grenades.

Eric R
7 years ago
Reply to  scrivenergm

…and the top five by SO/9 and the top 10 and the top quarter.