Pitcher Spotlight: Kyle Gibson and Robert Stephenson

Do you remember when Kyle Gibson was a major prospect? No, you don’t, stop lying! Most of you weren’t even alive back in 2013 when he last graced a top 100 prospect list. Alas, with a career ERA of 4.71 and only one season south of 4.00, he hasn’t exactly panned out on that hype. He’s shown flashes, but it has never consistently come together. He’s in the midst of one such flash (a tiny 1.69 ERA over his last four starts), but is there anything behind it that makes him viable for a strong finish?

Consider first that the four-start run has brought his ERA down to just 5.19! Five. Nineteen. He’s got a 3.19 ERA over his last eight and we’re still dealing with a 5.19 season mark. The short answer to Gibson’s success is simply schedule. I realize that’s simplistic and doesn’t make for much an article so I’ll dig in a bit more, but the fact is that getting a string of outings against the White Sox, Blue Jays, and Royals (2x) is very beneficial if you can stay out of your own way.

wOBA vs. righties:

  • White Sox .307, 27th
  • Blue Jays .312, 25th
  • Royals .316, 22nd

In fairness, it’s not just bad teams because he faced other bad teams this year and still has a 5.19 ERA. Had I mentioned that? The biggest (only?) difference for Gibson during this run has been his success against righties. Through his first 21 starts, he allowed a .310/.384/.500 line with 16% K and 10% BB rates. In these last four, he’s at .186/.205/.209 with 18% K and 2% BB rates.

There’s no change in his pitch mix to righties, nor is there any real change to where he’s putting those pitches outside some extra fastballs up in the zone. He has been more successful with that high heat, but mostly in comparison to how wretched he was with it in his first 21 starts. He had a 1.012 OPS, 11% K, and 14% BB in 101 PA before this run and he’s at .755 OPS, 8% K, and 8% BB in 25 PA during these four starts.

The one tangible skill change is a surge in first pitch strike rate from 57% to 68%. This is the only aspect of Gibson’s game in these last four starts that is markedly different and could portend more success over the final few weeks. Nick highlighted him last week for his most recent at KC and today’s outing against SD. He might be worth holding after tonight because he gets Toronto at home and a trip to Detroit after that, though his final start could be at Cleveland.

I know it doesn’t look like it here, but I really looked into Gibson’s profile for real changes. I’ve fallen for his flashes of success before after believing in him as a prospect so I was hoping to find something to latch onto beyond 2017, but it’s just not there. He’s a 29-year old with a career 4.71 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 16% K, and 8% BB in 707.7 IP. His 52% GB rate mitigates the low strikeouts a bit, but he seems to be locked in as this 4th-5th starter type.

Robert Stephenson, on the other hand, just eclipsed the 100-inning mark in his career so he’s still a relatively blank canvas. He did post a 6.08 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in eight starts last year (37 IP) and he brought a 7.86 ERA into August with two bad starts and some horrific relief work through 34.3 IP before perhaps turning a corner of late. He has a 2.08 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 35 Ks in 30.3 IP across 5 starts and a two-inning relief appearance over the last month-plus.

The biggest difference for Stephenson has been an improved slider. In fact, he’s trusting it a lot more, shifting his curveball mix over to the slider. Before August, he threw curves at a 19% clip and sliders at 8%. Since then, it’s 3% curves and 30% sliders. Righties simply don’t have an answer for it with a .083/.154/.125 line and 54% K rate in 26 PA. In all its glory:

 

The problem is that his fastball sucks so getting to the slider can be a problem at times. Sure, it’s been better during his run, but how could it not after he allowed a .380/.492/.840 line with 10% K and 18% BB rates over 63 PA through July?! “Better” in this case is .300/.432/.467, 13% K, and 16% BB in 38 PA. There is no quadrant against either handedness where Stephenson’s fastball works. It’s a nightmare. Seriously, a fucking nightmare.

His 1.172 OPS is the league’s worst among 269 pitchers (min. 600 thrown) and only Tyson Ross (22%) and Alex Meyer (21.3%) have a worse fastball walk rate than Stephenson’s 20.9% (only used the decimal in this case to show that Meyer is slightly worse). Lefties have a 27% BB rate against his fastball and when they’re not walking, they’re hitting .380 with a .620 SLG.

via GIPHY

I’m distraught over this fastball performance that I can’t even get into his successful changeup against lefties. The fact is that even the slider vs. righties and changeup vs. lefties don’t really matter until he shows sharp improvement with the fastball. As we’re seeing now, he can find some short-term success, but I have a hard time thinking this is a building block to something more when the most important pitch is a disaster.

Be careful with Stephenson tonight against St. Louis. They easily represent his toughest opponent over this stretch of good work, though they only feature a couple lefties (Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and a switch-hitting Dexter Fowler). I can see slotting him in against Pittsburgh after tonight (John Jason and switch-hitting Josh Bell are their only lefty regulars), but then he’s a full stay-away with Boston (4 regulars and probably a start for switch-hitting Sandy Leon to exploit his weakness) and either Milwaukee or the Cubs to close the season (each can run out 4+ lefties/switchies in a given game).

I’m glad he’s getting a taste of success this year because I won’t rule out him getting the fastball under control and delivering on some of the prospect hype that made him a four-time top 100 guy at most outlets and five-time at MLB.com. That said, I will not make the same mistake I did with Gibson and continue to buy in for years if the fastball doesn’t get better.



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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. He is the purveyor of the SP Guide (on hiatus for '17). Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer, on Snapchat at psporer, and on Twitch at psporer24.

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dukebd555
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dukebd555

Whoever does the 2 start pitchers on RG mentioned Gibson changed where he stands on the mound and that coincides with his recent success