A closer look at Kyle Gibson's late-season strikeout surge

We’ll see how newly signed Baltimore right-hander Kyle Gibson does on the field for the Orioles. The club hopes he’ll provide some quality while on the mound and some leadership while off it. But after his first Zoom press conference with local media, it's clear his interview game is very strong.

And I don’t mean that he is boastful or cocky in any way whatsoever. Quite the opposite was true during his Zoom call Thursday. He was modest and respectful of his previous teams and even to reporters, to the point it seemed he wanted to start to learn our names and get to know some people he will be seeing a lot of during the 2023 season.

But Gibson was impressive.

He said during his talks with the Orioles that he “meshed well” with pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes. Pretty apparent he is well versed in the data and analytics in the game now. He is all in there, and so joining a team that feels the same way was something he liked about the club.

He was very high on the Orioles' play in 2022 and talked about joining a good, young team on the rise. He even said that he liked pitching at Camden Yards and playing in Baltimore while on other clubs. He loves Little Italy too.

For me, Gibson provided real insight throughout, including when I asked about his strikeout-rate spike late in the 2022 season. I wonder if that jump, no doubt among many other things, was attractive to the Orioles in sizing up Gibson.

From mid-August on, over his last nine regular-season starts for the Phillies, a pitcher with a strikeout rate for the season to that point of 6.37 per nine saw that number shoot up to 10.37 strikeouts per every nine innings. That brought his K rate for the year up to 7.7, and it is now 7.2 for his career over 1,504 innings.

“Probably sometime in August I found just a little bit of feeling in my delivery that I felt was the lead to a velocity uptick in the month of September,” Gibson explained. “I think that helped out a lot. There is no question velocity helps pitchers. So, anytime if I can go from averaging 92 (mph) to averaging 93, I think it’s a big deal. So, I’m not out there hunting for velocity. I’m trying to make myself the best version of myself that I can be. So, I believe getting that extra velocity in the month of September helped out a lot."

But that was just one reason for the strikeouts increase.

“I also did something that early in the year I probably would have told you that was crazy," he said. "But I tweaked my slider. And turned it into a pitch that moved more horizontally to the left, and actually went down less. So, you guys have probably heard the term a sweeper slider. I was throwing a bullpen before my start late September against the Braves and Caleb (Cotham), the pitching coach, came up and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about messing with your slider today?’ That’s been my best pitch my whole career, so it was a little interesting conversation, but I said ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’

“Four days later or three days later I’m throwing it in a game and I probably got more swing-and-miss on sliders, even more so than I normally did, than I probably have in a while. So, I think those two things, to me, along with using my pitches better in the month of September at times, probably led to the uptick in Ks.”

He’s not kidding about getting swings and misses in that start against Atlanta, when he actually allowed five runs over five innings. He fanned nine and got 25 whiffs on 51 Atlanta swings, according to Baseball Savant. And while baseball-reference.com credits him with 22 swings and misses, either number is easily a season-best for him.

According to Baseball Savant he got 12 whiffs against 20 sliders in that game and went 5-for-9 on his cutter. His season whiff rate on his slider was a solid 37.7 percent, but it was 60.0 in that start.

For the year, Gibson threw his two-seam sinker 28 percent of the time and four-seamer 12 percent, using secondary pitches 60 percent. His two-seam sinking fastball average velocity was 91.6 mph. But it was 92.9 in September. His season four-seam average was 92.0. But that was 93.1 in September.  

“I’ve never been someone that has gone and hunted for strikeouts,” said Gibson. “For me, that always gets my pitch count up and I end up throwing more balls. So, I enjoy hunting contact early. But I do think in today’s game, and especially with the slider, I need to do a better job of hunting for swing-and-miss at times. I think that weapon will go a long way in allowing me to do that.”

It is of note that Gibson saw his ERA increase from 4.08 at the start of September to 5.05 at month’s end. His ERA was 9.73 in six starts from Sept. 1 on. Captain Obvious said that was not good at all.

But Gibson seemed encouraged by the strikeout increase, and maybe it's all a work in progress for him. On the way to making tweaks and changes, even subtle ones, there can be setbacks and bumps in the road.

But he was getting much more swing-and-miss late in the year, and no doubt the Orioles (and others) noticed that. 

For reporters, or at least speaking for one reporter - that is, me - Gibson is a thoughtful pitcher who provided real insights on his pitching in our first chance to get to talk to him. 

More interviews await. 

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