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Tampa Bay Rays trade target: Kyle Gibson

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He may not be Max Scherzer, but he is a starting pitcher. Is that enough?

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays are seeking a pitcher for the end of the world... series.

One of the most active teams on the trade speculation market, the Rays have been linked to numerous throwers from myriad teams over the past few days. However, the one with the most smoke blowing around him is Kyle Gibson of the Texas Rangers.

Gibson, 33, is in his ninth big league season, having spent the majority of his career with the Minnesota Twins, the team that selected him during the 1st round (22nd overall) in the 2009 draft. Gibson quickly became the Twins’, and one of the game’s top prospects, peaking at 34th overall on the Baseball America list entering the 2011 season.

He made his big league debut in 2013, compiling a 6.53 ERA / 5.17 FIP over 51 innings pitched. Gibson went to the Crash Davis school of pitching, thriving on spreading the ball to his fielders rather than relying on strikeouts; over his career, Gibson has a 18.3 K%. Since the start of the 2013 season (min. 1000 IP), Gibson’s 18.3 K% is the 6th lowest of 51 qualifying pitchers.

Despite those low strikeout numbers, Gibson has consistently been a reliable starting pitcher for the latter part of the past decade. From 2014 to 2019, Gibson averaged nearly 173 innings pitched and 2.2 fWAR per season. Following the 2019 season, Gibson became a free agent and the Texas Rangers signed him to a three year, $28M contract.

That contract with Texas started out poorly for the Rangers, with Gibson stumbling to his worst-ever season in the pandemic-shortened 2020, but now Gibson has rebounded with what looks to be his best season as a Major League pitcher. Thus far in 2021, Gibson has a 2.87 ERA / 3.75 FIP, and has struck out 20.4% of the batters he’s faced over 113 innings.

So the big question on Gibson, then, is how much you believe in his age-33 breakout.

In his first eight seasons he put up a 4.57 ERA with a 4.36 FIP and a 4.11 xFIP. That’s fine, valuable work for a back-end starter. In his All-Star 2021, he’s shattered those ERA and FIP numbers. But a 4.15 xFIP begs the question: Is it real?

Kyle Gibson Career and Breakout

Year K% BB% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
Year K% BB% GB% HR/FB BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
2013-2020 18% 8% 52% 15% 0.305 4.57 4.36 4.11
2021 20% 9% 51% 10% 0.267 2.87 3.75 4.15
Kyle Gibson Career and Breakout Data from FanGraphs

When a player seems to be showing a breakout, there are two ways to evaluate it.

  1. What’s driving the change in the numbers?
  2. What’s driving the change on the field?

The numbers part is easy, and leads to an easy answer. Almost everything in his 2021 performance looks like the rest of his career. Same strikeout and walk rate, same number of ground balls. The only thing he’s really doing differently is allowing fewer of his fly balls to leave the park (HR/FB), and fewer of the balls in play to turn into hits (BABIP). And we know that pitchers have relatively little control over those two particular statistics.

The HR/FB is especially interesting, as Gibson’s has trended up over the past two years, culminating in a career-worst 27% in 2020.

But that’s where the second framework comes in and complicates things, because on the field Gibson is doing something obviously new and different: He’s throwing a cutter.

Here’s Gibson’s pitch mix in 2020.

Kyle Gibson, 2020
Texas Leaguers

And here it is in 2021.

Kyle Gibson, 2021
Texas Leaguers

He throws this new cutter against both righties and lefties, in any count, and in doing so has taken pressure off of every single one of his other pitches beyond his mainstay sinker (which his cutter appears to tunnel well with).

It’s a significant enough change to make one wonder exactly how useful the first eight seasons of his career are for projecting the ninth. For just a second, throw out the entire MLB past and look just at the 2021 numbers and pitch shape chart — how would you categorize Kyle Gibson if he was, say an eight-year NPB veteran making his first entrance into the major leagues?

Okay, thought experiment over. Bring back the past. Definitely don’t throw it all out. That’d be irresponsible analysis.

But it’s interesting, right?

Where Does Gibson Fit?

So going forward, Kyle Gibson falls somewhere between “All-Star Starter Who Belongs On Every Contending Team” and “Innings Eater Who Might Not Make A Playoff Roster.”

Adding him to the Rays roster likely means removing one or more of the five players already there, and it gets even more complicated depending on if, how, and when Chris Archer and Tyler Glasnow return from their injuries.

Here’s the current rotation ordered by FanGraphs Depth Charts projected Rest of Season ERA:

Kyle Gibson and the Rays Rotation

Player ERA FIP xFIP Depth Charts RoS ERA
Player ERA FIP xFIP Depth Charts RoS ERA
Shane McClanahan 3.88 3.62 3.22 4.10
Ryan Yarbrough 4.38 4.15 4.29 4.37
Luis Patino 5.26 4.17 4.64 4.41
Josh Fleming 4.07 4.55 4.32 4.47
Kyle Gibson 2.87 3.75 4.15 4.49
Michael Wacha 5.16 5.08 4.36 4.78
Rays Rotation and Gibson Data from FanGraphs

McClannahan and Yarbrough’s spots are likely safe, and the Rays seem to want to give Patiño a run in the majors right now. Wacha has performed the worst of the bunch, while Fleming has options and has had two poor starts in a row.

In the absolute, it’s definitely better to have these five pitchers plus Kyle Gibson, but how much value the trade has to the Rays has a lot to do on whether they view the primary value of this trade coming as an upgrade to the top end or as an insurance move that shores up the pitching depth. Because Kyle Gibson comes at a cost, and not just in prospects.

Including incentives, Gibson will be owed a bit over $4 million over the remainder of 2020, and between $7.5 and $9 million in 2021. That’s a perfectly fine price to pay for a frontline starter, but for the Rays that remaining salary comes with significant opportunity costs. Remember, this is the team that just declined to pick up Charlie Morton’s $15 million option and then failed to sign him at a lower cost, instead filling the void with Wacha at $3 million, Rich Hill at $2.5 million, and Chris Archer at $6.5 million.

If the Rays were to trade for Gibson, does that mean they believe in his breakout? Or does it mean they’re extremely concerned about Fleming and Wacha going forward? Do they believe Archer and Glasnow aren’t coming back? If they were that concerned, would they really have just traded away Hill for relatively little gain?

Do they think they’ll be able to trade Gibson again in the offseason and won’t be on the hook for his 2021 salary? How much value in prospects can they give up for the privilege of dumping salary in the winter meetings?

Or, just to say it again, do the Rays believe in that new cutter, want Gibson as a part of both this and next year’s playoff push, and see the extra year of team control in 2022 as a positive?

The Rays are often confounding at the trade deadline, simultaneously buying and selling while looking for value on both sides of the transaction, but this one is harder to contextualize than usual. Their alleged pursuit of Kyle Gibson tells us something either about Gibson himself or about the Rays more generally. But which one of those it is, like Gibson’s 2021 breakout, is very much a Rorschach test.

What do you see?