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2015 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Candidate: Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson
Source: Leon Halip/Getty Images North America

Breakout is an ambiguous word, so with that in mind, I’ll start by clarifying that I’m not expecting Kyle Gibson to be a fantasy ace. I do, however, believe he makes for an interesting late round flyer in large mixed leagues and deeper formats after digging into his 2014 performance.

The first number that stands out in Gibson’s statistical profile on his FanGraphs page is his gaudy 54.4% groundball rate. That rate was the seventh highest among qualified starting pitchers in 2014. Taking a look at his Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x player card reveals that four of his pitches resulted in a groundball rate north of 47% on balls in play, and two were north of 61%. When Gibson wants to coax a groundball, he’s got the goods to do so.

Simply keeping the ball on the ground isn’t reason to get excited about a pitcher from a fantasy perspective. But there is more to like about Gibson than his worm burning ways. Brooks Baseball credited the former first round pick with whiff percentages above 14% on three of his pitches, his changeup, curveball, and slider. Of his secondary offerings, his slider is the best bat misser (17.08% whiff rate) and he uses it the most (21.54% usage) of his three non-fastball pitches. Looking at how his slider stacks up against others around the league adds to the intrigue of nabbing Gibson on the cheap. Baseball Prospectus had 95 pitchers throwing 200 or more sliders in 2014, and Gibson’s whiff/swing percentage of 34.22% ranked 43rd, sandwiched between Matt Shoemaker and Jeff Samardzija. The pitch helped him total a 20.9% strikeout rate against right-handed batters last year.

Couple his ability to avoid wood with his slider and his 8.8% swinging strike rate, a little below what FanGraphs had as the league average last year, 9.4%, and you’ve got good reason to expect Gibson to take a step forward from his lowly 14.1% strikeout rate last season. Just how far he’s able to kick that rate up this year will be largely determined by how consistently he can avoid contact against left-handed batters.

His changeup is almost certainly the key to piling up more punch outs against lefties, and it flashed promise at times last year tallying a 23.81% whiff rate in June and a 19.44% whiff rate in August. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fooling left-handed batters with his changeup in April, July, or September with a whiff percentage under 10% in each of those months. Working in Gibson’s favor, though, is that when he wasn’t missing lefties bats, they were pounding the changeup into the ground with a 64.10% groundball rate on balls in play per Brooks Baseball. That helps explain why even though he had an abysmal 8.9% strikeout rate against lefties in 2014, they didn’t clobber him and only managed a .315 wOBA (FanGraphs had the league average wOBA for hitters in 2014 at .310).

If you’d like an idea of what type of breakout Gibson might be capable of, look at Dallas Keuchel‘s burst onto the scene this past year. Like the southpaw, Gibson’s bread is buttered by his sinker and slider combination. Both pitchers give up a ton of contact in the strike zone with their sinker, but both choose not to fill up the strike zone and hovered around a 40% zone rate. Don’t confuse the low zone rate as a lack of control, as Gibson and Keuchel had better than league average walk rates of 7.5% and 5.9%, respectively. Small gains from the 27-year old pitcher are all that’s required for him to have a Keuchel-esque fantasy impact this year.

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