I don’t want to talk about Kyle Gibson. If I were to write about the free agent starting pitchers like Blake has done over this offseason, Kyle Gibson might be the last pitcher I talk about. A part of me was bummed that I didn’t get to write about Lance Lynn, though I wouldn’t have done as comprehensive a job as Blake, because Lynn is interesting. There are things to say about Lynn.
But Kyle Gibson? Listen Kyle, if you’re reading this, you have achieved the dream of many baseball fans. You are one of the best baseball players in the world and not only are you that, you are one of the few who has carved out a 10+ year career, being productive in just about every season, which most major leaguers cannot say. But I think even you would probably admit: you are a boring pitcher.
I mean that is kind of the appeal of Gibson. He is predictable. You get exactly what you expect. He has made at least 29 starts in every season but one, with the exception of his debut season (when he was called up midseason) and the pandemic season (when he made the most amount of starts possible, 12). He will take the mound every fifth day.
He’s also usually an innings eater. He has thrown 5.8 innings per start in his entire career. He has thrown at least 179 innings in 5 of his 11 seasons, but that’s slightly misleading. He didn’t reach 179 innings during the season when he made his debut, during the season where he only made 25 starts, during the season where he was moved to the bullpen for 5 games at the end (and that was a 2.6 fWAR season, so it wasn’t really from bad pitching), and during the pandemic.
That’s not his only boring appeal. While he has never reached 3 fWAR in a season, he has reached 1.9 fWAR or better in 7 of his 11 seasons. Again, the debut season and pandemic season are two that he did not (and to completely fair, he was not anywhere close to on pace for a 1.9 fWAR season in 2020). The other two seasons were, again, seasons were he wasn’t on pace for it anyway, but did only make 25 starts and 29 starts.
If it wasn’t for the fact that he was 36, he’d be the safest bet in baseball to give you approximately 30 starts, 170 or so innings, and at least 2 fWAR. But those pesky aging curves probably prevent him from that title. Unfortunately for Gibson, he’s coming on the heels of the Cardinals signing Lance Lynn, and it’s very hard to talk yourself into both of those signings, to be honest. I talked myself into Lynn in 30 minutes and I’m sure I’d have no issues with Gibson if he were signed first. But because he was signed second, he gets the ire of the fanbase.
As you might imagine from a crafty veteran who has managed to stick around for 10+ seasons without ever really being more than average, Gibson has five pitches, and the pitch he uses the most, he only uses 26% of the time. He relies on the hitter not knowing what pitch is coming, which is usually the case for pitchers, but especially so here.
One legitimately interesting thing about Gibson is that following his 2021, Gibson added a sweeper to his repertoire. He only threw it 3.3% of the time in the 2022 season, while throwing the slider he’s thrown his whole career 17.7% of the time. The sweeper was marginally effective, but the slider was worth -5 runs. So he scrapped the slider and threw the sweeper more. A lot more. He threw the sweeper 18.5% of the time, generating a 46.5% whiff rate and being worth +12 runs.
The rest of his pitches were not really that effective. His most used pitch, the sinker, was slightly positive, but the rest were negative run values. His change, 4-seamer, and especially his cutter (-6 runs) were all not effective. But his cutter was +7 as recently as 2021, his 4-seamer was +1 in 2022, and well his change hasn’t had a positive run value since 2018, but it’s usually just a marginally bad pitch, being -2 the past three seasons.
In the Fangraphs piece on Gibson’s signing, Alex Eisert made an interesting observation. “While the cutter itself was significantly worse by run value this season, that was offset by how well it paired with his sweeper, which Gibson used sparingly in 2022 but turned to 18.5% of the time in 2023. The right-hander notched whiffs on 23% of his sweepers, and the pitch’s success was due at least in part to how the cutter served as a bridge between the new offering and Gibson’s sinker by sitting in between their horizontal movements. Meanwhile, the sinker and sweeper worked well together by exhibiting a near-ideal (for the spin-mirroring effect) 7:15 spin-axis differential:”
Another thing about Gibson that is interesting insofar as he’s moving to Busch Stadium is there is “upside” in the form of him just playing to his xFIP. It’s not real upside and I don’t even know if I believe it myself, given he has nearly 1,700 innings to prove otherwise. But his career ERA is 4.54, his career FIP is 4.27, and his career xFIP is 4.10.
In other words, he’s been worse about allowing homer relative to the league and even accounting for that, his ERA is worse than it should be. He’s played most of his career at Target Field, which is essentially a neutral park, but when he left, he played at undeniable hitters’ parks Globe Life Field and Citizens Bank Park. I’m grasping at straws here, but Busch Stadium is more of a pitcher’s park than anywhere he’s played, so maybe he’ll get better earned run results than the rest of his career.
In all though, the Cardinals have sacrificed upside for certainty, and these two concurrent moves don’t make a lick of sense unless they are dedicating the rest of the budget to Yoshinobu Yamamoto. He’s less of a sure thing to be an ace than a lot of the people who want to sign him would admit, especially in his first year as he has to adjust to MLB hitting and working every fifth day instead of once a week. But least he’s 25 and all the rumors about the Cardinals being interested him weren’t for naught.
I get the Cardinals’ strategy. I really do. And it’s not that I can’t see it working. They have set themselves up to clear out two spots in the rotation for the emerging glut of pitching prospects in AA and AAA who may or may not be ready. And if they’re not ready next year, they have options on both Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.
Also, next year’s free agent starting pitching class is better than this year, at least in theory. (Teams can always lock them up before they reach free agency, and I’d guess some will). Free agent starting pitchers include Shane Bieber, Tyler Glasnow, Walker Buehler, Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Zach Wheeler, and that’s just the top of the market.
But the Cardinals won’t get any of those guys so who cares? I believe they might get Yamamoto because it’s the only way this offseason makes sense to me, but I have little hope for a hypothetical “well they might get an ace next year” because they won’t. It’s not what the Cardinals do. They’re going to have to surprise me for me to believe it matters one bit that there’s some ace pitchers reaching free agency and the Cardinals may be able to have an open spot for them.
And yes I know it’s wise to avoid free agent starting pitchers as a rule. And we could all look back on these missed opportunities and see them as blessings, like it was when the Cardinals avoided David Price or Jason Heyward. And hey maybe they do really get Yamamoto because they do have the budget and seriously, this approach makes zero sense unless they do. (I suppose Tyler Glasnow is a decent contingency plan, though I really don’t want Blake Snell at all. Do not think that contract will age well)
And hell, maybe the Cardinals are going to get creative in a way none of us are imagining. That’s another way this offseason makes sense. Either unload Steven Matz’s contract, or put him in the bullpen with two more SPs acquisitions, which I seriously doubt, but again it would help make sense of these two moves for me. Though I hesitate to wish for two more SPs because I’ll just get Johny Cueto and Luke Weaver or something.
Anyway, Kyle Gibson was signed, it’s a fine enough signing in vacuum, but a rather troubling and worrying signing in the context of this offseason. Let’s hope the Cardinals have a better plan than it currently looks.