The signing of Kyle Gibson this past offseason was not the sort of exciting, ceiling-raising move that most Orioles fans had in mind to support an upstart roster that had nearly snuck into the playoffs in 2022. But through his first five starts the 35-year-old is looking more like the all-star he was in 2021 than the guy with a 5+ ERA in Philadelphia last year.
Gibson is yet to lose a decision in an Orioles uniform, has gone at least five innings in each start, and only appears to be getting stronger. On Saturday, the veteran struck out 11 and allowed just one run over 6.1 innings. That brought his season ERA down to 3.60. While the season is still young, the early returns on the big righty have been far better than many in the fanbase expected.
Much of his success so far is the result of his new toy, MLB’s trendiest pitch, the sweeper. Gibson has converted his so-so slider into an impactful sweeper. This pitch is nearly four miles per hour slower than the slider was and has a lot more horizontal movement. It makes up 24% of his pitches, and for good reason. That thing is nasty! Opposing hitters have a .125 batting average against the sweeper, it gets 43.1% whiffs, and accounts for 11 of his 24 strikeouts on the year.
The new environment is also helping Gibson, in more ways than one. First are his new teammates. As exciting as the 2022 Phillies may have been, defense was not their calling card. They were the second-worst team in the league by outs above average and runs above average. As a result, his 5.05 ERA was a decent amount higher than his 4.28 FIP.
Now, the 2023 Orioles have not exactly started this season in the best light defensively, particularly in the first series of the year in Boston. But a couple underwhelming weeks does not negate multiple years of impressive work. Ultimately, you expect a group led by Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urías, Cedric Mullins and Adley Rutschman to do some decent glove work. Gibson seems plenty happy as his 3.60 ERA is lower than his 4.46 FIP. He has also seen his BABIP drop from .308 in ‘22 to .275 so far in ‘23 despite surrendering similar exit velocities in the two seasons.
Camden Yards has also treated Gibson well. In his two starts at the friendly confines he has allowed one home run and a .604 OPS against while he has been tapped up for three long balls and an .836 OPS in three starts on the road. Maybe his numbers will even out as the season progresses, like they did with the Phillies a season ago. But it’s no secret that Camden Yards has gotten more pitcher-friendly due to the altered dimensions, and this could simply be further proof.
It’s been a stellar start to Gibson’s stint in Baltimore, but it’s not without some worrying signs. For example, while his strikeouts per nine and walks per nine rates are not dramatically different from last season, they are both a touch worse (7.73 to 7.20 K/9, 2.58 to 2.70 BB/9). As a pitcher that already wasn’t racking up the K’s there is not much wiggle room there.
Gibson is also escaping from jams at a higher rate than you would expect. His 78.9% left-on-base rate would be the highest of his career and it is well above league average. It’s possible that his new sweeper paired with a more cavernous version of Oriole Park allows him to maintain that, but it’s not a guarantee.
In general, you simply expect Gibson to return to his baseline at some point, and the hard reality is that his baseline is a decent amount lower than where he is currently living. His 124 ERA+ would be the best of his 11-season big league career. As would his 1.167 WHIP. Players do not normally find their peak performance at age 35, and while there are certainly exceptions that should not be the expectation.
And of course there is the caveat that could apply to the entire Orioles team, and that is the quality of opponent. This isn’t a dig at the O’s or Gibson. They can only play who is on the schedule, and they have excelled at handling their business thus far. But things will get tougher in May, when they have a gauntlet against juggernauts like the Braves, Rays, and Yankees, not to mention the surprising Pirates and Rangers among others. It would not be a shock to see some statistics dip against more stout opposition.
It is in those fluctuations of schedule and team form where Gibson will be asked to show off his $10-million value. When it all shakes out he is expected to be the guy that can eat innings, keep the team in the game, and relieve pressure on the less-senior members of the roster. So far, he has done just that, and has shown the indications that he will continue to do so, even if the box score might not always been quite as kind as it has been to this point.