Kyle Gibson’s September stumble in Philadelphia probably depressed his free agent market this winter. What he did to try to pull himself out of that swoon — turn his slider into a sweeper, a popular new variation on the pitch which makes it move more horizontally — not only made him more attractive to the Orioles, but probably made his signing on a one-year, $10 million deal feasible.

Nearly one month into the season, that pitch is one of many reasons why Gibson’s signing this winter might prove far more beneficial to the Orioles than anyone could have envisioned.

“It’s been a really fun first month,” said Gibson, who makes his sixth start of the season Thursday in Detroit carrying a 3.60 ERA.

That’s a departure from the last month of 2022, when the regular season ended poorly for him in Philadelphia and put him on the margins of their World Series run.

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Gibson entered September with an identical ERA and FIP (fielding-independent pitching, which approximates ERA based on controllable factors such as walks, strikeouts, and home runs) at 4.08 last year but was battered that month for a 9.73 ERA, albeit with a 5.24 FIP, that ended up souring his season overall and leaving him with a 5.05 ERA entering free agency.

His signing on the eve of the winter meetings existed then in a far different set of circumstances than it does now. He was essentially seen as a Jordan Lyles replacement, and as an initial move from an organization that was expected to be active in upgrading its roster to build on last year’s 83-win season. By that point, the Tampa Bay Rays had already signed right-hander Zach Eflin to a three-year, $40 million deal that suggested it might be an expensive free agent pitching market.

Kyle Gibson (48) poses for a portrait during photo day at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on Feb. 23, 2023. The Baltimore Orioles’ spring training session runs from mid-February through the end of March. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Signing Gibson seemed, at the time, to be just the start of Baltimore’s pitching upgrades. It turned out they were in on several others and had what they believe to be competitive offers declined for pitchers who wanted to sign elsewhere. As a result, Gibson was their headlining starting pitching addition, along with a trade for left-hander Cole Irvin.

Based on what they spent, what they’re getting so far seems like a fine value. Twenty free agents received contracts worth at least $10 million per year in free agency last offseason, and 17 have pitched so far. Gibson’s 3.60 ERA is fifth-best among that group, and his 1.17 WHIP is fourth on that list.

Most of his peripherals are in line with where they’ve been prior in his career, and in this particular instance indicate he might be outperforming a bit in his first month with the Orioles. His FIP is 4.46 entering Thursday’s start. His xFIP, which normalizes home run rate to the league-average, is 4.26. His expected ERA, based on the quality of contact he’s allowed, is 4.94, according to MLB Statcast data on BaseballSavant.com.

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Gibson’s own assessment of his starts is rather simple — he wants to leave every fifth game with the Orioles in position to win. They’ve been ahead in four of his starts and tied in another, and they’ve won four of them.

“That’s the goal, and I think if I’m critical about my starts, there’s a few pitches I’d like to have back and I think could have made five games even better, but for the most part I’ve been happy about it,” Gibson said.

Part of the reason Gibson has been able to deliver on those goals is his new sweeper, which he threw in his last two starts in Philadelphia last season and was part of the reason he was attractive to the Orioles. It’s a pitch they’ve been prioritizing from a development standpoint in the minors. At the major league level, Austin Voth added one to help him solidify the rotation in 2022 and Mike Baumann added one this spring as part of his successful transition to the bullpen.

Gibson’s sweeper has increased in prominence as the season has progressed, as has its effectiveness. He struck out five with it against Detroit, and opponents are whiffing 43.1% of the time they swing at it.

It was a similarly effective pitch when he started throwing it in September for the Phillies. In two starts, he struck out nine batters on the pitch with a 50% whiff rate, a small bright spot in two starts in which he allowed 12 runs over 11 innings. Teams pursuing him in the winter, including the Orioles, certainly noticed.

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“Every team I talked to asked me about the sweeper and how much I tried to throw it,” Gibson said. “It was something I talked about a lot, because it was something that excited me about this year. Any time that you can make something you do a little better, in your mind, or add something that you think is a weapon, kind of like going into ‘21 I added a cutter. I was excited about that, because for me, I think it gave me another weapon. Taking my slider, and making it go to the left a little more, I think allowed my two-seam to play a little different, and I hope it allows my slider to play a little different.”

With those two pitches, plus a four-seam fastball, change-up, and curveball, Gibson and the Orioles’ catchers have the luxury on most days of at least something working. The sweeper-sinker combination has taken hold in his last few starts, and helped him strike out 11 against Detroit last time out, but he also limited one of baseball’s highest-scoring clubs — the Texas Rangers — to a pair of solo home runs in seven innings on April 4 throwing his four-seamer and change-up 19 times apiece and his sinker and sweeper 18 times each (he also threw 10 cutters and four curveballs). That kind of pitch mix, with hitters knowing they have to account for so many different movement profiles, is an advantage for a pitcher, and one Gibson is glad to be able to take advantage of.

“I think what I like about my stuff is that on any given day, a pitch can be a weapon,” Gibson said. “When I was in Texas, adding the cutter, it was just about adding another tool in your belt. Very rarely are we going to go out there and am I going to have all six pitches working, so for me, the pitch mix changes based on what’s working that day and what our plan is.”

Through nearly a month of his first season with the Orioles, all that has conspired to make Gibson’s signing look better than it did in the winter. Based on a handful of starts, he’s pitching better than Lyles, who had an $11 million option declined by the Orioles this winter. It will take a full season of this — or better — for him to meet the high expectations many had for the caliber of pitcher the Orioles would add this offseason. To this point, however, it seems like his addition was a sound one regardless of expectations.

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

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