Big starters with Big upside

Jimmy Nelson and Kyle Gibson loom over any batter they face, and not just because of the mound they pitch from. Both are 6’6 with high release points, allowing the ball to come down and out at an angle and with motion that hitters just aren’t comfortable with. While the long-term success of gimmicky pitching styles is definitely questionable, big pitchers tend to be able to continue to fool hitters with their deceptive release — remember how effective Chris Young was to the Royals in the World Series last year?

But both are more than just tall pitchers; they’ve had legitimate success at the major league level, with Nelson coming off a 2.1 fWAR campaign and Gibson with 2.3 and 2.5 marks in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Nelson has had success thanks to forcing lots of grounders with his strong sinker, while Gibson has made his name similarly, with tons of grounders and controlling the strike zone.

They make good middle to back-end starters, but when we look deeper they are both more than such. With a few tweaks here and there, both could be front-line starters ready to face top competition.

Nelson and Gibson lack strong fastballs that would allow them to get more out of their excellent secondary offerings. Gibson throws a little slower than Nelson (91 to 93 mph, on average), and both have miserable weighted values (8.1 runs below average for Nelson, 10.4 runs below for Gibson). Neither have the velocity or the natural movement on their pitches to fool hitters with the pitch, and while the sinkers may help them get the grounders, the four-seamers are being feasted on.

The fix for this isn’t very simple (because if a new finger position on the fastball was all it took to get whiffs, well the strikeout rates would be astronomical), but maybe the problem isn’t that they need better four-seamers. Instead, they should stick to their strengths, the sinkers. It’s not the most common thing for a pitcher to throw virtually all sinkers as his fastball offerings, but we’ve seen pitchers do it with astounding success (Chris Sale, Scott Kazmir, Francisco Liriano). And doing so wouldn’t be the biggest change in the world, with both already throwing the pitch a third of the time, the increase would hardly put any added stress on the arm. Ditching the four-seamer allows us to get to the real exciting parts of these guys, because now we get to look at their filthy off-speed pitches.

Jimmy Nelson gets great grounders because of his sinker, but you would think he’s a strikeout artist by watching his slider. He gets 20.2% whiffs on the pitch (well above the league average of 15.1%) making it as dominant as they come. And to show how vital it is to his arsenal, he records 57.2% of his strikeouts via the slider. It’s a pitch that hitters have to know is coming, seeing how often he uses it in pitcher friendly spots, but one that they still can’t hit. A true out pitch; the only problem is how often he gets to use it.

Kyle Gibson also has a tremendous slider (18.7% whiffs), but what makes him even more interesting is a changeup that flirts with greatness. He gets 18.4% whiffs, and has consistently put up 60+% grounder rates with it when hitters do actually manage to put it in play. He’s able to do this by putting almost eight inches of armside run on it, with three inches of vertical movement as well. When combining this with his tall frame and release, it’s not hard to see how he’s so effective with these pitches.

Clearly, both flash the stuff, but both also lack the tangible stats to show for it. Gibson just put up a career high 17.2% strikeout rate (below average) and Nelson is right around average at 19.4%. Strikeouts are tough to put together, as they require the setup of an entire at-bat to properly execute. When we look at how quickly hitters are ending the plate appearances, it’s easy to see how they can’t get the strikeouts to match the stuff.  Both have disproportionate amounts of at-bats ending early, especially on 1-0 and 0-1 pitches. And looking deeper into when they use what pitch, the fastball is happening early and fades throughout the battle.

Big starters big upside chart 1

Big starters big upside chart 2

Without that pitch, perhaps they’re able to either get more grounders with their sinkers, or extend so they can use the secondary stuff we know is so good.

Simply, the four-seamer should be the bread and butter pitch for a pitcher. Bluntly, the four-seamers we see from Jimmy Nelson and Kyle Gibson are trash. They both have stellar sliders (and Gibson has a strong changeup as well), but with the fastball getting hit so much it’s hard for them to get full effectiveness from these pitches. If they can drop the pitch, we could see legitimate top of the rotation performances from both.


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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.