For Gibson, success comes after he learned to relax more on mound

Twins starter Kyle Gibson is putting less stress on himself, striking out more.

By: La Velle E. Neal III, Star Tribune

Kyle Gibson is using his slider and curveball more than ever. He’s striking out batters at a higher rate than at any time of his career.

Observers have noted that Gibson is pitching with more authority and is hitting all four corners of the strike zone with a variety of pitches.

Does that explain why he has a career-low 3.42 ERA and is one of the better bounce-back stories in the major leagues this season?

Not to Gibson. The Twins righthander just says he has finally gotten out of his own head. And since he has freed his mind, better stats have followed. Gibson is scheduled to start on Friday when the Twins return from the four-day All-Star break with a three-game series at Kansas City.

“It was just getting back to believing who I could be on the mound, and I had lost sight of that, lost sight of the identity of who I was on the mound and was making each inning, each pitch way too important,” Gibson said.

“Part of it was just how I was looking at it. I was putting too much stress on myself and putting too much importance on being great or being really good and losing sight what I needed to do and that was going out and pitch and having fun and let everything else take care of itself.”

Gibson felt he was on the right path when he went 11-11 with a 3.84 ERA in 2015. But the next season he started 0-5 with a 6.06 ERA and finished 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA. He made the 2017 rotation, but began 0-4 with a 8.20 ERA over his first six starts and made the first of two visits to Class AAA Rochester.

At that point, Gibson had gone 6-15 with a 5.54 ERA over 31 starts since the end of the encouraging 2015 season. He was nibbling at the edges of the plate and not throwing with conviction.

“From halfway through 2016 and the first part of 2017, I lost sight of how good I could possibly be,” Gibson said. “It wasn’t just a struggle. It was getting beat up every five days and even my decent outings I was giving up three or four runs. That can do a lot mentally and kind of make you second guess who you could be.”

That’s when Gibson had some enlightening conversations with Dr. Rick Aberman, the Twins’ peak performance director. It was from those conversations that Gibson overhauled his mental approach on the mound.

Instead of getting wound up about making perfect pitches, he relaxed — and got the desired results.

“And when I got called [back] up I got a little confidence back and figured out a few things here and there with my fastball and was able to get on a pretty good streak,” he said.

Gibson finished the 2017 season 7-2 with a 3.57 ERA and has carried that performance into 2018. His fastball is averaging a career high 92.8 miles per hour, and his slider and curveball have become swing-and-miss pitches. He is throwing his slider 21.2 percent of the time, up from 17.8 last season, and his curveball a career-high 10.3 percent of the time. His strikeout rate has jumped from 6.9 per nine innings last season to 8.9 this season.

Fox Sports North analyst Bert Blyleven has noticed a more confident Gibson.

“Now’s he’s aggressive,” Blyleven said. “And when you are aggressive with your fastball, that makes that breaking ball more aggressive. And he has a nasty slider right now.

“It was like he was trying to aim the breaking ball. Now he’s letting it go. That’s nice to see.”

Gibson has found his mental sweet spot, and has a chance to finish the season strong. He has pitched at least seven innings in six of his past nine starts, a sign that he’s also winning over his manager, Paul Molitor.

“He’s put together a really solid first half,” Molitor said. “I don’t think it’s surprising to people who have seen him over the last couple of years to see him finally have a little more consistency.”