NEW YORK -- When a starting pitching prospect is promoted to the major leagues, there is much fanfare. There's that iconic moment when he gets the call, the frantic plane ride.
"I was in the Triple-A clubhouse, with the team in Louisville," soft-spoken Kyle Gibson, he of the Midwestern reserve and bashful smile, said as we talked at his locker in Yankee Stadium on Friday afternoon prior to the Yankees-Twins game. "And coach called a team meeting, and our manager, Gene Glynn, said, 'Just real quick, just needed to let Kyle know he's going to the bigs, that's it'. It was pretty cool."
What follows, we all know as well. The fans, excited to open their new present. The manager, eager for reinforcements, with mid-year prospects usually getting rotation spots when teams are struggling. The Twins, 37-53 after Friday's 2-0 loss, certainly qualify. Adrenaline flowing, with no video for the opposing team to scout, the starter will often succeed in a debut, as Gibson did on June 29 against the Royals, allowing just two runs over six innings.
And so: much rejoicing and hype. And then, after the debut mania subsides, Gibson, like every other young pitcher, is left with a monumental task: getting major league hitters out, every fifth day, while not knowing exactly how to access all of his pitches during any given start, and at the same time, attempting to get better.
Gibson has been through plenty already. The Twins drafted him 22nd overall in the 2009 draft. He quickly advanced to Triple-A in his first professional season, but was sidelined by an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery in 2011. He returned late in 2012, impressed there and in the Arizona Fall League, and began 2013 at Triple-A Rochester, where his strong showing made it an easy call for the Twins when they needed another starter at the end of June.
It's been rocky since that debut, with Gibson suffering a pair of losses to the Yankees and Rays. But Gibson, and everybody else, knows it is part of the process almost every major league pitcher goes through to figure out how to succeed.
"Some days, I don't have my fastball," Gibson said. "And then other days, it's right where I want. Some days my off-speed pitches aren't there, some days they are. Really, I think every pitcher goes through that, figuring out in the 'pen which ones you can throw for strikes that day, and the others, use just enough to make your best pitch the best."
Gibson's best pitch, along with the one he goes to roughly half the time, is his sinking, two-seam fastball.
"It's outstanding," Twins' pitching coach Rick Anderson said of the two-seamer, as we spoke in the tunnel leading to the Twins' dugout on Friday. "It's 92, 93 [miles per hour], it's movement down is late. It's a quality, above-average pitch. It's a weapon."
But Gibson cannot succeed on his two-seamer alone, and he's busy figuring out which complementary pitches are going to allow him to hold his own at this level.
Anderson believes Gibson's second-best pitch is his changeup.
"It looks like a sinker, but it's about 8-10 miles different, and it's really been an effective pitch for him," Anderson said.
Though Gibson wasn't sure which offering qualified as his second-best pitch, he certainly used the changeup to great effect at the end of his most recent start against the Rays on July 9. Facing James Loney to begin the sixth inning, Gibson started him off with a changeup for a called strike one, then did the same thing to Matt Joyce. Spotting that pitch early in the count was simply part of adjusting to hitters who'd begun to look more for his primary offering.
"That game, I'd really thrown a lot of first-pitch fastballs," Gibson said of his strategy. "They kind of took advantage of that, started swinging at them. So I made a couple of really good pitches down and away from the lefties," he went on, laughing a bit uncomfortably over touting his own performance. "I was lucky that day to have really good command of my fastball. And I really like to throw that, first pitch, later in the game to complement my fastball."
Gibson realizes that this is far from the only adjustment he'll need to make, and Anderson has been impressed by the way he's worked at getting better.
"He hasn't come in intimidated," Anderson said. "He's jumped right in the flow with the rest of the starters, the routines and what they do. He prepares himself very well. He comes in with a plan, he knows what he wants to do in the game."
What Gibson wants to do next is limit how well lefties are hitting him. So far, over his three starts, righties have an OPS of .678 against him. Lefties, however, are at .928. Gibson believes his four-seam fastball, which differs from his sinker, slider and changeup in movement and destination, can help him with his lefty problems, and improve the number of borderline calls he gets from umpires at the same time.
"It's really important against lefties," Gibson explained. "One thing, if I'm able to throw that sinker on the inside corner, then I can throw the four-seamer that stays straight, a couple inches off the plate. And they've got to respect that. Having both pitches also just expands the zone, in some parts of the zone. And that's really important ... every pitcher wants every pitch to look like a strike, whether it's a ball or a strike."
Gibson's other major problem, early on, has been multiple-run innings. All four of his runs allowed against the Rays on July 9 came in one inning. He had two three-run innings (one aided by relievers allowing inherited to score) and a two-run inning against the Yankees. And even in his debut, both runs scored in the third inning. Gibson still hasn't allowed exactly one run in a major league inning.
"He's been decent," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Gibson's performance to date. "He's run into two big innings, through it all. This last start was good, he had one inning where they scored four off of him, he couldn't stop the bleeding, but the first three were great, and the two more after that were really good.
"Hard sinker, hard slider, good angle," Gardenhire continued, effortlessly transitioning from what Gibson is to what he could be. No one can help it around a pitching prospect. "He's gonna be a good one. It's just a learning experience, learning a bunch of hitters he's never seen."
So the Twins know what they've signed up for with Gibson: a talented pitcher, learning on the job. The odds are against any pitching prospect succeeding. But Gibson is easy to root for; despite his obvious attention to detail in his craft, he told me, unprompted, how success or failure takes a back seat to the way he treats people.
"I don't know, time will tell if I'm going to be good enough to win a Cy Young Award," Gibson said. "That's obviously the goal ... but [also] to live my life the right way, and be a good example to people. Because as important as the game of baseball is to me, life is also important. And having a good reputation, being a good person, being a good teammate, is as important or more important to me than having success in the game."
"If I end up having a five- or six-year career that's very mediocre, nobody's going to remember the numbers. They're going to remember, was he a good teammate, was he a good person in the locker room."
As he faces the uphill battle of any young pitcher, careful to treat his teammates with respect as he does so, the new sheen of his career may fade for others. But the novelty hasn't worn off for Kyle Gibson. He may not be the newest thing in baseball, but while attention heads to Jarred Cosart in Houston, and whoever comes after him, this is all still new to Gibson.
"The first thing I did was get my clothes on and go out to Monument Park," Gibson said. "Just to be out there, and see the names of Ruth, and Gehrig, and DiMaggio, it's pretty cool, and definitely surreal to be in this locker room, and to, you know, get to pitch on Sunday against CC Sabathia, and the Yankees, and the House that Ruth Built."