Determined Gibson has grown into a top prospect
The biggest challenge of Kyle Gibson's career wasn't stepping immediately into Missouri's closer role and racking up seven saves as a freshman in 2007. It wasn't splitting time between starting on weekends in the Big 12 and anchoring the bullpen as a sophomore in 2008, when he compiled nine wins, two saves and 96 strikeouts in 87 innings. It wasn't even helping Team USA go undefeated last summer, when he went 5-0, 1.02 with 25 strikeouts and four walks in 18 innings of relief.
"Probably the hardest thing I've had to do in sports—on the field or off the field—is putting on all this weight," said Gibson, a junior righthander and first-team preseason All-American. "It's just hard. With my metabolism and family history, I have to force myself to eat sometimes, and it's not easy when you're full, but you've got to eat a little more to put on a pound or two."
Gibson arrived at Missouri as a highly touted beanpole out of Greenfield (Ind.) High, where he was the top prep prospect in the state heading into the 2006 draft. The Phillies selected him in the 36th round with little hope of signing him away from his strong commitment to Missouri, but most scouts in the area swooned over his potential if he could fill out his 6-foot-5, 173-pound frame in three years with the Tigers.
Gibson has grown an inch and added 35 pounds since then. He weighs 208 now and hopes to be up to 210 or 212 by the end of the year, with a long-term goal of weighing 215-220.
"He brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cold pizza to practice—he's constantly eating," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "He's very focused and very determined on what he wants to accomplish, very organized. A lot of kids talk a good game but don't do it."
Gibson's stuff has gotten firmer as he's filled out, though he still hasn't developed the 90-95 mph fastball velocity scouts have projected since his prep days. He worked in the 88-91 range when he arrived at Missouri, but now he throws an 89-93 mph heater with better life and better deception than in years past. Most importantly, Jamieson said he has also improved his fastball command dramatically, giving hitters more to think about in tight spots.
"He's been able to come inside against lefthanded hitters," Jamieson said. "If you've got a righty that can come in to a good lefthanded hitter, it's a sign of maturity and experience. He's been able to pitch out of some situations. In the past, teams would sit slider, because they knew it was his go-to pitch."
Gibson's slider is a true plus offering, a mid-80s out pitch that righthanded hitters struggle to lay off even when it's in the dirt. He also throws a solid-average changeup that fades down and away from lefthanded hitters.
With that kind of starter's repertoire—and room to get even better—there's no wonder Gibson is a lock to go in the top 10 picks of the draft, and maybe top five. One National League scouting director said Gibson might have been more of a mid-first round pick in a year with a stronger first round, but there are few safer bets at the top of the draft this year.
"He's got a little aggressiveness to him that I like, to go along with the pitching package," the scouting director said.
That ferocity has served Gibson well as Missouri's Friday night starter this spring, when he's gone 7-3, 3.57 with 99 strikeouts and 13 walks in 75 innings. Jamieson said Gibson imbues the rest of the team with added confidence on Friday nights, and he has more than held his own in duels against other top pitchers like Arizona State righthander Mike Leake, Texas righty Chance Ruffin, Texas A&M lefty Brooks Raley, Kansas State righty A.J. Morris and Baylor righty Kendal Volz. Gibson threw three straight complete games against Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State and has five on the season, which has spared the bullpen and allowed the struggling Tigers—just 24-21 after ranking 10th in the preseason—to employ an effective pitching-by-committee approach in many weekend games.
Of all of Gibson's big wins this season, the one against Volz was the most fun. Gibson and Volz were roommates and best friends with Team USA last summer, and they had dinner at Chili's the night before their showdown. Naturally, there was plenty of trash talk exchanged between the two leading up to Friday night.
"In a couple of newspaper articles before that outing, Kendal had made a couple crazy claims that he was a lot better than me at spades, or he was a lot funnier than I was, which is not true," Gibson said. "I just took it out on him on the field, really."
Volz, who first got to know Gibson in the summer of 2007 in the Cape Cod League, said Gibson is a great competitor and a great ballplayer, but that's not all.
"He's a goofball," Volz said. "He's a great kid. I was fortunate I got to know him and what kind of person he is."
Jamieson thought the goofball label was fair, but he added a qualifier.
"It's kind of in a nerdy way," the coach said. "He's not strange, he's just gregarious. He's never in a bad mood, ever, and he's never met anybody he didn't seem to know already. He could probably run for mayor of Columbia and come close to winning—he's well liked by everybody. His intangibles are off the charts."