Here’s why Kyle Gibson is excelling in 2021 with Texas Rangers as he faces old team

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In recalling his Opening Day disaster, Kyle Gibson admitted last week that it might have been nerves or anxiety that led to him allowing five runs while recording only one out at Kansas City.

Sure. It was his first start in a season-opener, and he had friends and family in the stands at Kauffman Stadium. And starting on Opening Day for a major-league team is a very big deal.

“It was just a weird start,” he said.

Since then, Gibson hasn’t just been the Texas Rangers’ best starting pitcher but also one of the best in the American League. His ERA since April 1 was 0.82 entering his start Tuesday night.

The foe was his old team, the Minnesota Twins. They drafted him, developed him and stood by him through illnesses in his final season. They didn’t re-sign him, allowing him to ink a three-year $28 million deal with the Rangers, but Gibson said his first start at Target Field as an opposing player was going to be special.

Nerves? Anxiety?

“You always want to do well against your former team, your former teammates,” manager Chris Woodward said. “I don’t think that’s going to affect him at all.”

The Rangers and Gibson see his opening flop as a one-off. The pitcher who has dominated the past five starts is the pitcher who the Rangers thought they were getting when they signed him in November 2019, if not better.

There’s no doubt Gibson is better physically after dealing with E. coli and ulcerative colitis in 2019 and some of 2020. A full offseason, with no medical concerns, has him stronger and gave him time to smooth out his mechanics and make his pitches sharper.

“I’d like to think it has a lot to do with it, not that it gives me any excuses the past two seasons because I didn’t have a full offseason,” Gibson said after allowing one run in six innings Thursday against the Boston Red Sox.

“I think if anything it allowed me to have my stuff and to work on this cutter and to work on my mechanics and to allow me to do that at an earlier point in the offseason. I think that was a big help for me. It allowed me to come into spring training feeling good and feeling sharp and get an idea of how much stuff was going to play.”

Gibson has thrown six different pitches this season, though he’s still primarily a sinker-slider pitcher. The slider has been particular effective, with opponents batting .156 against it with a 46.3% whiff rate.

The cutter he has implemented is another pitch to keep hitters guessing as it moves much like a slider does.

Gibson entered Tuesday 3-0 with a 2.16 ERA and a .220 opponents batting average. He has struck out 27, walked 11 and hadn’t allowed a home run in 33 1/3 innings a season after he allowed 12 homers in 67 1/3 innings and finished with a 5.35 ERA.

The Rangers signed Gibson in part based on projections. They had seen the data on his pitches, be it horizontal movement or spin rate, and saw it trending the right way.

The slider and cutter have been above MLB average this season in terms of spin rate. In 2018, Gibson’s slider was considered one of the best in baseball based on swings and misses.

Put it all together — health, pitches, analytics and experience — and Gibson is pitching like the Rangers envisioned when signing him.

“In a lot of ways he’s better,” Woodward said. “His sinker is probably a tick better than it was, and I think his other pitches he’s worked really hard on the shape, especially the slider.”