Former Mizzou pitcher Gibson stays grounded in Twins’ organization

In his first year of professional baseball, Kyle Gibson rocketed through three levels of the Minnesota Twins’ farm system and won the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year award.

And, according to him, it wasn’t even his biggest accomplishment of 2010.

Gibson, the former Mizzou pitcher, married Liz Straatman, the former Mizzou gymnast, a few months after his baseball season ended.

“That was probably the highlight of the year,” Gibson said of his marriage. Of course, that was the predictable answer coming from one of the more intelligent, down-to-earth athletes you’ll find.

“I bet he probably said getting married,” said former Mizzou pitching coach Tony Vitello with a laugh when asked what he thought Gibson said was his biggest accomplishment of the year. Vitello knows Gibson well—the current TCU coach went to his former pitcher’s wedding and conducted a pitching camp with Gibson in Indiana earlier this month.

There aren’t many things that would count as biggest accomplishments than what Gibson did on the field in 2010, though. Obviously, getting married is one of them.

Across Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, Gibson posted a 2.96 ERA with 126 strikeouts and just 39 walks over 152 innings. But, more importantly, Gibson had a 2.31 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio, meaning he induced about two ground balls for every fly ball allowed.

“It was important for me to get more ground balls, because the more pitches you allow the hitters to see, the better chance they have to get a hit,” said Gibson, adding that it became more important for him to get opposing batters to put the ball on the ground as he climbed higher in the minor leagues. “As you go up, the hitters are better, but as you go up, the defense gets better.”

A lot of pitchers as young as Gibson have great talent, but don’t know how to harness that talent. Gibson has great talent and, if his 2010 season is any indication, knows how to use it.

Gibson could very well have molded himself into a strikeout pitcher. But he knows he has a higher chance of success if he works to keep his pitches low in the zone, trying to get as many ground balls as he can.

He knows this because it’s what he was taught at Mizzou.

“When he first got to Missouri he tried to slice and dice hitters, and he was only hurting himself,” said Vitello of Gibson’s strikeout-oriented approach his freshman year at Mizzou. “I think if Missouri helped him with anything, it was understanding his strength is that stuff so go ahead and bring it right at the hitter.

“Nobody adopted that philosophy better than him.”

He took to that philosophy so well that even two and a half years after leaving Mizzou, Gibson still remembers what Vitello preached.

“Every time after a relief or starting outing, coach Vitello would give us a sheet of paper and it had four or five numbers on it, but the three biggest numbers were first pitch strikes, ground balls, and A3P [attack in three pitches–get two strikes out of the first three pitches],” said Gibson. “Those were the three biggest numbers. He wanted you to see those after every outing and made sure you were either getting better at them.”

Get ahead, get ground balls and be efficient. That’s Vitello’s mantra, and it’s worked perfectly for Gibson. For comparison, only three major-league pitchers had a higher ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio than Gibson’s minor league total in 2010. And, while first-pitch strike data isn’t readily available for minor league pitchers, Gibson offered up two pretty notable comparison points.

“You look at Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, their first-pitch strike ratio is unbelievable,” said Gibson. “That’s one thing that I want to do is throw more first pitch strikes and get ahead. The more you do that, the better you’re gonna be.”

For the record, Lee threw the highest percentage of first-pitch strikes in the major leagues last year (69.8 percent), while Halladay had the third-highest percentage (67.3 percent). Both are Cy Young winners, too.

While Halladay and Lee are teaming up to form a special rotation in Philadelphia, the American League Central could be just as special to Mizzou fans sooner rather than later.

Max Scherzer, who played for Mizzou from 2004-2006, currently is in the major leagues for Detroit. The 26-year-old right-hander posted a 3.7 WAR—the 17th best among American League starters—in 2010 looks to be a staple alongside perennial Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander with the major league Tigers.

Aaron Crow pitched for Mizzou from 2005-2007 and currently is working his way through the Royals’ minor league system. While Crow scuffled between Single-A and Double-A in 2010, Baseball America rated him as the No. 9 prospect in Kansas City’s stacked farm system, a nod to his fantastic arsenal of pitches.

And then there’s Gibson, who is poised to break into the major leagues as early as next season with the Twins. It’s neat enough that Mizzou has had three pitchers drafted in the first round in the last five years, but them all to play with organizations in the same division?

“I want to try to keep doing the same so possibly we could have a Missouri Tiger AL Central battle. That’d be pretty fun,” said Gibson.

“It is a little wish or fantasy to see those guys to be as successful as they can be, but the thing that would be even more neat would be to see them do it in the same park against one another,” said Vitello.

Given Gibson’s progress, Vitello’s wish could come soon.

Vitello explains decision to leave Mizzou for TCU

Despite seeing three of his pitchers go in the first round of the MLB Draft, Tony Vitello hadn’t accomplished everything he wanted to at Mizzou. So his decision to leave Mizzou for TCU after the 2010 season had nothing to do with him reaching all his goals in Columbia.

Instead, it had everything to do with Vitello looking to further his coaching career.

“There was plenty left to accomplish, but on a personal level, wanting to eventually to be a  head coach and a good one, Missouri was all I knew,” said Vitello. “My personal life, Columbia was the only place I had lived. It’s a phenomenal place, and I hope I get to go back there someday for whatever reason it might be. But it was just a little more on the personal side as it relates to coaching but also personal side in general.”

The former Mizzou pitching guru is now trying his hand at coaching hitters at TCU, which certainly appears to be a smart decision for someone who’s trying to become a head coach. While Vitello said he didn’t accomplish all he wanted to at Mizzou, it’s tough to accomplish more as a pitching coach than coaching three pitchers to first-round selections. Working with hitters, especially at a program the stature of TCU (which made the College World Series last season), certainly should help advance Vitello’s coaching career.

Ironically, Vitello is coaching a team that has a pitcher who looks to be a sure-fire first-round pick in Matt Purke. The left-hander was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers out of high school in 2009, but did not sign, instead enrolling at TCU later that summer.

“I get to enjoy sitting back and knowing I won’t screw Matt up,” said Vitello. “Matt’s going to be the first pick overall, he’s a special one.”

Vitello said scouts haven’t been able to really get a good look at Purke, but he has a solution for them.

“All I tell him is ‘see Kyle Gibson,” said Vitello. That’s the type of kid you’re getting, and that’s obviously a huge compliment to Matt.”

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