Saturday marked the much-anticipated major-league debuts for two starting pitchers chosen in the 2009 draft, one whose arrival was long viewed as an inevitability, the other not a likelihood until several days ago. Nobody will confuse the Twins' Kyle Gibson or the Nationals' Taylor Jordan with blue-chippers like Gerrit Cole or Kevin Gausman, but both newcomers have reached the majors with reputations for pounding the strike zone, with decent repertoires elevated by their pitchability — the ability to change speeds and work the inside and outside of the plate rather than simply blowing the ball by hitters. Despite those parallels, their fates in each of their first games differed, largely due to the support of their teammates.
Gibson, a 25-year-old righty who stands 6-foot-6, is the more heralded of the two. The 22nd pick of the 2009 draft out of the University of Missouri cracked the Baseball America Top 100 prospects list three times, peaking at No. 34 prior to the 2011 season, and ranking 68th before this year. He figured to make the majors sometime in 2011, but elbow problems sidelined him and led to Tommy John surgery in September of that year. Returning to the mound on July 10, 2012 — an exceptionally short time following such surgery — he was kept on a short leash for the remainder of the year, throwing relief-length stints mostly as a starter.
Working without restrictions this year, Gibson put up a 3.01 ERA in 92 2/3 innings at Triple-A Rochester, with 7.7 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine, and allowed just four homers thanks in large part to a 58-percent groundball rate. The scouting book on him, via Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, is that he offers a 90-94 MPH fastball, working comfortably in the lower range but with the strength to add a bit of extra oomph when necessary. His slider is a plus pitch with which he misses bats, and his changeup flashes plus as well. "The pitchability forces the arsenal up, as he can work the fastball east/west and pitch backwards if the situation calls for it," Parks wrote, referring to his ability to use his breaking ball to set up his fastball.
Called up to replace the injured Mike Pelfrey on Saturday against the Royals, Gibson found quick success, needing just 12 pitches to complete his first inning. He retired Alex Gordon on a first-pitch fly ball and Alcides Escobar on a second-pitch groundout, and after allowing a single to Eric Hosmer, whiffed Billy Butler for his first major-league strikeout:
Gibson was quickly staked to a 5-0 first-inning lead by his teammates, who worked Kansas City starter Wade Davis for three walks and capitalized via Justin Morneau's two-run double, Trevor Plouffe's two-run homer, and Pedro Florimon's RBI single. Though he didn't have a 1-2-3 inning until his sixth and final frame, the only blemish on Gibson's afternoon was the two runs the Royals touched him for in the third via a quartet of singles and a Jarrod Dyson stolen base.
In all, Gibson threw 91 pitches: 54 four-seam fastballs (averaging 93.0 MPH and maxing out at 95.3 MPH according to BrooksBaseball.net), 16 sliders, 13 changeups, with the rest two-seamers and cutters. He netted 12 swings and misses, via which he struck out five. Of the eight hits he allowed, only two were doubles, and he didn't walk a single hitter.
It didn't hurt that he was facing the Royals, who came into the day ranked 11th in the league in scoring (3.92 runs per game) and on-base percentage (.311) and last in slugging percentage (.374), but he did what needed to be done to help the Twins, who won 6-2, lift their record to 36-41, half a game behind the contention-minded Royals for third place in the AL Central. With Pelfrey (6.11 ERA), Scott Diamond (5.40 ERA), Pedro Hernandez (5.54 ERA) and P.J. Walters (6.03 ERA) all scuffling, finding a home in the Twins' rotation for the remainder of the season shouldn't be too hard. Given that none of the Twins' starters this year are striking out more than five batters per nine, it's conceivable that Gibson is already the team's best starter, though he's more of a mid-rotation type than an ace in the making.
As for Jordan, the 6-3, 24-year-old righty was called up to fill a spot in the Nationals' rotation in place of Dan Haren, who went on the disabled list last weekend with "shoulder stiffness." A ninth-round pick out of Brevard Community College, he moved slowly through Washington's system; until this year, he hadn't pitched above A-ball, in part because, like Gibson, he missed parts of 2011 and 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Jordan came into the year ranked 13th among Washington's prospects by Baseball America, but wasn't even on the 40-man roster; though eligible for the Rule 5 draft, he was viewed as being far from major-league ready.
Jordan's stock shot up considerably this year with an eye-opening performance driven by much-improved command. In 15 appearances (14 starts) totaling 90 1/3 innings split between High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, he posted a minuscule 1.00 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts and 1.5 walks per nine, for an outstanding 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, not to mention just one homer allowed. Scouts view Jordan's 89-94 MPH fastball as a plus pitch, with natural sink; via the most recent scouting reports from Baseball Prospectus' Zach Mortimer, his slider is considered to be solid-average and his changeup average, with plus pitchability.
Jordan's debut against the Mets on Saturday afternoon started well. Though he walked David Wright and hit Marlon Byrd with a pitch with two outs in the first — extending his pitch count in the inning to 23 — he didn't give up a hit until Daniel Murphy singled with two outs in the third. The remainder of his day was a challenge due to sloppy defense by the Nationals, who played as though they had stayed out all night after Friday's late-inning comeback. Byrd reached on a fielding error by Ryan Zimmerman to lead off the fourth, and eventually came around to score on a John Buck single, though Jordan escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam allowing only that run.
Byrd reached again via a hot smash that produced another Zimmerman error in the fifth, with Ian Desmond's throwing error on the same play — an off-balance toss while attempting to catch Murphy advancing from second to third — compounding the problem; the throw caromed off Murphy, allowing him to score. Having thrown 39 pitches to get his last four outs, he was finally pulled in favor of Craig Stammen, who yielded a fly ball that scored Byrd to put the Nationals in a 3-1 hole; they eventually lost 5-1.
For the day, Jordan threw 84 piches: 56 four-seam fastballs (averaging 92.4 MPH and maxing out at 95.8 MPH according to BrooksBaseball.net), 16 changeups, five sliders, and the rest cutters and two-seamers. He got eight swings and misses, four of them on the change, but struck out just one while walking two and allowing five hits. He also collected a single in the fifth inning, though his failure to slide into second base on Denard Span's groundball led to a double play. Though short, Jordan's start wasn't bad by any stretch. He figures to stay in the rotation until at least the All-Star break, given that the Nationals now have additional concerns regarding Friday night's starter, Ross Detwiler, who experienced post-start back stiffness that could lead to his being scratched from his next start in favor of Ross Ohlendorf. How well he acquits himself and how much progress Haren makes will factor into whether the Nationals pursue rotation help as the July 31 trading deadline approaches, though given that they're just 40-40, 6 1/2 back in the NL East and five back in the wild-card chase, they're one bad losing streak away from winding up sellers at the deadline instead of buyers.