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Champ or Chump: Kyle Gibson & Eduardo Escobar

Most fantasy owners are searching for the latest toy from the minor leagues on their waiver wires, but sometimes it's better to invest in a player with a more extensive track record. For example, fantasy baseball experts have been touting Kyle Gibson's potential for years, and he appears to have finally figured something out in his age-30 season.

Likewise, Eduardo Escobar has gone from a draft day afterthought (ADP of 413.2 per FantasyPros) to a player owned in the vast majority of formats. Some early adopters might be tempted to "sell high," but you'll be hard-pressed to get anyone to give you more than Escobar will if you leave him be.

Spoiler alert: both players are Champs. Here's why.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Kyle Gibson (SP, MIN) - 28% Owned

Gibson has pitched to a solid 3.27 ERA this season, a figure that he nearly deserves (3.86 xFIP). His .248 BABIP against is probably unsustainable moving forward, but his repertoire is interesting enough to support more strikeouts and offset any regression.

Every fantasy pitcher is only as good as his repertoire, so let's begin with Gibson's five-pitch mix. His most-used offering is a sinker that handles its primary job of inducing ground balls with aplomb (57.9% GB%). It offers little in terms of strikeout potential (3.4% SwStr%) or zone presence (49.8% Zone%), meaning that Gibson is likely to remain walk-prone (10.6% BB% this season). Still, it's not terrible.

Next up is a straight 4-seamer. This is the pitch most responsible for Gibson's low BABIP to date, as it's been inducing a ton of harmless pop-ups (40% FB%, 40.9% IFFB%). Unfortunately, it's spin rate (2,218 RPM) isn't high enough to support that many pop-ups, and its career IFFB% is much lower (30%). It's never a strike (42.7% Zone%) and doesn't get many whiffs (5.2% SwStr%), so Gibson is probably right to favor his sinker.

It's a shame that neither fastball can consistently get Gibson ahead in the count because his off-speed stuff is excellent. His slider is his best pitch, offering an enticing 26.8% SwStr% and 41.4% chase rate to offset a 30.7% Zone%. It risks becoming predictable if Gibson turns to it every time he's ahead, but thankfully his change is nearly as good (18.4% SwStr%, 49.5% chase, 33.6% Zone%). His curve is a clear fifth pitch. It's solid by SwStr% (15.9%), but it isn't chased often enough (29.2%) to live outside of the zone (27.3% Zone%).

Gibson hasn't done anything dramatic to his pitch mix or velocity, so he's working with the same repertoire that has enticed fantasy owners for years. The primary difference is his BABIP, where he's currently besting his career marks on grounders (.165 vs. .222) and fly balls (.066 vs. .154). The fly ball BABIP is largely the result of the unsustainable pop-ups above, but it's worth noting that Minnesota's outfield defense is better than most (five Outs Above Average this season) even with Byron Buxton falling short of expectations (two OAA after leading baseball with 29 last year).

The Twins infield is more of a mixed bag. The 1B timeshare featuring Joe Mauer and Logan Morrison has combined for five Defensive Runs Saved, while Brian Dozier is above average at second with two. Eduardo Escobar is a scratch defender at third, but Miguel Sano was not (-4). When Escobar slides to short, he's a train wreck (-8 in 177 2/3 innings). Otherwise, Ehire Adrianza has been roughly average with the glove (one). Gibson himself has zero DRS this season, though he recorded five last year.

Overall, it seems safe to conclude that infield defense is not the reason for Gibson's low BABIP allowed on ground balls. An average exit velocity on ground balls of 84.9mph suggests that he doesn't possess any contact quality magic either. However, his two excellent wipeout pitches should provide a better K% than his current mark of 23.8% over the rest of the campaign. There is also a chance for Buxton to round back into 2017 defensive form, suppressing Gibson's BABIP on airborne balls even if his pop-ups dry up. Overall, a middle-of-the-pack fantasy team should roll the dice on Gibson's potential.

Verdict: Champ

Eduardo Escobar (3B/SS, MIN) - 84% Owned

Escobar has probably been the waiver find of the season for his current owners, slashing .305/.355/.586 with 12 bombs on the season. He's probably not a true talent .300 hitter, but he looks good for .280 with pop and a ton of R+RBI. That plays in fantasy.

Escobar's plate discipline isn't great, but it is sustainable. He chases way too many pitches outside of the zone (40.3% chase rate), but mitigates the damage by swinging often enough (53.6% Swing%) to end most PAs before seeing the minimum of three required to K. His 12.5% SwStr% is roughly average in this age of the strikeout, so his current 22.2% K% isn't likely to get much worse. In fact, he may be aggressive enough to bring it toward his 19.9% career average.

Escobar's .359 BABIP is higher than we should expect going forward (career .303), but he's better than the light-hitting utilityman he used to be. His LD% (26%) is way higher than his career norm (22.3%), explaining most of the difference between his current and career BABIPs. He's also been the beneficiary of fortuitous bounces on both ground balls (.278 vs. .246 career) and flies (.213 vs. .141 career).

That said, some of his gains in both areas look sustainable. His 83.6mph average exit velocity on ground balls is his highest in the Statcast Era (82.7mph last year, 82.8mph in 2016, 82.6mph in 2015), so his contact quality is a little better. Furthermore, his 55.6% Pull% on ground balls (60.7% career) means that Escobar is indifferent to the shift. He's hitting .366 against it (95 PAs) and .360 without it (89 PAs), so it literally makes no difference.

Gibson's airborne contact quality is also a Statcast Era high. His average airborne exit velocity of 92.2mph is much better than his marks from 2017 (90.7mph), 2016 (89.6mph), and 2015 (90.2mph). In addition, his rate of Brls/BBE (10.7%) is better than his previous marks (8.5%, 3.2%, 6.4%). His 13.2% HR/FB is only league average, and his contact quality supports it completely. Escobar hits a ton of fly balls (46.4% FB%) with a reasonable Pull% (20.9%), so he has the volume necessary to turn an average HR/FB into a fantasy-friendly HR total.

Using Baseball Savant's xStats, Escobar has deserved a .276 batting average and .542 slugging percentage based on his launch angles, exit velocities, and K%. The stat doesn't give him credit for his above average speed (27.7 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed), so it's safe to add a couple of infield hits to his projected average. That brings him over .280, making him a legitimate batting average asset even as slight regression is in order.

Escobar has been hitting third lately, giving him all of the R+RBI opportunities the Twins can provide him with. He also has 46 games at 3B and 20 at SS, qualifying at both in nearly all formats. His seven games at 2B last season may give him eligibility there as well, though it depends on your specific league's requirements.

Overall, there is no need to sell Escobar before the bottom falls out. He projects as a viable fantasy player for the rest of the season.

Verdict: Champ


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