COLUMBIA — As far as baseball prospects go, Missouri’s Kyle Gibson is not surrounded so much by uncertainty as he is by intrigue. A sophomore, Gibson is already one of the nation’s top collegiate pitchers, an occasionally dominant force who has long been rumored to be a top selection in the 2009 MLB draft. In possession of nearly every quality professional scouts are looking for, the question mark most often tagged to him is both a blessing and a curse.
At 6:13 p.m. on a Monday, that label has lured Kyle Gibson through the first pair of sliding doors at the Columbia Wal-Mart on Nifong Boulevard. Hunger is a non-factor. Just minutes before, he had finished off a helping of chicken stir fry and a bowl of assorted fruit at the athletic dining hall, and now he’s here to restock his food supply before having supper – another one – with his girlfriend to celebrate their one-year anniversary. He already has a card game with his friends and four or five blueberry pancakes planned for afterward.
Now, however, Gibson is intently pushing a soon-to-be-filled shopping cart past a white-haired greeter in hopes of satisfying his “projectability,” the label that has followed him for years. He also hopes to put to rest the injury concerns that come with it.
Those unfamiliar with the term need not fret. “Projectability” isn’t even a real word; it’s a scouting term that roughly translates to how much bigger and better a player could get. According to scouts, Gibson has it. He practically oozes it.
Gibson knows this. He’s known it since he was a 6-foot-1, 128-pound soon-to-be sophomore at Greenfield Central High School in Indianapolis who had people trying to convince him to eat fruit and peanut butter smoothies. The label has not gone away. A year before he becomes draft eligible again in June 2009, the now 6-foot-5, 195 pound Gibson is still lanky. Oddly enough, that’s what has the scouts salivating.
In a March telephone interview, Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt summed up the consensus on Gibson by saying, “He’s a guy you can dream on a little bit.”
Scouts picture the slender right-hander adding 15-20 more pounds and, more importantly, 5 more mph to his already effective low 90s fastball.
The scouts aren’t the only ones dreaming. While MLB has been riddled with controversy over people trying to gain the upper hand with steroids, Gibson is banking on toaster strudels and popcorn shrimp to add a little extra zip to his fastball and to enhance his durability. Though he’ll be drafted highly whether he ever gains another pound or not, he stands to make more money than he would if he already weighed what most 6-foot-5 pitchers do. If Gibson were drafted today, he’d be the lightest collegiate right-hander taller than 6-foot-4 selected in the first round since 2003. Still, Gibson wouldn’t mind getting it over with.
“It’s probably one of the most frustrating things about the game that I’m experiencing right now,” Gibson said.
“It’s a good problem to have, I guess, because you don’t know how hard I’m going to throw or how big I’m going to get. But also at some point I’d like to just reach that.”
After arriving at Missouri in 2006 as a 170-pound freshman, making progress steadily — if slowly — is something Gibson says he can deal with, even if he is a bit annoyed by it.
“Nobody ever wants to reach their ceiling too early,” he said. “But at times it’s like people think I don’t try. It’s kind of frustrating.”
In fairness to the doubters, and without seeing him in action, it’s easy to wonder exactly how much effort Gibson is putting into all of this. After all, most people think they can just look at a piece of cake and gain a pound or two. In an odd twist of fate, Gibson is been cursed with a metabolism that works at something near light speed.
Add it all up, and this is why Gibson operates on a 4,500- to 6,000-calorie-per-day diet. It is why he burns through $80 in groceries faster than a family of four and eats three toaster strudels at a time. Because it’s all so hard to believe, this is why Gibson has agreed to bring a reporter with him to a Wal-Mart.
Dressed in a black Mizzou fleece, white Nike pants and shoes and a blue stiff-billed Cubs hat angled slightly upward on his head, no one recognizes one of Missouri’s best athletes as he embarks on his “Supermarket Sweep”-like quest. He begins at the back of the store, snagging both whole and chocolate milk in the process before weaving in and out of aisles to pick up yogurt, Doritos, shrimp popcorn and – his favorite – a plastic sack of 24 blueberry pancakes, which he explains will likely be gone in a couple of days. He emphasizes breakfast, after all. Moving at near-breakneck speed, his only real pause occurs in the meat section, where he swears the filets of beef have been moved around. He’s a big fan of fish, chicken and steak, and he actually tends to just eat more food than to eat poorly. Getting to 6,000 calories on Ding Dongs and Ho Hos is hard enough. Doing it with chicken and rice takes real effort.
“I wouldn’t say I eat extremely unhealthy, but I do have my fair share of bacon cheeseburgers and stuff like that when I can,” Gibson said, before admitting that his nutritionist told him he didn’t have to eat so healthy all the time.
Though he obviously believes it matters, Gibson said he isn’t sure how much his weight will affect his draft stock but admits that it occasionally crosses his mind.
“I think of that every now and then, but normally I don’t like to think too much in the future,” he said while standing in the cereal aisle. “I’m a kind of guy who — I don’t plan my day out too much. I just kind of go by the spur of the moment.
“Trips like these to the grocery store are what I need to be worrying about right now.”
In a March telephone interview, Baseball Prospectus contributor Will Carroll expressed a similar line of thought.
“So many people are concerned with what Kyle isn’t, they forget about what he is,” Carroll said of Gibson, who is 9-2 this season with two saves and a 3.40 ERA. “Would it help him to gain some weight? Sure. Is it life or death? No.”
Ultimately, if Gibson continues to pitch well, there is little doubt that he’ll be selected early in the first round of the 2009 draft. Carroll said he could have been taken in the first round of the 2006 draft if teams hadn’t been concerned about not being able to sign him away from his commitment to MU, but instead he fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 36th round.
Even with someone tagging along, the entire trip to Wal-Mart takes only 15 minutes. Still, in that time he’s filled his cart and has $73.50 worth of food to show for it. Part of the bounty will last a week, part of it won’t, but now he’s got to get going. He’s got to get to supper.