By Andrew Johnson

COMSTOCK PARK – West Michigan Whitecaps outfielder Cam Gibson may only be 56 games into the 2017 season, but he’s already proving he’s ready to put last season behind him.

Gibson spent 2016 with the Whitecaps and finished with a .221 batting average, a .302 on-base percentage and a total of six home runs.

Those numbers were a big reason why he was assigned to come back to West Michigan this season, instead of being promoted to Lakeland, the next step up in the Detroit Tigers’ minor league system.

But this year, Gibson is batting 258 with a .332 on base percentage, and already has nine home runs, eclipsing his 2016 total less than halfway into the season.

His increasing production has been one of many factors in the Whitecaps’ incredible start. They are currently 38-18 and in first place in the Midwest League’s Eastern Division, two games ahead of Dayton.

West Michigan will open a three-game home series on Tuesday at 11 a.m. against the Great Lakes Loons.

Cam Gibson rounds third base during a game against the South Bend Cubs on April 9. Photo/Tim Reilly

Gibson’s latest home run came on Sunday against the rival Lansing Lugnuts at Fifth Third Ballpark. He hit the solo blast to left-center field in the seventh inning, giving the Whitecaps a temporary 6-5 lead.

Lansing came back and won in the bottom of the ninth, but Gibson’s increasing power production was noticed.

“I think this year has gone well,” Gibson said in a recent interview with “I think I’ve executed fairly well, and I wouldn’t be able to do that without Hessman (Whitecaps hitting coach Mike Hessman) and Rabelo (Whitecaps manager Mike Rabelo).

“I’ve just been trying to do a little less than last year, when I tried to go get balls out of the zone early in the count. This year I’ve been a little smarter about that by allowing the game to come to me, rather than trying to go get it.”

Hessman said Gibson has become what a team needs in a top-of-the-lineup hitter. He usually hits second in the Whitecaps’ batting order.

“This is my first year with him,” Hessman said. “I really enjoy his approach and game plan. He sets the table for our lineup by getting on base and making things happen. He’s being patient this year and taking his walks.”

Rabelo said Gibson’s potential, particularly as a power hitter, is become more obvious all the time.

“He’s starting to piece together more and more quality at bats,” Rabelo said. “It’s starting to show. The power has always been there. I’ve seen him hit balls a mile.”

Gibson’s increasing patience at the plate has made a big difference. This season his strikeout rate is 18.4 percent (40 times in 217 at-bats) compared to 2016 when his K rate was 27.9 percent (110 times in 394 at-bats).

Ironically, he’s hitting more home runs when he’s not trying to hit them.

“You can see the difference,” said Gibson, who worked on that part of his hitting in the offseason with his father, former Major League star Kirk Gibson. “Even when I’m hitting home runs I’m not trying to. That was the biggest thing last year. I would try to hit home runs and I’d hit a pop fly.

“This year, when I’m in the middle of an at-bat, I’ll sometimes think I tried too hard on that last pitch, and I’ll make sure to keep my swing quiet and fluent.”