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John Gant’s Descent into Despair

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A quixotic quest to document an odd record

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

You might not know it, but a Cardinal batter tied an all-time major league record last night. It wasn’t Matt Carpenter. It wasn’t Marcell Ozuna either. If you’ll look closely, in fact, you’ll notice that I said ‘batter’ instead of ‘hitter.’ The person I’m talking about can’t properly be called a hitter. John Gant tied a record last night, though you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying close attention. With a groundout in the second inning, he joined an incredibly anonymous list of four players who have recorded more at-bats than anyone else in baseball with an on-base percentage of zero. That’s right- John Gant has never gotten on base in his major league career. Honestly, that’s pretty stunning. When I stumbled across it, I thought I was reading things wrong. Here’s the Play Index leaderboard, though, in all its glory (not updated for last night’s one at-bat):

As soon as I saw this, I was hooked. I hadn’t heard anything about it in the games I’d seen him pitch this year, but I wasn’t exactly looking for it. I had to know more. What follows is an examination of John Gant’s 26 at-bats without a hit or walk. You want some hard-hitting baseball analysis? That’s not this article. That’s this website, for sure- but yeah, again, not this particular article. Do you want some gifs of pitchers swinging and missing, or running to first base comically, though? Step right on down.

The Promise

John Gant was once an eight-year-old boy, so it’s a sure bet that he dreamed of hitting a home run in the majors, or maybe lacing a double into the gap. He surely also dreamed of striking out a batter. Like few people in the entire world, he was getting a chance to live his dream. He’d handled the strikeout part of it months ago, getting WIlson Ramos in his major league debut. This is neither here nor there, but the starter for the Braves that day? Bud Norris. Maybe he was imparting some veteran wisdom on young Gant.

As he walks up for his first career at-bat, Gant is already presented with a runner in scoring position. Oh man, he’s probably thinking. I’ll drive in my first run, get my first base knock, take the lead- this is how I drew it up when I was a kid. The Cubs announcers give a half-hearted scouting report as Gant steps in. “He’s oh for eight in the minors with a walk, so… maybe he’s got a good eye?” It’s a 1-1 count without much fanfare, but Gant’s take looks comfortable. Maybe he does have a good eye! Then comes the third pitch.

Hey, no shame in that. That’s Jon Lester out there. That guy he grounded out to? Anthony Rizzo! Playing in the major leagues is awesome. There will be more opportunities for a hit. The next opportunity didn’t come this day, though. Gant got shelled, lasting only 4 ⅓ innings as the Cubs won in a laugher, 13-2. Wait for next time, kid.

Next time came faster than expected. After two fruitless at-bats against the Mets, he stepped up to the plate against Adam Conley of the Marlins for his fourth at-bat. Yet again, there’s a runner in scoring position. Adam Conley is a pretty bad pitcher. Here’s a chance for Gant to help himself out. None of this taking pitches nonsense- he’s going up there swinging this time. The pitch is a cookie, too, an 89mph four-seamer belt-high. Gant thinks he’s late on it and it’s tailing out of play, but it’s actually pretty solid contact. Hey, that could be fair! It could drop! Set the bat down and start running!

Hey, yet again, no shame in that. Ichiro is one of the best defensive outfielders of his era, and he was still comfortably above average by advanced metrics in 2016. That’s a smooth play, too- sure it’s foul, but that ball lands fair and eludes a right fielder plenty of the time. Ichiro just made it look routine because that’s what he does. Baseball Savant lists balls hit at that angle and velocity as landing for a hit 77% of the time. Hard to do it much better than that. Sadly enough, there wouldn’t be another chance to get a hit off of Conley, as Gant went 5 ⅔ innings in a 3-0 loss. Great swing, though. Great knock. How long could it possibly take to get a hit?

Five days later, it’s probably starting to be a little frustrating. Here’s another big spot, runner on second again. Gant digs in, probably thinking to himself ‘this one I’ve got.’ Trevor Bauer eases up a little, hitting 93 but leaving it center cut. Here it is. Ground ball to the outfield scores the runner.

Man! That was a nice hit. Squared it up, hit it hard. Sometimes baseball is unfair and the fielders are just where you hit it. Ten feet right, that’s a ribbie. Thirty feet to the left, it’s a groundball single to center. Stupid Jason Kipnis. Stupid baseball. It’s okay, though. These are good cuts! If Gant can just keep hitting the ball like this every five days, he’ll break through soon enough. Oh for five to start his career. That’s totally fine. Babe Ruth had 0-5 GAMES. Gant will be fine. Get ‘em next time.

The Wilderness

Dagnabbit. Gant hurt himself in the Indians game. Straight to the DL, do not pass go, do not collect an at-bat every five days. His next at-bat came in September, and at this point you can tell it’s getting to him. Still, though, he had one shot left in 2016 to get that first hit. At this point, the Braves announcers know it. When he steps in against Bartolo Colon, they mention right away that he’s looking for his first hit. After a Colon fastball on the outside corner, things inadvertently get grim. “Well, he’s never gonna get anything better to hit than he’s gonna get tonight,” one of the announcers proclaims. Potentially true, but Gant seems to be feeling the pressure. This isn’t the kind of swing you take if you’re not feeling pressure.

Let’s not mince words. That was ugly. Pitchers can’t hit! My goodness, though. That’s a pressure-filled swing. Seven at-bats into his career, John Gant had no hits. That swing and miss against Colon was the last swing Gant ever took as a Brave. If you have to go out, that’s not a great way. Still, though. Oh for seven. That could easily get lost in the shuffle. Pitchers go seven at-bats without a hit all the time. Nothing to worry about, John. You’ll get yours.

The drought lasts longer than you’d think. Gant was traded for Jaime Garcia in the offseason, and the 2017 Cardinals didn’t have a lot of need for extra starting pitchers. Gant only accrued three at-bats in 2017. The announcers don’t seem to know that anything is amiss. For the entirety of this September at-bat, in fact, they’re talking about Skyline Chili. That wouldn’t be weird in Cincinnati, but the game is in Pittsburgh. Still, it’s probably more interesting than the actual at-bat.

If there’s anything notable about that, it’s Gant’s effort level. Out of the box, he’s going at about an eleven out of ten. “Infield single is still a hit,” he’s probably thinking, and you can see it in the way he goes from dejected to hustling so quickly. By the time he hits first base, he’s back to a pitcher-appropriate jog. Major league infielders are good! They never drop those! Still, though, that’s a pretty decent tell that Gant wants that first hit badly. Ten at-bats into his major league career, John Gant didn’t have a hit. He obviously knows it- you don’t spend your whole life in baseball and then not notice you don’t have a hit. The team and the announcers don’t seem that tuned into it, though. Aside from a brief mention from the Braves announcers that Gant was looking for his first hit on the year, it hasn’t come up at all. Teammates don’t even seem to notice.

To start 2018, Gant is in the bullpen. Still, though, this is the Matheny-led Cardinals. Relievers get chances to bat more often than you’d think. In the 12th inning of a contest against the Mets, Gant comes to the plate. For the first time, the Cardinal announcers mention his ongoing oh-fer. “Oh for ten in the majors,” Al leads. “Six for thirty-three in the minors, though!” That’s optimism, right there. With two out and no one on, Gant has seemingly decided not to swing until there are two strikes. That’s good thinking. The two strike pitch goes about how you’d think:

This is a low-stress situation. No one’s expecting anything from Gant here, and you can see it in his effort level out of the box. This isn’t a hit the team needs, and he never even gets up to full speed as he runs it out. Still, though, it mostly looks like he knows what he’s doing. He also made Paul Sewald throw five pitches, which doesn’t count for much but counts for something. It’s the deepest he’s gotten into a count in his major league career. I wasn’t very good at baseball as a kid, but in Little League I absolutely cared how far I got into the count. It’s the moral victories, you know?

Are You Kidding Me?

Even on the Cardinals, a reliever doesn’t get many opportunities to come to the plate. It was looking like another long season of hoping for at-bat scraps. Then, opportunity! Due to a roster crunch and an Adam Wainwright DL stint, Gant got an opportunity to join the rotation. You know what that means- at-bats galore! Well, assuming he could get a little deeper into games than he had with the Braves. During his next at-bat against the Twins, Kurt Warner is in the booth. They barely discuss Gant, and I totally understand it. It’s a forgettable at-bat by a pitcher while a bona fide St. Louis hero is in the booth. Gant’s name gets mentioned, once, when he steps into the box. After that, it’s back to Warner talking about how great St. Louis has been to him. Gant strikes out, by the way. He looks absolutely foolish.

The game rolls on. Kurt Warner was wearing a Cardinals jersey- a St. Louis Cardinals jersey, not one of those Arizona knockoffs. I got goosebumps.

After a brief trip back to the bullpen when Wainwright takes another turn (Gant bats late in a blowout and grounds out to no fanfare), he makes a second start. For the first time as a Cardinal, he gets to bat twice in a game. It’s all happening. The first at-bat is a routine grounder to short. The second- well, I won’t spoil it:

The announcers haven’t noticed that anything is up. They spend his first at-bat talking about Kolten Wong and his second talking about the Cardinals squandering too many opportunities. After a pitch that caught the inside corner of the plate, they show how little they know about John Gant. “If John Gant is going to hurt you, it would be on a pitch like that, one that sneaks into his swing inside.” I respectfully disagree. Gant’s strikeout is what I now recognize as classic Gant form. Swing late at something off-speed away, ruefully toss the bat from one hand to another as you walk off. “Aw, shucks,” he seems to be saying. “Got me with the breaking ball again. How do hitters do this?” It results in a beautiful composition of players, at the very least:

After another month without a start (stupid Cardinals and their stupid neverending string of pitching prospects to take Gant’s at-bats), we finally arrive at a three at-bat game. This seems like a great time to get a hit- Mike Clevinger is eminently hittable, and three at-bats is so many! Alas, Gant walked away with nothing but an oh-fer. On the bright side, here’s a wonderful gif of Gant kicking it into high gear when he realizes his grounder got through Clevinger’s legs:

He was out by three steps- the ball went right to Jason Kipnis. Kipnis again! Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. When he bats in the sixth, it’s his 19th at-bat. This is getting to real hitless streak territory. The announcers aren’t paying attention, though. They’re too busy defending Matheny for letting Gant hit (runner on second, two outs, up by three) to have time to discuss the at-bat, which ends quickly on a grounder to the pitcher.

Time To Try Hard

The next week, the announcers start to notice. As Gant steps to the plate in the bottom of the third against former teammate Mike Foltynewicz, they spring into action. “Gant, 0-9 on the season,” they proclaim. That’s not too interesting, though- they don’t seem to know the bigger picture. The at-bat against Foltynewicz goes about like you’d expect, a swinging strikeout. No bat toss, this time, though. Gant just places the bat into his off hand. He’s not even surprised anymore. How do people hit this stuff? Good news, though- he strikes out Foltynewicz in the top of the fifth, getting a measure of revenge. By the fifth, the announcers have moved on from Gant’s hitting struggles. “You think they have any otters out there?” one muses as the camera shows some paddleboats. “No,” comes the quick reply. Glad that’s settled. Just as they move away from talking about baseball, though, John Gant has a surprise for them. He’s still hungry to get a hit. He’s got a lovely little bat toss when he gets into the ball, and really makes pretty solid contact.

I mean, c’mon, that’s not even fair. The outfielders are always right there! Again according to Baseball Savant, that’s a hit 66% of the time. I’m not a body language expert, but Foltynewicz seems pretty relieved. Pretty sure he’d be getting a text from Gant if that one landed.

After another game without comment by the announcers about Gant’s growing streak (two at-bats, a pop-out and a groundout to short), it’s becoming evident to me that the only two people who care about this streak are John Gant (presumably) and me. Still, though, we’re almost there. Four more at-bats without a hit, and he’ll be the sole record holder. Want an idea of how not to get a hit? Well, here’s a pitch you probably shouldn’t swing at:

Gant’s next start is the second game of a double-header, and a national broadcast game. The announcers even mention his career batting line. “0-23 for his career is Gant- only five strikeouts though!” says Joe Davis. Now that is what I call glass half full. The Cubs seem to understand that Gant isn’t going to be swinging- either that or Anthony Rizzo just wants an autograph:

As the at-bat continues, though, Tom Verducci injects a little realism. “He just does not look comfortable out there. Kids, close your eyes right now in terms of technique.” Why you’d watch John Gant for technique I don’t know, but I wholeheartedly agree. Faced with a charging Rizzo, Gant completely loses his form, ending in about the way you’d expect:

Get ‘em next time, John. Gant seems to have a fire lit under him by that at-bat, though. In the fifth, he gets his chance at revenge. The announcers are back to ignoring his poor batting line, instead discussing how baseball should change the shift. Comfortably ignored, Gant almost succeeds in a sneak attack infield single:

That’s the effort of a man with no hits to his name who desperately wants one. Addison Russell seems almost surprised as the camera pans to him- what is that guy doing out there?? Trying to get a hit, that’s what he’s doing. Was he out by more than a step despite a terrible throw from Russell? Indubitably. Still, though, you can’t knock the hustle.

Finally, with a chance to take the record for his own or erase his name from the record books, Gant took the mound last night against the Cubs. Six men came to bat in the first inning, which set up pretty well for him to get two at-bats. After an anticlimactic at-bat in the second (grounder to short, the announcers are talking about Yairo Munoz’s recent hot streak), we’re heading for a dramatic at-bat for all the marbles the next time he comes up. Then, disaster! Anthony Rizzo pops a home run to dead center in the second. The Cubs are generally seeing Gant pretty well, and Mike Shildt does the sabermetrically admirable thing and pulls Gant after only 62 pitches. He ends the game due up third in the fifth inning.

The next time John Gant bats, it’s going to be a big moment. He’s either going to get on base or set an all-time record. How likely is it that he’ll never get a hit or walk? I don’t know. I would have told you it wasn’t very likely for him to start his career out this way. Keeping this record would imply walking a weird path of being effective enough to pitch for a while, but not so effective that he gets a ton of at-bats. It’s certainly not impossible. When, if, Gant finally does get his first hit, the dugout will probably go absolutely nuts. The pitchers who are in there on their off days certainly know about Gant’s oh-fer. They’ve mocked him for it, for sure. They’ll be celebrating like crazy. Given how little attention the announcers have been paying to it, they might not understand why people are going crazy for a seeing-eye single. But you and I will know. It’ll be our little glimpse into the world of being a professional baseball player- endless frustration followed by a cathartic triumph.

One last thing. This stuff, things like this, are a huge part of what I love about baseball. The little gestures, the hidden details, the stuff you get from watching three hours a day of a children’s game played by adults a hundred and fifty times a year. Another thing that I love about baseball is the mathematical certainty, the beauty of the stats. It doesn’t have to be exclusive- you can love both. To paraphrase noted Cardinals fan and longtime writer for CBS Sports’ Eye On Baseball Dayn Perry, when someone asks me whether I like baseball for the stats or the stories, my answer is the same as it would be if someone asked me “Beer or tacos?” Both, you fool. Why construct an either-or scenario where none need exist. Thinking about building the Cardinals for the future is great. Don’t let it distract you from the small stories.