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John Gant: Relief Ace?

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Gant has had particularly good results so far, but how real is his improvement?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest mysteries in baseball is building a good bullpen. Stats have improved, front offices are smarter, and the tools are there, but it just doesn’t matter. Small samples, talent changes, injuries can ruin even the best planned bullpens. Cardinals fans should know this. I feel like the Cards have had a few straight years where they were “good on paper” and the bullpens somehow become mediocre or worse like a month into the season. Ironically, I wasn’t really that confident in this particular bullpen. Go figure. (Certainly less confident than in past years)

Now, the calendar just turned to May so it is far too early to make bold proclamations about the improvement of the bullpen, but well the players have made it hard. The Cardinals have two players with at least 18 innings pitched and an ERA under 1.00, plus Jordan Hicks, plus a man who has struck out 42.9% of the batters he has faced and no you are not reading that wrong. None of these people are Andrew Miller, Alex Reyes, or Carlos Martinez either. You got to feel pretty good about the bullpen.

The biggest surprise is probably John Gant. Nobody expected John Brebbia to have a 0.49 ERA in May, but nobody is exactly surprised that Brebbia is pitching well. He’s also not really doing anything differently from the past two seasons. Giovanny Gallegos, the man with the 42.9% K rate, is also not that surprising if you’re paying attention. ZiPS, the projection system, LOVES him and thought he was our best reliever going into the season besides Miller. Hicks, well, we all know about him.

Gant though, Gant is surprising. Gant arrived to the Cardinals in the Jaime Garcia trade before the 2017 season. The Cardinals received three players for Garcia, including Gant, and Gant’s really the only one left who can make any difference. Garcia played for three teams in 2017 en route to a 1.9 fWAR season. He hit free agency, signed a one-year deal, injuries caught up with him, and he retired earlier this year at just 32. (Not relevant to the article, just thought Cards fans would want to know about his post-Cardinal career)

Gant had a promising rookie season with the Braves, but was very bad for the Cardinals in 2017, striking out 11 and walking 10 in 17 innings. Last year, the Cardinals relied heavily on him with all the injuries to the rotation and he stepped up to the plate (or rather, the mound) with a 3.67 ERA in 114 innings. His advanced stats were not so kind, which is partially the reason he moved to the bullpen this year.

The problem with Gant the starter isn’t necessarily that he’s an undesirable option, he’s just not quite good enough to commit to as one of your starting five, and since he was out of options, the Cardinals would have been forced to do just that. He also struck out too few, walked too many, and wasn’t really a groundball pitcher. You need to do at least one of those things to stay successful long-term.

So he moved to the bullpen and at first, I was getting worried he wasn’t getting much of a benefit to moving to the bullpen. That may sound moronic given he’s had a low ERA all year, but the bullpen version of Gant started out as essentially the starter version of Gant, just with incredible BABIP luck. He walked at least one batter in seven of his first nine games and he didn’t really make up for it with strikeouts. Here are his first nine appearances in 2019:

11.2 IP, 9 Ks, 7 BBs, ER, HR, 3 Hs, .083 BABIP, 52 GB%, 100 LOB%

You think the .083 BABIP had anything to do with his 0.77 ERA? I think it might have. His ERA was obviously golden, but his FIP was 4.48 and his xFIP was 4.81. His xFIP last year, which gives you a pitcher’s stats if they allowed a league average amount of homers for every flyball they allowed, was 4.66. Like I said, I didn’t see a big difference in his performance as a starter, which worried me because he was being used in pretty high leverage situations and Gant the reliever with the same stats as Gant the starter is not all that great.

But after those first nine appearances, something may have clicked. Maybe he need a few innings to shake the rust off, maybe he has a better rhythm, maybe he’s just controlling his pitches better, whatever it is, he’s been a different pitcher since he last walked a batter. That’s right, his last walk was on April 14. He stopped being a smoke and mirrors pitcher (statistically anyway; you’d have no idea how good his stuff was if you look at his stats) and starting becoming a dominant reliever. His last 7 appearances:

8.1 IP, 10 Ks, ER, HR, 3 H, 23.5 GB%, .125 BABIP, 100 LOB%

Okay so yeah the left on base percentage is not going to be 100% all year and no his BABIP is not going to stay this low either. His ERA/FIP/xFIP in his last seven appearances is 1.08/2.27/2.73. Someone with an FIP and xFIP in the 2s is a lot more likely to remain good than a pitcher with an FIP and an xFIP in the late 4.00s.

Last year, Gant threw four pitches: fastball, slider, change, and curveball. His fastball was his only above average pitch, being +1.12 runs above average for every 100 pitches. His change and slider were barely below average and his curve was his worst pitch. There are not as many changes to his arsenal of pitches as last year, but the differences are important. He’s throwing his fastball 95.8 mph this year compared to 93.8 last year. That’s nothing compared to his slider though. His slider averaged 83.9 mph last year and it averages 89.26 mph this year. That.. is a remarkable difference. Let’s compare his 2018 and 2019 directly.

His fastball remains unchanged, but two miles faster. He either gears up and throws a particularly good fastball that gets called a sinker, or throws an actual sinker with zero decline in velocity. His change looks unaffected, but his slider is both over 5 miles per hour faster AND has significantly more movement and his curve appears to have more movement as well. So if it looks like Gant has better stuff than last year, it’s because he absolutely does.

Last point, but are you wondering why he’s been so much more effective in his last 7 appearances? See if you notice the difference.

Everything is faster. He gained about a mile on every pitch he throws. Every pitch also seems to have just a bit more movement as well. The fact that he’s able to do that while also having enough control to not walk anyone since April 15 is pretty incredible.

Gant may have needed some time to adjust to having faster pitches with more movement - hence control issues that led to 7 walks in his first 11.2 innings - but he was still hard to hit and now appears to be an even better pitcher than we might have imagined. One only need to watch him pitch to understand how ridiculous his stuff has been. If he can keep it up, I expect his season numbers to only improve and I obviously mean advanced stats because he cannot really improve on his ERA.

John Gant, relief ace, sounds good to me.