On a staff that features Andrew Miller, one wouldn’t be too surprised to hear of a reliever averaging 1.1 innings per appearance with an ERA of 0.82.
The surprise is understandable when one finds out that reliever is John Gant.
Gant’s makeup has never been terrible; he’s been a pitcher with above-average spin rates and some pretty solid movement for a while. He could never really figure it out as a starter.
Joe Schwarz of The Athletic wrote a piece on Gant’s repertoire at the beginning of April that showcased the potential he had. Our own Gabe Simonds highlighted the increased velocity Gant has seen this season, which might be the product of less energy conservation in a bullpen role.
The results have seen Gant accrue 0.4 fWAR in his 22 innings, a total that puts him in the top 45 relievers in the majors this season. Combined with the fact that there are 30 teams and some simple math, that makes Gant a top-two reliever on any staff to this point.
He isn’t just a top reliever—right now, he has the second-highest fWAR total of any Cardinal pitcher.
There are probably so many things to analyze when it comes to Gant’s rise through the ranks in a relief role.
Me? I just want to know what the hell he’s throwing.
A gif of Gant was making the rounds on Twitter and Reddit after the April 30 game in Washington. It was some pretty filthy movement from Gant on a fastball. Here’s a gif from r/baseball, posted by u/thatdudefred:
Let’s start with what we know for sure. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, Gant is tied for the 14th-most value off the fastball (wFB) of any major league pitcher in 2019. That’s a cumulative metric, so his innings are irrelevant, outside of determining sample size. In fact, that he’s ranked that highly on the cumulative list as a well-used reliever shows just how valuable he’s been.
Look at pitchers with at least 20 innings and Gant ranks first on fastball value scaled to 100 fastballs (wFB/C). It isn’t a matter of volume, he’s just thrown it really well.
Gant began working on a cutter in 2018 and really started implementing it this season, and it’s ranked first in terms of standardized pitch values as well. His curveball is third. The pitch Gant is possibly most known for, his Vulcan change, is his lowest-ranked pitch at 24th.
All of that really just confirms what that gif showed: Gant has been really effective across all of his pitches this season, and they feed off of each other.
But still, none of it explains that gif. That looked like a running fastball, right? Some sort of upper-90s two-seamer with some major arm-side zip.
Here’s the thing, though: Pitch-tracking sites say (for the most part) that Gant doesn’t throw a two-seam fastball. Never has.
Here’s an oh so high-tech screencap from the broadcast camera on one of the pitches thrown above:
I know, I know, it’s super grainy. We’re working with what we have, here. I include it to show the grip, mainly. You can see the outline of the seams just under Gant’s right-most finger, and he’s definitely not holding it like a four-seamer. His fingers are running along the seams.
I’m far from a pitch grip specialist, but you can also see a gap between them, like some cutter or sinker grips. That pitch running in on the right-hander is definitely not his cutter. It isn’t consistently dropping like a sinker.
Sure, there’s some debate about the real differences between a sinker and a two-seamer, the traditional difference being the horizontal movement versus the vertical movement. There’s even the Japanese, arm-side-prioritizing pitch called the shuuto. And Gant does have a sinker in his repertoire, according to both BrooksBaseball.net and the player stats pages of BaseballSavant.mlb.com.
On Baseball Savant’s search page, though, Gant is said to have not thrown a sinker at all the past two years. Mike Petriello explained on Twitter that this is because the player pages combine two-seamers and sinkers, while the search function allows for more granularity.
Is this confusing? I think it should be, honestly. Gant is confusing systems with this pitch.
It’s not that the system is faulty or that Statcast is doing a poor job; it’s an excellent tool. It’s just that the movement profile on whatever he’s throwing seems to sit somewhere in the middle.
In fact, the first pitch in that gif above was considered a two-seam fastball by Statcast. The second, the one with arguably much more snap to it, was called a four-seamer.
Here’s a sequence to Taylor Davis in Chicago. Three pitches, all considered two-seam fastballs:
He just keeps climbing the ladder. That last pitch hit 98. Do you know many pitchers who intentionally throw their sinker at 98 miles per hour above the zone?
The thing is, that very well could be Gant’s “sinker.” It might’ve just been misclassified this whole time. When it comes to vertical movement, Gant doesn’t get much drop on the pitch compared to a typical sinker, but is getting quite a bit of the arm-side movement:
It could be that it’s early, but Gant’s three main fastballs have a lot more separation between them, while still maintaining some proximity. Here’s his pitch movement for the 2017 season:
There’s a point where the four-seam, sinker and changeup all start to muddle together. There’s a bit of crossover in the 2019 version, but they’re generally maintaining a profile of their own.
His new cutter, which is definitely looking like a sharper version of his slider without the horizontal movement, seems like it might be doing as well as it is because of the consistency of his other three fastballs. Just enough movement to deviate from the general profile of the other three. That’s also making his curveball more effective, since it’s now really his only pitch that falls off the table entirely. But that’s a topic for another writer.
I really have no clue what Gant is throwing. It’s fast, it runs in on right-handers, it looks like it’s being snapped on a string.
Either way, it’s fun to watch. He’s making batters, and pitch tracking systems, look silly.