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How to never lose: John Gant and baseball’s pantheon of weirdness

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Both skill and serendipity have paved the way for the righty’s undefeated season

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As a blogger, John Gant is one of my favorite pitchers. From his initial reputation as the guy with the weird double toe tap delivery, as his Cardinals tenure grows so too does the lore surrounding the mythical being. He is the only player in MLB history to homer twice but never reach base in any other manner. I broke math trying to replicate the feat.

As we speak, he stands on the doorstep of once again etching his name into the annals of baseball novelty. Gant’s win-loss record in 2019 stands at a perfect 10-0, matching Howie Krist’s 1941 campaign for both the all-time Cardinals and National League marks for most wins without a loss.

Plain and simple, the win is dumb. Few stats as trivial and arbitrary in assessing a pitcher’s performance have historically received as much credence. In 1945, a human named Lee Pfund was somehow awarded a win despite surrendering 10 runs over 5 innings of work. On the other hand, pitchers completing no-hitters have suffered losses.

This stat is so stupid and random that it makes Gant’s feat impressive.

Of the 21 players (excluding Gant, as his undefeated season is still a work-in-progress, of course) with at least a 7-0 record in a single season and complete Baseball Reference Play Index data, I perused their final stat lines in search of trends among those who never lost.

Be a reliever...

Just 3 of the 21 hurlers started more than 12.1% of their games. While starting generally entails partaking in fewer games–thus fewer chances at losses–it also increases the risk of acquiring a loss in a particular game since one bad night by the starter has a disproportionate effect on the overall team win probability. Ironically enough, though, the three non-Gant pitchers to go 10-0 or better all started at least once in their wonder-run

...but don’t be a closer

A common thread through all of these tidbits is being in the right place at the right time in order to minimize the risk of losing. Joe Nathan is the only pitcher in our sample who collected more than 18 saves in his moment of glory with the average being 3.9. This intuitively makes sense: pitching in close games drastically increases the odds of ending up in the loss column if even the slightest minutiae goes awry. Subsequently, Nathan also holds the highest average leverage index of any pitcher on the list.

Strikeouts are crucial

The average strikeout rate on the list is 18.9%, which may not seem to be much in 2019 terms, but is considerably above average for most of baseball history. (Their 8.9% average walk rate is surprisingly high for a group of primarily above-average pitchers.) It goes without saying that strikeouts are the only way to almost entirely ensure that no runners advance, and limiting traffic on the base paths is a vital step towards preventing a blow-up inning that spirals into a loss.

Go figure that Gant is in the midst of bucking this trend too. The league average K% is 22.8% this year to his 21.4%.

Be lucky

The average ERA of these pitchers? 2.75.

The average FIP of these pitchers? 3.46, for a whopping 71 point gap.

Across modern baseball, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) hovered anywhere from around .280 to .300 depending on the specific era. Our group, however, posted a collective .253 BABIP. When bat did meet ball, they were fortunate enough to dodge the bloop hits that, at one point or another, doomed every other one of their peers.

There is no explaining the baseball gods. There is no explaining John Gant.