John Gant was a pleasant surprise in 2020...until he wasn’t. The right-hander’s 2.22 first half ERA was a huge boost to the bullpen as he was routinely able to pitch more than one inning, and do it well. Gant had a decent season in 2018 while operating out of the rotation and bullpen as he finished the year with a 3.47 ERA. However, his FIP (4.07) and xFIP (4.66) were not encouraging. Despite this, Gant broke out in the first hal of last season. However, after the all star break, Gant was not the same pitcher. His ERA skyrocketed to 6.65 and due to this, Shildt did not trust him as much. As a result he tossed just 21 2⁄3 innings after tallying 44 2⁄3 in the first half. However, whether it was fatigue or something else that caused this decline, it appears likely that Gant is still a solid bullpen arm, capable of returning to his first half success, or at least to the high-2/low-3 ERA range. This is because the 27-year-old has some elite spin rates that make his pitches tougher to hit.
John Gant throws five pitches - a fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a changeup, and a curveball. We will look at his fastball first. The 4-seam heater used to be Gant’s preferred pitch as he threw it 57.2% of the time in 2016 when he was with the Braves. At the time, the pitch had a spin rate of 2345 rpm and allowed hitters recorded a .391 wOBA against it. After this season, he steadily decreased his usage of the pitch. His usage plummeted to 16.8% in 2018 before rising again to 24% in 2019. Last year, the pitch was notably improved as his spin rate of 2520 rpm helped him lower his wOBa against the pitch to just .231. The most notable change as a result of this increase in spin rate was a 3 1⁄2 mph jump from 92.4 mph in 2016 to 95.9 mph in 2019. Sure, some of this increase can be chalked up to him pitching out of the bullpen full time, but it 2016 nearly 2⁄3 of his appearances were out of the bullpen, and in 2017 he started just 2 of the 7 games he appeared in. It is also likely that the decreased usage of the pitch has helped it become more effective when he does throw it, but it is undeniable that the pitch has gotten better. His new found spin rate has helped his fastball “rise” 7% more than average and break a whopping 44% more than average. The “Pitching Ninja” Rob Friedman tweeted out a GIF of two fastballs thrown by John Gant early in the 2019 season and they are just plain nasty. You can watch below.
On the other end of the pitching spectrum, John Gant has one of the lowest spin rates on his changeup among pitchers who threw at least 100 changeups. He was 209th out of 233 pitchers in changup spin rate with 1509 rpm. This is by design. He throws a vulcan changeup which is a variation with a difficult grip as it is typically held deep in the hand (although Gant likes it in his fingers) and somewhat resembles a forkball. This reduces the amount of spin on the ball allowing it to be thrown slower and creating a diving effect, and occasionally some weird movements. Thus, for this pitch, a low spin rate is good, and Gant’s spin rate is among the lowest and it has pumped the brakes on his changeup. His average velocity on this pitch is 83.1 mph which is nearly 13 mph lower than his fastball. This is a significant change in speed, and more significant than most fastball/changeup combos in the MLB. Even though he allowed a modest .339 wOBA with the pitch, it could be considered unlucky as the xwOBA allowed was .309. Additionally, Gant generated an incredible whiff rate of 45.2%. To put that in perspective, consider Luis Castillo’s changeup, which some consider to be among the best (if not the best) in the league today. His whiff rate on the pitch was 48%; just a couple ticks above Gant. Another nasty changeup thrower is Mike Soroka and his changeup generated a whiff rate of 39.1%.
Gant has also experienced a progressive increase in spin rate of his other pitches. His sinker has increased from 2303 rpm in 2016 to 2466 rpm in 2019, and his curveball has gone from 2577 rpm to 2653 rpm. While his curveball was not as effective (.367 wOBA) last season, it generated just an 82.1 mph average exit velocity and drops 5.3 inches more than the average curveball which is 30th best in the MLB. His primary pitch, the sinker is thrown at an average of 95.8 mph which is a 3 1⁄2 mph increase since his rookie season in 2016, while his spin rate (2466 rpm) has also increased by over 100 rpm since the pitch became a part of his arsenal.
One of the surprises with Gant last season, besides the velocity jump, was the unveiling of a new pitch. He added a cutter in 2019 and experienced great success with the pitch. He threw it just over 11% of the time and held opposing hitters to just a .208 wOBA against the offering. Part of this success can once again be attributed to an elite spin rate. His cutter generated an average of 2643 rpm, good for 10th in the majors among pitchers to throw at least 100 cutters. This contributed to the pitch being difficult to square up as Gant did not allow a single extra base hit against his cutter while generating a solid 31% whiff rate.
John Gant really broke out last season, until he faded in the second half. In his dominant first half, he demonstrated that he has improved his pitching ability as his velocity and spin rates were all significantly higher than they had been in any previous season. It appears that his struggles in the second half of the season were simply due to fatigue, possibly due to this increased velocity. In 2020 he will have to prove that he has enough stamina to be effective over the course of the entire season, but with his increased velocity and near elite spin rate on five different offerings, he has the potential to be a force in the Cardinals bullpen this season.