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John Gant is Different in 2020

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It’s working so far. Will it continue?

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last week, I took a look at Adam Wainwright’s ever-evolving curveball using Brooks Baseball data. I noted that his curveball was getting more vertical break and a little less horizontal than he had in recent years. He’s made two more starts since and his vertical break has been even more pronounced- the most of his career- but he’s recovering some of his horizontal break. Today, I want to look at another pitcher who looks different this season- John Gant. He spent most of 2019 pitching very effectively out of the bullpen in high leverage, but sputtered hard at the end of the season. His walk rate spiked, his overall effectiveness tanked, and he ceased being worthy of high leverage spots. In 2020, he’s been one of the Cardinals’ best relievers so far, but he doesn’t look like the same pitcher.

His velocity slipped so badly early on this season that I used him as the poster boy in the hero image for my article about velocity changes after five games. That’s a trend that has continued throughout, across all of his pitches. Here are his velocities for his repertoire. First, the hard stuff- his four-seamer and sinker. Note that he did not throw a sinker, at least according to Brooks Baseball, before 2018:

Both his fastball and sinker have lost over 2 miles per hour this season. Admittedly, we’re talking about just 12 fastballs and 46 sinkers thus far, but that’s still noteworthy. On one hand, he’s right in line with his 2016-2018 numbers. On the other hand, he was starting frequently in those seasons. Pitchers typically see a velocity spike when moving to the bullpen, and that’s what happened to Gant last season. This season, it’s back down.

Here’s his velocity for his breaking pitches. I’ve omitted his slider, which may or may not even exist. He only threw one slider all last year according to Brooks Baseball and Statcast doesn’t think he even threw that.

It’s the same story here. It’s not automatically a bad thing to lose some velocity on a curveball or changeup, but it mirrors his drop in velocity on his other pitches. Brooks doesn’t show a cutter this year, while Statcast shows 14. Either way, it tells the same story- a velocity drop. In that case, it’s a whopping 5.5 mph drop. His cutter, or slider, or whatever it is that he’s throwing, is different.

Spin is a little bit different. His curveball has lost about 100 RPM, his cutter has gained 100 RPM, his four-seamer is spinning a little less, and his sinker is almost exactly the same. Now I’m going to introduce something called Bauer Units. Named by Driveline, Bauer Units are simply spin in RPM divided by velocity. They exist because spin is tightly correlated with velocity. A 100 mph pitch will almost certainly have a higher RPM than a 90 mph pitch. Bauer Units are a way to normalize spin across velocities. Here’s how Gant’s Bauer Units have changed by pitch.

John Gant: 2019 v. 2020 Bauer Units

Pitch 2019 BU 2020 BU Diff
Pitch 2019 BU 2020 BU Diff
Changeup 18.16 18.86 0.70
Curve 34.41 33.57 -0.84
Cutter 29.30 32.41 3.11
Four Seamer 26.28 26.64 0.36
Sinker 25.74 26.39 0.65

He’s producing much higher spin on his cutter... or whatever it is that he’s throwing that Brooks thinks is something else... despite a massive velocity drop on the pitch. His curve has decreased a little, and the rest of his repertoire (other than the cutter) is up a little. Other than the cutter, his 2020 Bauer Units on his other pitches are quite close to where they were in 2018. Unfortunately, Gant hasn’t reached 50 instances of any one pitch so he doesn’t show up in the Active Spin leaderboard yet, but I suspect he has improved his active spin across the board.

With diminished velocity and without a significant spin adjustment in most cases, you’d expect Gant to be getting hammered. Instead, his whiff% and putaway% are way up on every pitch. His K% is way up, his BB% is way down, and the next homerun he yields will be his first of the season. For good measure, his groundball percentage is all the way up to 70.6%. Obviously these are small samples- he’s only thrown 8.1 innings this year- but those are amazing results. It’s as if he traded velocity for devil magic. What on earth is going on here?

For starters, he’s only given up “solid contact” per Statcast twice so far. No hitter has barreled him up yet. Per Fangraphs, his 5.9% of line drives allowed is fourth lowest among relievers. When hitters put the ball in the air on him, his average exit velocity allowed is 89.4, which is 371st lowest out of 598 in the search. Oh, and that’s based on three flyballs. Hitters to date haven’t gotten any lift on him, and the ones that do haven’t done so with much authority.

In general, he’s missing the barrel of the bat, and he’s locating very well. Because of that combination, even when hitters have managed to hit him hard, it hasn’t been to much effect. Here’s an example against Nick Castellanos. This little sinker has just enough wiggle that it keeps Castellanos from doing much with it, even at a 98.2 exit velocity:

It’s worth noting that one potential driver for this is that he’s getting up on top of his pitches more. His vertical release point is the highest it’s been:

Add it all up and he’s a different pitcher this year, at least so far. Whether or not he can continue to get away with less velocity is yet to be seen, but missing barrels and locating extremely well are a good starting place.