Yesterday afternoon was a dark one for the Cardinals. The pitching just wasn’t very good, the Reds brought their hitting shoes, and the end result was a 10-5 loss that dropped the Cards back to the .500 mark. Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the weary in sight, as the Cards play five games over the next three days against the Brewers. If this stretch doesn’t break this team, nothing will, one would have to think.
The worst part of yesterday’s loss, though, wasn’t the result. It was watching John Gant walk off the mound, rather gingerly, with what the club has termed right groin discomfort. He is currently listed as day to day, but as someone who has had a groin pull before, I feel like that’s a prognosis just asking for problems. A groin acts a whole lot like a hamstring when it’s injured, in my experience at least, in that both muscles are just waiting for the chance to tear the rest of the way when you work them too hard. Maybe other muscles do the same thing and just aren’t as easy to push too far, but I’ve never pulled any other muscle that seemed so prone to being reinjured as a hammy or a groin.
Maybe this really is just a minor tweak, and Gant won’t have to actually hit the injured list. Maybe he’ll miss a handful of games, then be back on the mound in barely a week, not even missing a beat. Like I said, though, I wouldn’t bet on it, if only because I feel like a groin is not only an easy muscle to injure pitching, but it’s also one that is extremely difficult to protect when pushing off. If a pitcher is leery of the groin muscle on his drive leg, he’s not going to be able to push off as aggressively as he usually does when trying to deliver the ball. It seems like a recipe for either reinjury or ineffective pitching to me.
If we assume that Gant is going to miss substantial time, or that he is going to suffer in trying to protect himself while still pitching, we have to consider a rather grim reality: this might be the player the Cardinals could least afford to lose right now.
In this bizarre slog of a season, it’s maybe fitting to see the Cardinals’ two best relievers go down mere days apart due to the exact same injury. What would 2020 be without weird shit happening constantly, after all? Giovanny Gallegos hit the IL less than a week ago with a strained groin; if it weren’t for that, this new injury might not be so potentially devastating.
One of the biggest strengths of the Cardinals this year has been the bullpen. That’s maybe not super surprising; the 2019 bullpen was a huge strength of that squad as well, and minus John Brebbia most of the names this year are the same. There have been some extra names, of course, due to the schedule being what it is, but the really important names are largely the same.
Chief among those names has been that of Gant, who in 2019 was one of the Cards’ most important relievers, not to mention one of their best, until later in the year, when heavy usage seemed to catch up to him and he wore down. Gant ended up with an average leverage index of 1.245 in 2019, which was third-highest among regular relievers. (It was actually fourth highest on the team, but one of the three with a higher aLI was Alex Reyes, who threw three innings, so probably not a fair comparison.) For those not familiar, leverage index is a measure of how important the innings are that a pitcher throws, essentially. It measures the leverage of the spot where a reliever enters the game. Average is 1.00, higher means the spots are bigger, the margins thinner, the appearances more important. Carlos Martinez led all Cardinal relievers with a 1.915 aLI, which isn’t surprising given he closed a bunch of games and pitched in some huge situations late in games. Andrew Miller was second at 1.648, again not surprising given how many late-inning lefty matchups he was called on for. Jordan Hicks was third, and then John Gant, the only bullpenner to end up with an aLI over 1.20 who wasn’t getting at least occasional save opportunities.
Over the course of the season, Gant proved his worth many times over, but what he really did best was calm down games in the fifth and sixth innings when they looked in danger of getting away. I tend to think leverage index is pretty reliable, but honestly, in the case of Gant I think it might actually underrate his 2019 a bit. Earlier innings tend to have lower leverage indexes than later ones, even in big situations, simply because there’s more time left in the game. There were multiple times last year when I felt like John Gant turned the tide of a game in the sixth inning, and I don’t always feel like LI totally captured how vital some of those situations were. Win-loss records for relievers can be hugely misleading, but in Gant’s case, I actually think it’s kind of useful to recall that he was 11-1 in 2019. Eleven times he entered a game and kept things in control enough the Cardinals were able to pull out a win. That’s a hell of a record.
This year, Gant has been, if anything, even more important to the cause. He doesn’t have that gaudy win-loss record to boast about, but he’s posting a 1.93 ERA and 2.13 FIP that can make you forget about eleven wins pretty damned quickly. The recently injured Gallegos has been the leverage king of the 2020 bullpen, with a solid 1.637 aLI, but Gant hasn’t been all that far behind at 1.417. Just as importantly, Gant has allowed exactly zero of six inherited runners to score in 2020. Inherited runners isn’t always the most useful stat, but when we combine that 0% with a sub-2.00 ERA and the second-highest aLI on the team, we get a pretty clear picture of just how vital John Gant has been to the club’s success this season. Gant has worked some of the most important innings and situations, and he has both shut down the hitters he’s faced and kept runners already on from coming around. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The only relievers other than Gallegos and Gant to have average leverage indexes above 1.00 (the average, remember), are Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, and Kwang-Hyun Kim, who is now in the starting rotation. The innings have been spread around quite a bit in the ‘pen this year, but for the really big spots Mike Shildt has leaned on his best guys pretty heavily.
The question now is who will step in to the spots vacated by Gallegos and Gant, at least in the short term. Gant has pretty easily been the club’s best overall reliever, and that isn’t easy to replace. Austin Gomber has been pretty good, albeit a little vulnerable to walks, and has done so in reasonably leveraged innings. He doesn’t have huge platoon splits, which is helpful, so maybe he moves in to a bit more important role. Alex Reyes is probably the pitcher most likely to garner big innings with Gant and Gallegos on the shelf, as Shildt has pretty clearly wanted to get Reyes into big spots, and if any player on the roster has the potential to go crazy and stop allowing runs for a month, it’s probably Reyes.
I’m intrigued by Nabil Crismatt at this point, as even after allowing a big fly in yesterday’s contest he has looked very good in limited outings. I’m not sure I want to see him protecting a one-run lead in the seventh inning just yet, though. Seth Elledge definitely has the kind of strikeout punch you want to see in the later innings, but he’s been very walk-prone so far. I’m a big Ryan Helsley fan, but he honestly hasn’t looked all that strong this year after coming back from the covid IL. I worry about him having lost strength due to illness, same as I do with Carlos Martinez. One might have hoped Kodi Whitley would be in line for some big innings right around this time, but he’s missed most of the season with a balky elbow.
So that’s where we are. The Cardinals have won a lot of games this year by shutting down opponents from the fifth inning on, and the two relievers who have had the biggest impact toward that end are now both on the shelf, at least temporarily. There are, of course, players the Cardinals could have lost who would have a bigger impact, one would think. If Paul Goldschmidt were to go down, or Paul DeJong, you would have to try and fill both an infield spot and a middle of the order lineup position. Another starting pitcher injury would seem nearly fatal at this point. But if I’m being honest, I would feel better about the Cardinals’ ability to weather those potential storms than I do this one. John Gant may not have been the most important player the Cardinals could have lost, but he feels like the one they may have the toughest time replacing.