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5 Minute Primer: John Gant as a Starter

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A quick-and-dirty “what you need-to-know” look at John Gant’s seemingly inevitable move to the rotation early in the season. Stats, analysis, light humor, and Biblical references included.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

John Gant is tracking toward a spot in the starting rotation. For now.

In 2018, the Cardinals, desperate for starting pitchers, turned to Gant to give them 19 starts. He’s not seen the starting rotation since, but the Cardinals have always kept him on a starter’s training schedule. For the last few winters, Gant has arrived in spring stretched out and ready to compete for the rotation, should an opening come his way.

In 2019, the Cardinals pitted Gant against Dakota Hudson. It was a rigged competition. Hudson was the presumptive favorite for the role and he earned it. Gant went to the pen and never made a start.

In 2020, Gant might have stretched out but never really had a shot at the rotation, despite all the flux the pitching staff found itself in.

This year began the same way. It was assumed – by me at least – that he was loosening up to serve as the back-up, back-up, back-up, back-up starter in case the established five arms suffered an injury and the club needed someone beyond Alex Reyes or Daniel Ponce de Leon.

Somehow – not because of Spring performance – Gant appears to have jumped Reyes and Ponce and could be poised to take Miles Mikolas’ spot in the early season rotation. Mikolas’ shoulder is barking and, while I think it’s noteworthy that it’s not his elbow of forearm (the location of his surgery) that’s paining him, PD reporter Derrick Goold has not-subtly hinted at me to trace the “kinetic path”. This is likely all connected and it doesn’t look very good for Mikolas.

At the same time that they announced Mikolas’ trip to the doctors, the club said that Reyes was out of the rotation competition because of concerns over his workload. Unless something changes, Gant will get some starts this season.

Here’s a quick primer on what to expect from him in a return to the starting rotation:

1. The Translation Factor

Bullpen innings are not a straight translation to rotation innings. Historically, when relievers become starters, there is a corresponding loss of production – usually in K’s and BB’s, and, thusly, ERA and FIP. Fortunately, the Cardinals aren’t starting from scratch with Gant. He’s started 28 games in the majors and has more major league innings as a starter than he does as a reliever. That makes his stat translations easy.

The regression I mentioned is obvious here. His K’s have fallen by 1 per 9. His walks have seen a marginal increase. He allows more HRs and gets hit harder when he goes more innings.

At the same time, the result isn’t changed that much. Gant has been a solid-to-good reliever with a 3.60 ERA and a 3.91 FIP. Expectations are a little lower for starters and with a 3.99/4.31 ERA/FIP, he’s sitting in that solid-to-good starter range in just over 135 IPs.

Our translations easily become projections since ZiPS was kind enough to spit out a model that included 12 starts in 42 games pitched for Gant. His results are in line with what we see above.

Gant ZiPS projection – 95.7 IP, 8.66 K/9, 4.05 BB/9, 1.03 HR/9, 4.14 ERA, 4.23 FIP.

I would happily take that BB and K rate. I’ll bet against that HR rate. While I think his FIP is close enough, I might bump Gant’s ERA down a notch just because of what Busch does to fly balls and what the defense does to ground balls.

Wouldn’t we take that line from Mikolas if he can work his way back? Yes. I’ll be ecstatic to get it from Gant and it’s not really unrealistic at all.

2. The Innings Factor

The main reason Gant is moving to the rotation and Reyes is destined for the bullpen is injury history. Gant has been healthy. Reyes has not. Reyes has upside that the club wants to protect. Gant is an arm they feel they can use.

That said, the Cardinals need to be cognizant of Gant’s low innings totals over the last few years. By my math, the most innings that Gant has ever thrown in a season came in 2018, when he had 163 innings across 27 starts in both St. Louis and Memphis. In 2019, Gant threw just 66.1 innings. Last year, he managed a paltry 15.

Does that sound like a guy who could easily step into Mikolas’ hoped-for role of stable innings eater? Not even remotely. The Cards will have to manage Gant’s workload to keep him from both overuse or injury if they hope to have him all season in some capacity.

Sorry to dredge up painful memories, but consider Kyle McClellan back in 2011. McClellan was thrust into the rotation after three very Gant-like years in the St Louis bullpen. He made 17 starts and 26 relief appearances and landed at 141.2 innings on the season.

Hopefully, Gant’s performance will be better than McClellan’s, but KMac does provide an adequate usage comp for Shildt and Maddux to work from. I would try to limit Gant to 15 100-pitch starts plus an additional 30 relief appearances. He should finish below 130 innings in that scenario. If Gant’s starts come early, they can shift him to the pen and give late-season starts to upper end talent. I would prioritize those arms this way: Reyes, Thompson, Liberatore, and Oviedo.

3. The Hair/Beard Factor

Have you seen Gant’s mane this season? It’s phenomenal.

Gant’s peripherals have always been a bit less-than-inspiring. He’s not Reyes with the dynamic movement. Or Helsley with the ridiculous velocity. He walks too many and doesn’t strikeout enough.

There’s a little je ne sais quoi about Gant’s ability to get consistently good results.

My advice? Trust in the hair. And the beard. With Reyes out of the equation for now, the difference over a short set of starts between Mikolas, Gant, Ponce, Thompson, Liberatore, Oviedo, and maybe even Rondon and Woodford is not all that great. If the Cards are going to give those starts to someone, it might as well be the guy with a Samson-like magical mane.

Mozeliak just needs to go hide all the scissors in Gant’s house.

And that’s your five minutes.

Too long, didn’t read? Here’s what you need to know: Gant’s done this before with solid results. He’ll be just fine in a non-permanent starter’s role. Relax and enjoy the hair.