In what might be known as the last trade that the Cardinals have made that was selling high on a player rather than selling low or just trading to trade, the St. Louis Cardinals (back in the the winter of 2016, prior to the 2017 season) traded Jaime Garcia to the Atlanta Braves. In fact, the whole thing was absolutely ingenious. As Jen Langosch then-reported, the Cardinals had a $12M option for Garcia's 2017 season. Garcia had a lengthy list of injuries under his belt (actually, above his belt, but the idiom still applies) and was coming off of just his second season with 30+ starts and only his third season with 20+ starts entering his age 30 season. The Cardinals exercised that option solely to shop him around, rather than letting him walk at season's end. I truly believe that they had zero interest in bringing him back to pitch for them in 2017. Jen seems to believe the same as I do.
The Cardinals then flipped Jaime Garcia to the Atlanta Braves for basically three lottery tickets. One of those lottery tickets was a $1 scratcher that was discarded of rather quickly. Luke Dykstra was a second baseman who was described as "scrappy" even at the low minors level. He scrapped his way to AA in his second year with the Cardinals organization but was playing Independent League ball for the Sugar Land Skeeters by mid-August of 2018.
The second of those lottery tickets was another of the $1 scratch off variety. Chris Ellis is a RHP that bounced between AA and AAA for all of 2017 and 2018 before being eligible in the Rule V draft last offseason. The Texas Rangers took him in that draft and immediately sold him to the Kansas City Royals that same day. The Royals had to keep him on the MLB roster or offer him back to the Cardinals. Ellis pitched in one game in the majors and then the Royals offered to send him packing. The Cardinals took their $1 scratcher back and he's pitching in Memphis again - more poorly than ever unfortunately.
The third of those lottery tickets was a right-handed pitcher who had started some games and relieved in some games for the Braves already, but was still just 24 at the time of the trade and had several years left in pre-arb eligibility. It looked as though he might be more of a $ 2 scratcher or $5 scratcher, but the way he has panned out for the big league club during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, I'm beginning to think that he was more of a Mega Millions or Powerball ticket instead. John Gant over the last two seasons (thus far and as of 7/14/19's game) has thrown in 66 games the last two years. He started 19 of them and finished 11 of them. He has a 3.21 ERA and 3.96 FIP in those games. His 1.84 K:BB is not really that great, but the fact that he has 3 saves and 11 holds in 16 save opportunities is quite nice. The fact that his ERA dropped from 3.47 to 2.54 while his WHIP dropped from 1.298 to 0.957 and his H/9 and BB/9 both dropped and his K:BB jumped from 1.67 to 2.44 is also quite nice. In fact, it's the reason I wanted to look into John Gant at all. There was a time prior to the All-Star Break that one Cardinals fan might have sat back and thought, "Is John Gant going to be the Cardinals' All-Star representative this year?" That fan got the answer of "no" back and got to see Paul DeJong play some pretty good abbreviated baseball instead. However, prior to a pretty poor 6 game stretch from June 23 to July 12th, Gant's numbers were even more ridiculously good (34 games, 7-0, 3 saves, 10 holds, 41 innings, 37:10 (3.70) K:BB, 1.54 ERA, .448 OPS allowed, 0.731 WHIP).
What I want to do the rest of this article is look at more deeply at John Gant's repertoire. You see, in trying to decide what I was going to research for an article today I was perusing Statcast and trying to figure out more about spin rate. Spin rate is the amount of spin measured on a pitcher's pitch and it is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). I suggest clicking on that link and reading more, but basically to summarize: The higher the spin rate, the better - except for change ups and knuckle balls, then the opposite is true.
This article was inspired by research that was simply looking at which Cardinals had the highest spin rates in the Statcast era (spin rates have been measured since 2015) by pitch. It turns out that John Gant in 2019 has the highest spin rate on a 4-seamer of any Cardinals' pitcher since 2015. It also turns out that John Gant in 2019 has the highest spin rate on a 2-seamer or sinker of any Cardinal pitcher since 2015. It also turns out that John Gant in 2019 has the 6th lowest spin rate on a change up of any Cardinal pitcher since 2015. (All of those had a 100 pitch caveat on there to get a good sample size. If you drop the sample size to 75 to incorporate John Gant's curve ball, which only had 76 uses so far in 2019, you get the next tidbit.) It turns out that John Gant in 2019 has the 8th highest spin rate on a curveball of any Cardinals' pitcher since 2015 as well. (Side note: Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia have 5 of the 7 seasons ahead of Gant on the curveball list.)
All of that really great information got me thinking a lot more about John Gant as a pitcher, as you should be able to tell by now. In the chart above, Statcast gives a lot of information. I'm going to break that chart down for you, if you'll allow, by pitch type.
The Change Up
You can see that Gant threw 5 different pitches each of the last two seasons. Starting at the top, he has thrown a change up over 20% of the time both years. You can see that in the 6th column, labeled "%." To the right of that is the average miles per hour on those pitches and you can see that Gant has sped up his change up nearly 1.5 mph year-to-year. That comes along with a change in spin - a decrease of 23 rpms, found in the column fifth from the right labeled "spin." The change up has yielded results very similar to last year's, with not quite as good of outcomes. He has a higher BB rate and slightly lower K rate on it, but the whiff% (found second from the right) is his highest on any pitch of the last two years. He's just not using it as his "putaway" pitch (far right column, click "putaway" for definition) as often as last year. He is throwing it with basically the same spin axis as 2018, with those varied velocity and spin rate, giving it over 1/2 an inch more horizontal break in 2019, but the exact same vertical break.
Note: I am just getting into how a spin axis affects a baseball. Joe Schwarz (see below) knows a lot more than I do. You can find a bit more on it over at Driveline Baseball or at Baseball Prospectus (I believe).
On the left is the heatmap for his 2018 change ups and on the right is how it's shifted slightly more inside to right-handed hitters (strike zone from pitcher's view) in 2019 on average. With the extra half an inch more horizontal break (which isn't much) it shifts it from what I would call "low" to what I would call "low and in" to right-handed batters. He probably starts it approximately the same as he did last year, but that extra speed and more break with less spin has made it tougher to hit as you'll see below.
2018 change up with a weak contact grounder, 2019 change up with a swing and miss.
The Curve Ball
Joe Schwarz, formerly of Birds On The Black, but now over at The Athletic, penned an article ($) (is "penned" still the operative verb if it's an online article?), regarding John Gant's pitch repertoire back in April. (You should check it out if you have a subscription because Cardinalsgifs does all of Joe's .gifs as well!) Joe made suggestions regarding throwing more sliders and throwing less curve balls amongst other things, but keeping the curve (rather than scrapping it entirely) as a show pitch. While Gant has scrapped the slider entirely instead - in lieu of a cutter, keeping a 5-pitch mix intact - he has thrown less curve balls in 2019, while slightly raising the velocity at which he throws it and the spin with which he throws it. He is using it as a putaway pitch a lot more this season and thus getting a lot lower BA, SLG, and wOBA off of the pitch. While Gant's change up had nearly equal vertical movement and a lot more horizontal movement, his curve ball is the opposite. It has not changed at all horizontally this year, but has a break that has added 20% more vertical break to it. Well, it has a 73 rpm increase in spin rate with only a 5 degree change in spin axis.
Again, 2018 is on the left and 2019 is on the right. These are his curveball heatmaps for each year and you can tell that he really concentrated on one general location last year. Perhaps his lack of consistency in location has made him less predictable this year, or perhaps he has less feel for the added break on the pitch, or perhaps he's just willing to throw a more wicked curveball wherever in the zone that he wants. What we do know is that he's throwing it less often and all over the strike zone. Here are two examples:
2018 curveball ripped into the left-field corner, 2019 curveball thrown for a taken strike.
The Slider and Cutter
While Gant's slider worked well for him last year, he has taken that pitch off of the table (as I mentioned previously) and has thrown a cutter this year. It is a completely different pitch. The cutter moves 7 mph faster than the slider does, getting on the hitter more quickly. The cutter also has a 125 rpm faster spin rate than the slider. Due to the velocity, this gives the ball nearly 5.5 inches less vertical break on the ball and the horizontal break is 0.85 inches less as well. The result is that he took his already good slider (with a .214 BA against, .286 SLG against, and .340 wOBA against from last year) and replaced it with an even better cutter (.100/.100/.116 same stats against). In order to achieve these results, John Gant had to change the spin axis on that 5th offering by nearly 70 degrees. That's learning a whole new pitch over the winter and it has completely paid off.
You can see that with the harder thrown cutter with a higher spin rate, Gant is more likely to challenge players in the strike zone. With the slider, he was too often nibbling last year and had a walk rate over 25% with it. This year, while his strikeout percentage has dropped a bit from 31.6% to 23.8% on this 5th offering, his 2019 BB rate on the 5th offering is about 18% of what it was in the prior year! I'll take that trade off any day.
2018 slider fouled off, 2019 cutter weakly put into play for a double play.
Now back to the fastballs that he throws the most.
The Four-Seam Fastball
The effectiveness of Gant's four-seam fastball has really blossomed in 2019. His velocity is up (from 93.2 to 95.9 mph) on average. His spin rate is up (2442 to 2533) on average. He has changed his spin axis by just 8 degrees on that pitch this year from last, so the break on the pitch less than an inch both vertically and horizontally. However, his K%-BB% is sitting at a 31.6% difference this year whereas last year it was a difference of just 19.2%. It's been an incredible pitch for him in 2019.
On the left, he really attacked everyone on that left side portion of the plate (from the pitcher's perspective) in 2018. In 2019, the portion similar to the 2018 side is a mix of vR and vL, whereas the smaller portion at the top of the zone is almost solely against RHB. He's really elevating it at times against righties, nearly as often as he's pitching away and low. That, to me, shows the confidence that he is beginning to get with that high spin fastball. Examples:
2018 fastball popped up, 2019 fastball vR away and popped up, 2019 fastball vL high and fouled off.
The Sinker / Two-Seam Fastball
Gant throws his two-seamer (sinker) more often than his four-seamer and he gets hurt on the pitch more often. He has decreased the percent of the time he throws the sinker by over 4% this year while raising how often he throws the four-seamer by nearly 5%. However, he still throws about 8 sinkers for every 5 four-seamers, despite two straight years of the four-seamer getting better results than the sinker.
Part of the reasoning behind that might be that he throws them the same velocity but the sinker just lags behind in spin rate. Year-to-year movement differences on the sinker are fairly negligible (<1 inch of vertical movement and < 1/4 inch of horizontal movement), with basically no change in spin axis. However, the difference between his sinker and his fastball in 2018 was 0.4 inches of vertical movement and 1.3 inches of horizontal movement (with the sinker moving more on both). In 2019, the difference between the two pitches is more pronounced, at 2.1 inches of vertical movement difference and 2.2 inches of horizontal movement difference. He has succeeded in separating those pitches apart from one another enough to have a pronounced difference in effectiveness with the four-seam fastball.
As you can see, his 2018 variation was much less than his 2019 variation in sinkers within the zone. It seems as though he attacked hitters more regularly with the sinker diving down and away from lefties and down and in towards righties in 2018. This year, it's a lot darker in that location on the right because he's attacked both sets of hitters that way, but there's also a dark-ish portion on the outside half versus righties that he's trying to attack as well. Maybe that's why the sinker is getting hit harder this year?
2018 sinker on outside corner to a lefty striking him out, 2019 sinker inside to a righty taken for a strike, 2019 sinker away from a righty driven to right field.
As you can see, John Gant has a surprisingly large repertoire - I guess it makes sense as a former starter. However, it may very well not be needed out of the bullpen - he could potentially go back to just the ones that are working the most - read: eliminate the sinker. That could make him an even more effective reliever and he could still keep that sinker in the back pocket if ever moved back to the rotation - however, with 4 pitches already still in the mix, even a move back to the rotation may not necessitate the sinker's presence.
Thank you to 1) NChill for his work on this article, and 2) all of Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball for all of their invaluable data.
Note: All data for this article was pulled about a week prior to publication.