The Twins Need John Gant to Rise from J.A. Happ's Ashes

Photo Credit: Brad Penner (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Twins signed starter J.A. Happ to a 1-year, $8 million deal in the offseason, they probably didn’t expect to see such flames when he eventually crashed and burned in their rotation.

His initial peel-out was solid, even terrific.

But after the first five starts of the season, smoke turned into fire, and fire turned into utter destruction for the veteran starter.

When the blaze got too hot to handle, Minnesota shipped Happ off to the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline. While many expected a move along these lines simply for the purpose of salary relief, the Twins ended up with an interesting return in the form of John Gant. The lanky righthander may not be a household name yet, but that shouldn’t extinguish any excitement that Twins fans might be feeling in regards to this return.

Where Happ crashed and burned, Gant has an opportunity to rise from his ashes.

Part of Gant’s appeal to the front office in Minnesota is his experience, both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. In 14 games started with the Cardinals this season, he produced a solid 3.76 ERA while averaging about seven strikeouts per nine innings. While that’s all well and good, St. Louis decided to move him to a relief role due in part to some of his underlying numbers, especially as they pertained to free passes.

In that same span as a starter, he averaged nearly as many walks as strikeouts (6.68 BB/9, 6.96 K/9). The only reason he was able to salvage a passable ERA was due to his sky-high 78.3% strand rate and possibly fortunate .275 batting average of balls in play (BABIP).

Once he moved to the Cards’ bullpen on June 28th, something very interesting happened. He pitched to an incredibly impressive 1.54 ERA with just a .167 batting average against him, but his strikeout numbers cratered to just 4.63 K/9.

So what is it about Gant’s skillset and repertoire that makes his stuff play better in relief?

Is it luck?

Is it a change in mindset?

Two items explain why he makes a better reliever than a starter: His combination of two effective pitches and his lack of durability as a game goes on.

Starting with his pitch repertoire, his case is similar to many other hurlers who may have shifted to the bullpen after coming up as a starter. They have a fastball that can play at the big league level and another plus pitch. In Gant’s case, it’s a dirty changeup. When he can locate those pitches, the opposition has a hard time getting solid hits against him.

This is particularly true for his fastball, which has only yielded a .319 slugging percentage against him since the start of 2019 (11th-best among qualified relievers in that time). He’s taken that to another level in the last two seasons, where opposing hitters could only muster a measly .170 slugging percentage against him when he locates that pitch low.

The truth is that not much damage comes out of him throwing that fastball, giving him the floor of an effective, MLB-caliber pitcher.

Where he raises his ceiling is with the changeup. Opponents have a 39% miss rate on that pitch this season, good for sixth-best among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched.

While he also features a decent slider and a rare curveball in his repertoire, Gant has found sustainable success by mixing and matching on the fastball and changeup. One of the inherent dangers comes in the form of a misfired change that catches too much of the plate.

The fastball-changeup combo also tends to lose its luster after the opposition has seen it in action a few times.

Things have usually gone well when Gant goes through the order for the first time, and his 2.05 ERA is proof of that. When he’s gone through the order for the first time purely as a reliever this season, his strikeout rate jumps up to an impressive 8.69. In fact, he hasn’t allowed a hit in his first inning of work in his last four appearances. That’s the second longest streak in baseball behind Tyler Anderson of the Seattle Mariners (6).

However, after their first crack at Gant, hitters start to get the picture and lay off his changeups. This leads to far too many walks where he’s trying to land a strikeout, or at least soft contact. This becomes quite costly, especially when looking through the scope of a starting pitcher. Not only does this put men on base, but it causes the pitcher to throw more pitches and usually knocks him out earlier in the game.

If Gant can put all of his focus into getting opposing lineups out just once without having to compromise in the name of longevity, it could lead to more of the favorable results that follow these trends.

Trading Happ created a hole in the starting rotation, no matter how badly the Twins just needed to get him out of there. Would it have been preferable to have someone more notable taking his place rather than Triple-A depth arms? Of course.

And while Gant isn’t really going to help them fill that hole, he has the stuff to help them elsewhere in the bullpen. Manager Rocco Baldelli is going to need stability in his relief core as much as he will in the rotation. As Twins fans know all too well, both groups have the ability to completely incinerate a season with ineffective outings. But hopefully Gant and the Twins can take the rest of the year to shake off the ashes left from the great Happ blaze of 2021.

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