TAMPA — It’s one of the most unusual windups you’re ever likely to see, but Braves pitcher John Gant insists he wasn’t aware that he was doing it when he started.
The right-hander, who was born in Savannah but came to the Braves via the Mets in a July 2015 trade, has been impressive in spring training — 1.08 ERA, 0.84 WHIP — and put himself in contention for a spot on the opening-day roster as a long reliever and a starting-rotation backup option if Mike Foltynewicz isn’t ready.
It would be his first stint in the majors, and if Gant makes it there will be some befuddled big-league hitters the first time they face him. Yes, his delivery is that funky.
It must be seen to be fully appreciated, but the gist of its uniqueness is an extra step with his left foot as the 6-foot-5 pitcher is midway through his delivery. He taps his toe as he steps toward the right side of the mound and then, as if it was a false start, he rocks backward and steps forward again, this time continuing with what is otherwise a smooth – and normal — delivery.
Gant, 23, calls the extra motion a “false step” because, “I don’t know what else to call it. That’s just what I do, man. I don’t know.”
So when and why did he start using that delivery? (By the way, he only uses the extra step from his windup, not from the stretch when runners are on base.)
“I have no idea,” Gant said with a straight face.
Wait, what? You don’t remember the moment you first tried that quirky motion. Seriously?
“I think it started in 2014 when I was in Savannah,” said Gant, who pitched for the Mets’ Single-A Savannah affiliate that season, posting a 2.56 ERA with 114 strikeouts in 123 innings over 21 starts. “One of my teammates, my catcher, Colton Plaia, I think it was the day after one of my starts when he was imitating me, kind of making fun of me doing the little false-step leg kick that I do. I said, I don’t really do that. He said, ‘Yeah, you do,’ and everybody chimed in, like, yeah, that’s what you do.
“So from that point on, I guess I kind of noticed myself doing it, and it stuck.”
The extra step or false step is almost guaranteed to elicit howls of “balk!” from fans in every road ballpark he pitches in. In opposing dugouts this spring, there have been confused looks on the faces of players, coaches and managers seeing him for the first time, as if they’re thinking, that has to be a balk, right?
But it’s not. Just because something is highly unusual doesn’t mean it breaks a rule. And in Gant’s case, it seems other pitchers haven’t done his two-step delivery dance because, well, why would they try? It’s strange and sure not something any pitching coach would ever, under any circumstances, advise a pitcher to adapt.
It’s also effective. Or at least distracting.
Funky deliveries keep hitters off-balance, and his motion also effectively allows Gant to keep the ball hidden a little longer. But he couldn’t get by with that alone, and besides, he doesn’t use it with runners on base.
He also has good stuff, including a low- and pushing-mid-90s fastball, a nasty change-up that acts like a forkball or split-finger fastball, and a pretty good breaking ball.
“Gant was pretty impressive,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after a March 13 outing when he threw 2 2/3 hitless innings against the Astros. “He’s got that Vulcan change-up that he throws against those lefties; it’s got some bite to it, some depth to it.”
Selected by the Mets in the 21st round of the 2011 June draft out of a Florida high school, Gant’s been a starter throughout his minor league career, going 30-19 with a 3.24 ERA in 74 games (71 starts).
After being traded to the Braves as part of the July 2015 deal for Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, Gant went 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Mississippi, with 43 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40 2/3 innings.
In four Grapefruit League appearances this season, Gant has allowed six hits, one run and one walk with five strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings. That included 2 2/3 scoreless innings of three-hit ball Friday against the Marlins.