When looking at the pitchers occupying the top of Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leaderboard two months into the season, you’ll find a lot of the usual suspects right away. Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole predictably lead the pack in the top two spots, and not far behind them sit recognized aces like Shane Bieber, Yu Darvish, and Clayton Kershaw. Hidden among these guys in the top 15, however, is Chris Bassitt, who has posted a 3.53 ERA and 3.00 FIP across 12 starts in what has been an excellent start to 2021 for him.
Bassitt being good so far this year shouldn’t be that much of a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to him recently. He recorded a 3.35 ERA and 125 ERA+ in 36 combined starts between 2019 and 2020, and he’s had only one season out of seven with an ERA above 3.95 in his career. The success he’s seen to date this year has come in a much different fashion than it did previously, however, as Bassitt has seen both his strikeout and walk rates reach career bests while also keeping his quality of contact numbers strong. These are all hallmark signs of an improving pitcher, and one that may be flying under the radar as a bona fide frontline starter in the league.
A New Wrinkle
As mentioned before, Bassitt’s been pretty good on the mound for a while now, and this success prior to 2021 came in a rather unconventional way as far as modern pitchers are concerned. For most of his career, he relied primarily on a kitchen-sink approach, getting called strikes with his three different types of fastballs (his sinker especially excelled at this, as it had the sixth-best called strike rate among any pitch thrown at least 1000 times between 2019 and 2020) and then using the advantageous counts earned with these to induce soft contact with his three different offspeed pitches. This way of pitching isn’t too common anymore, but Bassitt’s great command and feel for the strike zone — his 46.9 percent zone rate leads all of baseball since 2019 — made it an effective strategy for him.
Bassitt’s numbers show that this approach worked well for him, but one big problem with it is that relying heavily on called strikes can lead to a lot of variability, as they can come and go depending on a number of different factors (how good the catcher is, who is umpiring any specific game, etc.) not really in the pitcher’s control. His underlying peripherals back this up as well, as his FIP and xFIP both came in significantly higher than his ERA in every season since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2018, suggesting he may have been on the fortunate side in those seasons.
Fast forward to 2021, however, and things have changed a bit for Bassitt. His approach on the mound remains largely the same and effective, but he’s added one very important aspect to his game: the ability to miss bats.
Bassitt’s plate discipline metrics have all seen pretty noticeable increases across the board when comparing them to where they were in previous seasons, which have helped transform him from a guy who never relied on striking batters out to someone who has been above league average at it so far this year. This seems pretty uncharacteristic for him considering how his career has gone up to this point, but it was an increased emphasis on his slider — his least-used pitch since 2019 — that has been the catalyst for this sudden shift.
Bassitt made it a priority to improve upon his slider during this year’s Spring Training, and he enlisted the help of his teammates and noted slider aficionados Sergio Romo and Jake Diekman, who he got the grip and delivery from respectively, to do it. According to Bassitt, he wanted to do this in order to have something else to throw at hitters who might be getting used to his other offerings.
“It’s a new look,” Bassitt said. “You always have to be one step ahead of batters in the league, and this is my one step ahead of people. If I put another pitch in hitter’s heads, it’s going to be a great thing for me. It’s a pitch that’s definitely going to help me this year.”
Quote via The Mercury News
In terms of giving hitters a different look, Bassitt’s slider definitely accomplishes that when just looking at its pure characteristics. Starting with its velocity, it comes in at an average of just 75.1 miles per hour, which puts it just behind submariners Ben Rowen and Tyler Rogers for the third slowest in all of baseball. Most of the other pitchers accompanying Bassitt in this slider velocity range also feature very slow fastballs, but Bassitt is unique in the sense that his primary heater comes in all the way up at 93.1 miles per hour on average. This gives him an incredible 18 miles per hour difference between the two pitches, something that very few pitchers across the league have with any pair of offerings.
Its velocity isn’t the only thing that sets this pitch apart, however, as its movement also makes it stand out. Even for slower benders, which generally move more than their faster counterparts, Bassitt’s slider moves a ton, with it ranking third in both average vertical drop and horizontal break among qualified sliders. The huge velocity gap makes it a tough pitch to hit on its own, but consider it along with the almost 68 inches of total combined movement that it features as well, and you have the textbook example of a great breaking ball.
The combination of these two things makes Bassitt’s slider pair incredibly well with his aforementioned sinker, which is illustrated incredibly well in this GIF from Rob Friedman, AKA PitchingNinja:
Chris Bassitt, 92mph Sinker (ball) and 76mph Slider (backwards K), Overlay.
Why would you take a Slider right down the middle? pic.twitter.com/Vafd6Z0kaC
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 28, 2021
If you skip to the 13-second mark of this overlay, you’ll see that it freezes right at the point when the two pitches intersect before breaking in opposite directions. At the same time, you’ll see that the hitter, Taylor Ward, is at the point of his swing where he’s about to put his foot down, which is approximately the time where he’d be deciding whether to swing or not. To Ward, they look like the same pitch at this point, which explains why he’d be fooled when the slider comes in 16 miles per hour slower and falls off the table. It’s incredibly difficult to differentiate between the two pitches until it’s too late, which is a big reason why Bassitt has been able to miss more bats.
Given all of this, you won’t be surprised to learn that Bassitt has made the slider his most used offspeed pitch, increasing its usage from a meager three percent up to 8.9 percent. You also shouldn’t be surprised to see the types of results that he’s gotten when using it so far this year:
Bassitt’s slider has been nothing short of incredible in 2021, and it is without a doubt the main reason behind his newfound ability to generate swings and misses. All of the good qualities that Bassitt has showcased in his career prior to this season have largely stayed intact, but the difference between then and now is that he finally has one of his breaking balls working as a true out pitch, which has added a new wrinkle to his game that could potentially push him further up the hierarchy of starters around the league.
When you take into account the numbers that Bassitt has consistently posted throughout his career, it is pretty safe to assume that even at his floor, he will be a solid starter for the rest of 2021 and beyond. The emergence of his slider has given him a ceiling that didn’t exist before though, and if you look at the peripheral numbers that previously didn’t like him very much, you’ll see that there might be even more room to grow moving forward. One way to achieve this might be to simply throw the slider more and see how it responds, as the way that it has performed so far justifies a whole lot more usage than the 8.9 percent it is getting currently. Even if he keeps things the way they are, however, Bassitt has already quietly made himself the ace of the AL West-leading A’s, and someone who might just be a frontline starter on any team.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)