I never understood the John Gast love in 2011. It certainly couldn’t have been based on his performance. Last year, Gast struggled to maintain a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He didn’t have severe control problems; the lefthander simply lacked the ability to put away batters and strike guys out.
Gast split time between Palm Beach and Springfield in 2011 pitching around 80 innings in 13 games at each location. In both locales, he had a FIP that was above league average. It wasn’t that Gast was a bad pitcher but he certainly wasn’t a premier prospect in a system flush with impressive arms.
Instead, much of the allure of Gast stemmed from his pickoff move. At one point in 2011′s Spring Training, Gast had picked off four baserunners in 5.1 innings. It was fun to watch and it was clear that he had a better move to first than many of the pitchers in the big leagues. His pickoff moves were good enough for Dave Duncan to suggest that Jaime Garcia try and learn the art of the pickoff from Gast.
And while that is heady stuff, a good pickoff move does not erase a mediocre strikeout rate. It does not erase an inability to put batters away.
Something strange has happened in 2012 though. So far, John Gast has struck out nearly a batter an inning. It’s a remarkable improvement in strikeout rate. Gast has the best strikeout rate of the starting pitching rotation — a rotation that includes the returning Scott Gorgen and ascendant Trevor Rosenthal — a year after struggling to maintain a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. It’s an impressive turn around.
It’s also three starts and therefore subject to a lot of skepticism about whether it’s really indicative of his true talent level. Statistics tell us that the 160 pitches and 6.3 K/9 rate of 2011 has a higher probability of being his true talent level than current 8.85 K/9 rate. The truth lies somewhere in the middle or nearby but that truth, or certainty of it, is elusive on the best of days.
There are early red flags with Gast’s performance as well; the declining groundball rate and comically low .178 BABIP being the most prominent. These things will find their level as the season progresses in much the same way that Gast’s strikeout rate will.
Caution aside, it’s possible that this is the new normal for Gast as well. It’s not as if radical transformations in prospects are that uncommon. The St. Louis Cardinals Lance Lynn being a wonderful anecdote to this point right now. Being left handed, Gast occupies a special subset of starting pitchers who, frankly, have lower expectations set on them and more avenues to the big leagues via the modern era reliance on left handed one out guys or LOOGys.
We won’t know who the real John Gast is for a while. Not next week, not the week after, not even the month after. In the interim though, Gast is striving to remake his image from 2011. So far, he’s been successful.
Note: Stats and splits come from minorleaguecentral.com, which updates each Sunday.