Today, Chris Bassitt makes the Mets a better team, and gives them the solid #3 starter that they were missing for parts of 2021. But in the past, Bassitt hasn’t always been so sought after. His path to success has been anything but traditional, as if the fact that that he’s 33-year-old and isn’t even free agent eligible yet is not enough of a hint to that.
Bassitt was drafted in the 16th round by the White Sox in 2011, and while he was never considered much of a top prospect, he did gain some attention by posting a 2.27 ERA in Double-A in 2013. He followed that up with a 1.56 ERA in 8 starts at Double-A in 2014, which earned him an opportunity as a September call-up for the White Sox that year.
That offseason, Bassitt was dealt to the A’s in the other Jeff Samardzija trade. While he wasn’t a throw-in to the deal, he was much more of a secondary piece to Marcus Semien at the time. Bassitt, already 26 at that point, projected much more as rotation depth and a possible bullpen piece rather than anything close to a top of the rotation arm.
Sound like any other Mets pitchers you know?
Regardless, Bassitt actually got a sustained run in the A’s rotation in the second half of 2015 and more than held his in the big leagues, posting a 3.56 ERA across 13 starts and 18 appearances. But a mere 17.7 K% did not raise hope that his performance was sustainable or that he was still ever going to develop into anything more than a bottom of the rotation arm.
Tommy John surgery wiped out nearly all of his 2016 campaign, and it took him over two years to make it back to the big leagues, finally re-emerging back in the majors in June 2018. And in seven starts and four relief outings from then on, he showed real improvements. He put up a 3.02 ERA, but more notable was his jump in strikeout rate to over 20%—the first time he had achieved that at the big league level.
In 2019, he rejoined the A’s rotation in late April after a leg injury delayed the start to his season, and his growth as a pitcher continued as he firmly established himself as a quality member of Oakland’s starting staff. His strikeout rate bumped up again, to 23%, and he dropped his walk rate to a career-low 7.7%, all while maintaining a 3.81 ERA across 25 starts and 2 relief appearances.
However, 2020 was when Bassitt finally exploded on to the scene as an actual top of the rotation arm, at the ripe age of 31, and nearly 10 years into his professional career. It was only 11 starts in the mini COVID season, but a 5-2 record and a 2.29 ERA landed him in AL Cy Young contention. It was possible that this could’ve just been a weird outlier from the shortened season, but his 2021 season put any thought of that to rest. Along with a shiny 3.15 ERA, he posted a career-best 25% strikeout rate, a 6.1% walk rate, and a look at his Statcast page would tell you that he limited hard contact at some of the best rates in the game as well.
So how did he do it? How did Bassitt go from a bottom of the rotation piece to top of the rotation arm? And how does he continue to get better in his early 30’s? It’s tough to see at first glance. After all, he throws three types of fastballs—four-seam, cutter, and sinker—about 70% of the time according to Statcast, while his velocity sits only 93-95, and his fastball spin tops out at around the 30th percentile. He doesn’t have a wipeout secondary pitch that makes hitters swing out of their shoes, either; his changeup is a plus pitch with good horizontal movement, but he only throws it about 10% of the time.
What’s more, Bassitt lives in the strike zone about as much as anyone in baseball; since 2019 he’s thrown more pitches in the zone than anyone in baseball with at least 250 innings pitched, with a Zone% of 47.2%, according to Fangraphs. So basically, he throws a bunch of middling fastballs over the plate. How does he get away with it?
The most likely explanation is a new theory discovered publicly only a few years ago, called “seam-shifted wake.” It’s complex and tough to explain, and you can read breakdowns of it for yourself by people who know way more than I do, but it’s basically a term used to describe altering the spin of the baseball in ways we can’t really measure, thus creating movement that isn’t typical and is difficult for hitters to pick up. In simple terms, Bassitt is able to alter the spin on his pitches to fool hitters, and he’s able to do this among the best in baseball. Statcast has recently introduced a spin axis leaderboard to help measure this, and Bassit’s sinker, cutter, and changeup all have some of the best measured “total movement” in the game among those pitch types.
Bassitt has upped his K%, limited quality contact, and changed his career path because of his ability to add movement to his pitches. His four-seamer, even though it doesn’t appear that impressive, has been one of the hardest to hit in baseball. The good news is that this type of profile is more likely to age gracefully. The fact that he has only gotten better into his 30’s is a good sign for the Mets that Bassitt has really figured out the mental part of pitching.
The best part is that Bassitt is almost as interesting off the field as he is on it. He gets rave reviews for his character. He was a favorite of Bob Melvin and A’s fans alike in Oakland for his leadership and accountability. After throwing his first complete game shutout last season, he got emotional in the press conference while graciously thanking those who helped him along the way to get better. He was also struck in the face with a liner in August of last year, and returned to the mound a month later even though the A’s were barely clinging to life in the wild card race, and sent a fiery tweet about how excited he was for it. Speaking of Twitter, Bassitt is very active on social media, tweeting out memes, some scenes from nature, and bits of helpful info quite frequently.
Mets fans will find Bassitt as a very enjoyable and positive presence while he provides solid starting pitching for a team that needed more of that. If healthy, he should provide solid starting pitching that is way will be way better than the naked eye would tell you.