Chris Bassitt Escaped a Potential Nightmare Scenario

Tuesday night’s White Sox-Athletics game featured one of the 2021 season’s most terrifying moments. In the second inning, White Sox center fielder Brian Goodwin lined a Chris Bassitt cutter back through the box, where it struck the pitcher on the right side of his face. Play stopped for several minutes as Bassitt was tended to by trainers from both teams as shocked and shaken players could only watch. While the 32-year-old righty never lost consciousness, he suffered an orbital fracture and facial lacerations, but fortunately, he appears to have escaped injuries to his brain and eye. While he’ll need surgery, interrupting what’s been a breakout season, he does have a reasonable chance of returning to help the A’s in their quest for a playoff spot.

Goodwin’s shot left the bat at 100 mph (you can see the whole play here, but it’s not for the faint of heart). Bassitt’s head was turned somewhat towards first base as part of his follow-through, which probably spared him even worse damage once he was struck. After remaining down for several minutes, he was eventually carted off the field. The A’s detailed his treatment and injuries in a postgame statement:

Chris was released from Rush University Medical Center last night. He received stitches for two facial lacerations and was diagnosed with a displaced tripod fracture in his right cheek that will require surgery. An exam of his right eye was normal for vision and no other damage is currently noted in the eye or the orbital bone. In addition, a head CT scan revealed no further injury. We are grateful to the White Sox, their medical staff, and the doctors and nurses at Rush for their excellent care. We’ll have more information on Chris as it becomes available.

A day later, the San Jose Mercury-News‘ Shayna Rubin reported that Bassitt showed no symptoms of a concussion (including nausea or dizziness), that his CT scan came back clean, and that he received 15 or 16 stitches for his lacerations. According to A’s athletic trainer Nick Paparesta, the pitcher is in “really good spirits, doing well” despite his right eye being swollen shut. Bassitt himself tweeted a message of gratitude:

Via the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mat Kawahara, manager Bob Melvin spoke to Bassitt on Thursday morning:

All things considered, it appears that Bassitt avoided the nightmarish scenarios that such plays can produce. His vision was unaffected, unlike that of Herb Score, who in 1957 became the most infamous victim of a comebacker when Gil McDougald’s line drive hit him in the face, causing severe hemorrhaging in his right eye and a swollen retina as well as a broken nose, and drastically altering his career trajectory. Additionally, Bassitt didn’t need emergency surgery, unlike former A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy or Rays minor leaguer Tyler Zombro. While pitching for the A’s in 2012, McCarthy was struck by a line drive, fracturing his skull and causing a brain contusion and an epidural hemorrhage. On June 3 of this season, Zombro was hit in the face by a liner, began convulsing on the field, and needed major brain surgery, which included the insertion of plates into his skull. So unsettling was his injury and its aftermath that the game he was pitching in was suspended and its follow-up postponed. After a week in the hospital, Zombro was released into a recovery program that included outpatient speech and occupational therapy.

While the baseball considerations regarding what happened on Tuesday night are a distant second to Bassitt’s health and his recovery, the good news is that despite needing surgery to reposition the three displaced bones, his injuries may not be season-ending. Via Rubin:

Bassitt, 32, is scheduled for surgery at Chicago’s Rush University Hospital on Tuesday performed by plastic surgeon Dr. Peter Revenaugh. Paparesta gave a rough estimate of six weeks for the bone to fully heal, but doctors in Chicago said he could return to physical activity a week or 10 days following surgery, depending on how his body responds.

Beyond the obvious worst-case scenarios, Bassitt’s injury would have made for a heartbreaking end to what’s been a stellar campaign for a pitcher who as recently as 2018 — his age-30 season — began the year in the minors. Bassitt leads the AL in innings (151) and starts (25), both of which represent career highs, and meanwhile he’s third in homer rate (0.89 per nine), fourth in both ERA (3.22) and FIP (3.34), fifth in WAR (3.1), eighth in walk rate (5.7%), and ninth in strikeout-walk differential (19.5%). His performance didn’t come completely out of nowhere; last year, his 2.29 ERA ranked third in the league and his 1.3 WAR tied for 16th. He made a strong start against the White Sox in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series, and placed eighth in AL Cy Young voting.

Bassitt doesn’t throw tremendously hard or generate a ton of spin; via Statcast, his four-seamer’s 93.3 mph average velocity and 2,169 rpm spin rate place him in the 30th percentile. He doesn’t generate a ton of swings and misses (10.2% swinging strike rate) or a plethora of grounders (42.8%), either. But as Owen McGrattan illustrated earlier this month, Bassitt uses a very fastball-heavy approach – four-seamer, sinker, and cutter — and offsets his pitches’ comparative lack of rise and modest velocity by throwing high in the strike zone from a low release point, thus “recreat[ing] the same plane where a hitter feels like he has to adjust his hands to get his barrel where it needs to be.” The result is that he’s very effective at limiting hard contact, with his 6.8% barrel rate placing in the 63rd percentile, his .287 xwOBA allowed in the 75th percentile, his 87.6 mph average exit velocity in the 77th percentile, and his 32.6% hard-hit rate in the 86th percentile.

Even if he’s able to return, Bassitt’s injury throws a wrench into Oakland’s bid for a fourth consecutive trip to the postseason. At this writing, the 68-53 team is 2 1/2 games behind the Astros in the AL West, holds a .001 lead for the second AL Wild Card spot ahead of the Red Sox (69-54), and is one game behind the Yankees (69-52), who sit in the first Wild Card spot. Thanks in large part to Bassitt, the A’s rotation has been exceptional, ranking second in the AL behind the White Sox in WAR (12.1) while leading in FIP (3.67) and ranking fourth in ERA (3.76), though park adjustments drop their 89 FIP- and 91 ERA- down one notch apiece. Their 6.4% walk rate and 1.06 homers per nine both rank as the league’s best, while their 17.1% strikeout-walk differential is third.

Individually, the other regular starters besides Bassitt — Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Cole Irvin, and James Kaprielian — have all posted better-than-average ERAs and FIPs. But between the injuries of Mike Fiers (out with an elbow sprain) and A.J. Puk (who has returned as a reliever following a biceps strain and a rough ride at Triple-A Las Vegas) and the July 30 trade of Jesús Luzardo to the Marlins in exchange for Starling Marte, their depth behind their current starting five has been compromised. As it is, the unit ranked just 19th in the majors in our preseason Positional Power Rankings, and both Irvin and Kaprielian have stepped up in a big way to compensate for the other losses.

At least in terms of our Depth Charts projections, there isn’t a huge drop-off from Kaprielian to replacement options Paul Blackburn and Daulton Jefferies, both righties. Blackburn, a 27-year-old sinkerballer, was recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas and made his first major league appearance of the season on Wednesday night, allowing three runs in 5.1 innings against the White Sox. Aside from a 10-start run in 2017, he’s never found much success in the majors, posting a 5.66 ERA (but just a 4.39 FIP) in 105 innings, that while striking out a meager 11.9% of hitters but holding them to an 86.9 mph average exit velocity and just a 3.6% barrel rate. Jefferies, who made his first start of the year (and second of his career) on August 1 agains the Angels, is a 26-year-old 45 FV prospect with pinpoint control but frequent injury problems, including biceps tendinitis earlier this year. From Eric Longenhagen’s writeup:

[W]hen healthy he looks like a big league-ready No. 4/5 starter who rarely walks anyone. Plus command of a solid four-pitch mix (he sits 92-94, his power, upper-80s changeup is plus, and his cutter and curveball are about average) has enabled Jefferies to walk about one batter every 10 innings, but of course the fact that he has fewer than 200 affiliated innings since 2016 is pretty damning.

For now it appears that the A’s will continue to use Blackburn in Bassitt’s spot, particularly with Fiers battling the clock on his own return. They’ll have their work cut out to hold their position or improve upon it, but hopefully at some point, Bassitt can return to assist that effort and build upon his impressive campaign.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Mark Koliermember
1 year ago

Any thoughts on protective headgear for pitchers? Starting in youth baseball of course and it would take years but doing nothing and waiting for the ultimate price to be paid before making changes seems, well, dumb. My son and I talked with ex-MLB pitcher Willie Blair about his experience on our podcast.