OAKLAND — Coming into the season, Chris Bassitt had never been known as a strikeout pitcher. The 30-year-old right-hander notched a career-high 64 punchouts in 2015 in 86 innings, for a pedestrian rate of 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Bassitt achieved his best strikeout percentage last season when he struck out 41 batters in 47 2/3 innings, still only translating to 7.7 per nine frames. This year, he's taken it to another level.
Bassitt punched out nine Cincinnati Reds on Thursday in 7 2/3 innings, taking a tough-luck loss in Oakland's 3-0 defeat at the Coliseum. In four starts this season, Bassitt has already registered 31 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings, a rate of 11.3 per nine innings. That's the 15th-best mark in the majors among those with at least 20 innings pitched.
So how did Bassitt go from averaging fewer than seven strikeouts per nine innings to more than 11?
He actually credits his 2016 Tommy John surgery for teaching him how to pitch without dominant stuff.
"Your stuff is not that good coming back from Tommy John and you have to learn to pitch," Bassitt explained. "When you're throwing 89, 91, 92 (miles per hour), you've got to kind of learn to pitch without a really good fastball. Luckily for me, my fastball kind of came back and I was able to take what I learned from Tommy John and that whole process. When I'm back to throwing 95, 96 again, it makes life a whole heck of a lot easier."
Now three years removed from the surgery, Bassitt finally feels fully healthy again. As he noted, his fastball velocity is back up in the mid-90s and he compliments that pitch with a sinker, cutter, curveball, and changeup.
"A lot of movement," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "His curveball can be as slow as 66 or 67 and then a fastball at 95. Good movement on his sinker. He's got a cutter too."
It's not just the strikeout rate that has improved this season. Bassitt has done everything well. Despite Thursday's loss, he holds a 1-1 record with a 2.55 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP.
"He used his time wisely when he was on the injured list," Melvin said. "'How can I get better?' He's quicker to the plate at times. He does everything a little better and he's pitching with some confidence. So yeah, he's always had that in him."
Bassitt says he doesn't specifically try to strike batters out, often preferring weak contact early in the count. But he is also confident in his ability to overpower hitters when he needs to.
"Do I think it's probably going to keep up like this? Probably not. But at the same time, I think I can punch a lot of guys out all the time."