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Back in September, I wrote about Padres left-handed reliever Matt Strahm and how his intriguing repertoire out of the bullpen was generating mostly unnoticed performance. I noted his respectable 2.12 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 51 innings, while also pointing out that his numbers were trending upward. In the final month of the season, after that article was posted, Strahm continued to impress, posting a 1.74 ERA and 2.87 over a stretch of 10 1⁄3 innings, striking out 14 and walking four.
Strahm is no stranger to success. In his debut season with the Royals in 2016, transitioning from a starting role in the minors to a setup role in the majors, he put up a 1.23 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 0.9 fWAR in only 21 innings. After a hiccup with inconsistent performance, a season-ending knee injury, and a subsequent trade, he returned to flash dominance in a versatile role out of the bullpen for the Padres.
With the Royals, Strahm relied strongly upon his fastball (he threw it nearly 80 percent of the time), which was good-not-great velocity-wise, sitting around 93-94 MPH, touching upper-90s. He’d occasionally mix in a curveball, slider, and changeup, results varying. His curveball without a doubt was his best secondary pitch as a starter. His only other significant offering, his changeup, was considered mediocre.
Strahm’s fastball was touching 97 in relief this year. It sits in the low 90s during extended outings but has exceptional, bat-missing life in the zone and is a plus offering. His curveball is already plus, flashes better than that, and Strahm’s ability to locate it in several effective locales allows the pitch to miss bats against both left- and right-handed hitters. Strahm will break off curveball featuring spin rates in excess of 3,000 RPMs. His changeup is fringey right now and only projects to average, but Strahm is able to maintain his fastball’s arm speed during release, which allows the pitch to induce sub-optimal contact.
Because of Strahm’s ability to locate his curveball effectively, I don’t think significant changeup progression is a necessary component for Strahm to attain a mid-rotation ceiling. If he can refine his fastball command, I think he can get by using the fastball/breaking ball against hitters from both sides while using the changeup as a tertiary change of pace.
His second year in the majors saw him struggle with locating his fastball. None of the secondaries took a step forward, giving his potentially impactful arm little to work with. The Royals did try him out briefly as a starter that season, as he went on to post a 7.11 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 11 2⁄3 innings. Losing a tick of velocity, he relied on his fastball less, turning to his slider and changeup as his main secondary offerings. None of those looked encouraging in a small sample size.
Fast forward to 2018, as Strahm had been traded to the Padres. Back in the big leagues quickly, he worked with four primary offerings out of the bullpen. Not your typical reliever. The biggest difference though this time was that his secondaries were generating good results.
Strahm has relied on four pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, all of them generating fair results. Using prorated pitch values from FanGraphs and eliminating decimals to create a wider range, we see that 27 pitchers out of 291 with 50 innings have posted values at or greater than zero. Strahm is one of them, with the majority of the rest looking like great company.
The changeup has turned into my main focus there. With the Royals as a starting pitcher prospect and a big league reliever, his changeup was considered fringe and there wasn’t much reliance or focus on it. It also seem to correlate pretty well with his uptick in strikeouts.
Strahm developed more confidence in the pitch as the season went on. And the results progressively got better and better.
May: 22 results, .156 wOBA, .451 xwOBA, 0.0% K%, 0.0% BB%
June: 24 results, .196 wOBA, .273 xwOBA, 12.5% BB%, 0.0% K%
July: 53 results, .264 wOBA, .286 xwOBA, 5.9% BB%, 29.4% K%
August: 22 results, .126 wOBA, .184 xwOBA, 0.0% BB%, 28.6% K%
September: 22 results, .126 wOBA, .171 xwOBA, 0.0% BB%, 33.3% K%
Now it looks like Strahm will get to test that new toy in the Padres rotation. He’s pitched a starter’s workload this spring, netting fantastic results. But it all doesn’t fall on the changeup, as he’s also working with a new slider. An adjustment to the mentality in which he throws the pitch with and work with his new pitching coach led to massive improvements.
“I started to develop it a little bit in Kansas City, but my knee injury in 2017 kind of put an end to that. Getting traded over here was a little blessing in disguise, to get with Balls [pitching coach Darren Balsley]. He kind of sharpened it up. He made it a legit swing-and-miss pitch for me.
“Something that helped it click was A.J. Ellis explaining to me — this was last year — the term ‘kill slider.’ That really stuck with me. It helped me throw my slider as a swing-and-miss pitch, versus trying to place it somewhere. A.J. said to just throw the hell out of it, and I was like, ‘All right.’ I did, and ever since I’ve kind of had that feeling for it. I basically take my four-seam and rotate the baseball — maybe 25 degrees? — and let it rip.
It’s only Spring Training, but there has been nothing but positive signs from his few outings.
2/27: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 SO
3/4: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO
3/9: 4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 SO
Now fully healthy and pitching with a complete four-pitch arsenal, Matt Strahm looks like an enticing breakout candidate for 2019.