Dan Straily Returns from the KBO with the Diamondbacks

© Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It might be overstating the case to say that for the second time inside of 24 months, Dan Straily has resurfaced to rescue us from the major league baseball-free doldrums. While the owners’ lockout has put a freeze on transactions that involve major league rosters, the Diamondbacks’ signing of Straily to a minor-league deal is comparatively eye-catching. The 33-year-old righty is returning to the States following a career-salvaging two-year stint with the KBO’s Lotte Giants.

Straily previously grabbed the spotlight, such as it was, on March 23, 2020. While MLB had recently shut down spring training due to the coronavirus pandemic, the KBO was able to proceed with its preparations for the season, albeit cautiously. Straily, who had signed a $1 million deal with the Giants, pitched opposite teammate Adrian Sampson in a surreal intrasquad game that was carried on YouTube. Not only did the stream offer a preview of what baseball in a mostly-empty ballpark would look like, it provided a flicker of hope that there would be at least some baseball into which fans could sink their teeth while so much of the world was shut down. Thanks to a last-minute deal with ESPN, the KBO found a stateside audience, and we had some fun at FanGraphs getting up to speed on the league and then following along.

Straily landed in South Korea after spending parts of eight seasons (2012-19) in the majors pitching for six different franchises with mixed levels of success, accumulating 3.6 WAR via a 4.56 ERA and 5.05 FIP in 803.1 innings. He put up 1.9 WAR in 27 starts with the A’s in 2013, 1.2 WAR in 31 starts with the Reds in ’16, and a career-best 2.0 WAR in 33 starts with the Marlins in ’17. Those last two campaigns were the only ones in which he didn’t also pitch in the minors, though in 2018, he went down only for a rehab assignment following a forearm strain.

Straily’s 2019 season was an utter disaster. Designated for assignment and released by the Marlins at the end of spring training, he signed with the Orioles, for whom he made eight starts and six relief appearances totaling 47.2 innings, during which he posted a 9.82 ERA and 9.34 FIP. He served up a jaw-dropping 22 homers in that span, two more than he allowed in 122.1 innings with the Marlins a year earlier; his rate of 4.15 homers per nine is the highest in major league history for any pitcher who threw at least 40 innings in a season. The Orioles traded Straily to the Phillies for cash considerations at the July 31 deadline, but he didn’t show enough in a six-start stint to merit a September call-up.

It turns out Straily was injured all along. “I found out at the end of the season that I was pitching on a torn meniscus and had part of it on the outside of my knee,” he said in a December chat at MLB Trade Rumors. “[I] was told many times all year it was just some inflammation.”

Straily had the knee — his left (landing) one — repaired via arthroscopic surgery. By the time he signed with Lotte, he was healthy according to Josh Herzenberg, currently the director of research & development and international scouting for the Giants and formerly a FanGraphs contributor as well as a Dodgers scout (notably, he signed Dustin May) and minor league coach.

Herzenberg wasn’t part of the Giants’ organization when Straily was signed, but Sung Min Kim, another former FanGraphs contributor, was. Kim had been hired to join the team’s R&D department that fall. “We liked the pitch characteristics, spin rates, and movement,” recalled Kim. “Straily’s not a velo guy in the big leagues, but it was certainly a velo that would work well in the KBO.” The Giants felt that if Straily could recover his form, his slider “would be a top notch pitch in the KBO,” according to Kim.

Back at full strength, Straily went 15-4 while leading the KBO with 205 strikeouts; placing second with a 2.50 ERA (52 ERA-), 26.4% K rate, and 19.8% K-BB%; and third with a 2.97 FIP (62 FIP-) and 194.2 innings. Via the aforementioned chat, Straily said, “I was very lucky to play for a team with many [A]merican style coaches around so we had all the toys! Rapsodo, Driveline, Edgertronic cameras and we got to work. [It’s] a big part of my success and reinvention of myself in [K]orea. We changed something on almost all of my pitches to make them better.”

“It was tweaks here and there,” Herzenberg told FanGraphs regarding Straily’s rebound. “There was never anything that we really made a huge overhaul to.” Though the righty’s average four-seam fastball velocity (89.7 mph according to Sports Info Solutions) was actually 0.6 mph below his 2017-19 average, a minor grip change helped him increase the pitch’s spin efficiency and spin rate, and the tackier baseballs used in the KBO didn’t hurt, either.

“We felt like the fastball got a little bit more true,” said Herzenberg. Where the pitch had averaged 2,326 rpm in 2018 and 2,365 rpm in ’19 according to Statcast, it increased by a couple hundred revolutions per minute in ’20. What’s more, it velocity stood out more in a league where the average fastball was 88.4 mph as opposed to the majors’ 93.1 mph.

Another tweak the Giants’ coaching staff made was to Straily’s changeup grip. “We worked to keep the pointer finger and the thumb together on the circle,” said Herzenberg, “And that created a little bit more consistency of command of his changeup.”

Meanwhile, Straily’s slider played up in that environment. “His slider had average movement for the league here, but the velocity [84.0 mph average according to SIS] is elite for the KBO,” said Herzenberg. “We identified pretty early that this pitch had a chance to be pretty dominant over here, and it’s the pitch that he feels most comfortable with in terms of command and consistency. So we didn’t really touch the slider in terms of characteristics, we just talked about usage.”

Straily threw the slider — which did gain about 100 rpm relative to his 2020 spin rate of 2,643 rpm — more than one-third of the time in 2020:

Dan Straily Pitch Usage
Season Team FB% (velo) SL% (velo) CB% (velo) CH% (velo)
2017 Marlins 50.5% (90.3) 29.8% (83.7) 3.0% (73.4) 16.8% (83.3)
2018 Marlins 49.3% (90.4) 32.9% (83.8) 0.7% (75.1) 17.0% (83.6)
2019 Orioles 52.3% (90.3) 20.0% (83.7) 3.6% (76.3) 24.1% (84.1)
2020 Lotte 45.7% (89.7) 36.2% (84.0) 4.9% (74.9) 13.2% (84.3)
2021 Lotte 46.3% (90.5) 32.3% (84.3) 5.8% (76.1) 15.0% (84.5)
SOURCE: Sports Info Solutions

“The pitch mix just became more distinct,” said Herzenberg. “I would kind of help him out with a pregame stuff. ‘Pitch to your strength’ was the majority of the message, and he understood really well what his strengths were.”

With sharper stuff, Straily generated more weak contact, and as a result, batters hit the ball on the ground far more often. Where he had averaged a 32.4% groundball rate and 0.71 groundball-to-fly ball ratio in the majors from 2017-19, he had a 53.4% groundball rate and 1.4 ratio in ’20, and thus gave up only 0.46 homers per nine.

[Update: Herzenberg relayed to me that Lotte’s internal numbers don’t have Straily’s groundball rate as high as SIS. We know from MLB data that SIS and Statcast often differ on things like groundball rates and zone rates and so on, so Straily’s evolution might not be so extreme. Obviously, his drop in home run rate is still substantial, but it may have more to do with the different ball and hitter bat speeds than his suddenly becoming a groundball machine.]

While Straily eyed a return to MLB after the 2020 season and reportedly drew interest from the Angels, Reds, and Giants (the San Francisco ones), the faster pace of the KBO offseason relative to that of MLB led him to return to the Lotte Giants via a $1.2 million deal that offered another $500,000 in incentives. His performance wasn’t as strong as in 2020, though his 4.02 ERA and 3.59 FIP were still substantially better than league average, equating to a 90 ERA- and 81 FIP-. His strikeout, walk, and home rates all moved in the wrong relative direction (to 23.0%, 9.4%, and 0.65 per nine, respectively), and his BABIP shot from .274 to .323.

“In 2020, he was really good and I think he got a little bit lucky BABIP-wise,” said Herzenberg. “And then there was like a little bit of unluckiness in 2021. His command was a tick worse and he would be the first to say that [but] the pitch characteristics, actually in some ways got better. He threw harder in 2021.”

Indeed, via SIS, Straily’s average four-seam fastball velocity rose by 0.8 mph, to 90.5, but results-wise, he regressed, as KBO hitters recognized that the slider would be his go-to pitch and were better prepared for it. Via Statiz, where they hit .166 and slugged .234 against the pitch in 2020, those numbers rose to .216 and .318 in ’21.

Back in MLB, Straily will need his command and his secondary pitches to be strong to offset his low-90s fastball. With Arizona, he should at least get a substantial opportunity. Diamondbacks starters ranked third-to-last in the NL in both ERA (5.20) and FIP (4.95) in 2021, with Madison Bumgarner, Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Luke Weaver all posting ERAs and FIPs of 4.25 or greater save for Kelly’s 4.11 FIP, the only mark from among the group that was better than the park-adjusted league average. Straily would appear to have a leg up on the fifth-starter job, ahead of options such as lefty Tyler Gilbert (who had a nice nine-game run as a 27-year-old rookie, including a no-hitter in his first start), lefty Caleb Smith, and righties Corbin Martin, Humberto Castellanos, Humberto Mejía, and Taylor Widener, none of whom has sustained much success in the majors.

Kelly stands out in this context, not only because he’s one of the team’s better pitchers but because he came to Arizona after spending four seasons (2015-18) with the SK Wyverns. The now-33-year-old righty doesn’t have overwhelming velocity (91.7 mph average in 2021) but has been reasonably successful thanks to his secondary pitches, suggesting that the Diamondbacks have an idea of what will translate from South Korea to the US.

The Straily signing won’t turn the NL West race upside down, and it might not amount to a whole lot. Projection-wise, Steamer is quite pessimistic (5.92 ERA, 5.83 FIP), ZiPS a bit less so (4.82 ERA, 4.67 FIP). It’s worth remembering that after dominating in the KBO in 2018 and ’19 and then signing a three-year, $9.125 million deal with the Brewers, Josh Lindblom scuffled and was knocked off the 40-man roster last year. Still, the more established Straily may well have a second act to his MLB career. Let’s hope the lockout ends soon so we can start finding out.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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11 months ago

What about one on Aaron Brooks suddenly turning to a groundball generating machine in the KBO and coming back to the MLB?

11 months ago
Reply to  pedeysRSox

I’d recommend some caution with KBO groundball rates, as they’re all far higher than MLB pretty much across the board. I’m not sure if that’s due to different cutoffs or different swing paths. Brooks was quite good in Korea, but I don’t think he’ll put enough batters away to have much success stateside.

11 months ago
Reply to  ehalt

That’s why I would feel more comfortable dropping his groundball rate to 55% from the 78% he had in the KBO. Wouldn’t be surprised in the strikeouts being around 7 K/9 and if the walks stay around 2.5 BB/9 he could be very useful.