Padres manager Andy Green, a colleague of former FanGraphs manager editor Dave Cameron, has expressed interest in continuing bullpen games. The strategy make some sense, as the Padres have one of the strongest and deepest bullpens in the game, trailing only the Yankees, Astros, and Brewers in relief WAR. The Padres have bullpenned four times in four weeks and three consecutive times through a vacant spot (Joey Lucchesi’s) in their stating rotation, most recently on Sunday at Atlanta.
Of the four bullpen games, Matt Strahm has started all of them. Strahm has taken to the role.
Since Strahm became a starter — or, more precisely, “an opener” — he’s been dominant. In his last three appearances, all technically starts, Strahm has recorded 11 strikeouts and no walks against 29 batters while conceding just three hits and a single run in 8.0 innings.
Over four total starts and a couple other relief appearances since May 27th, he’s allowed just one run and five hits in 16 innings, striking out 14 against one walk. His velocity has held steady in a starting/opening role, though he had pitched in multiple-inning relief outings earlier in the season.
One issue with using a quality reliever to open games is that a club loses a possible quality bullpen arm for high-leverage innings later in the game. But the Padres’ bullpen is deep enough with Brad Hand, Kirby Yates, Adam Cimber, Craig Stammen, Robbie Erlin, and Phil Maton (DL) all having been effective. Strahm had been lost in the bullpen crowd before finding this niche.
If you’ve forgotten about or been unaware of Strahm, you’re forgiven. You have a life to live and Strahm has largely been out of sight, pitching for the Royals last year before undergoing season-ending knee surgery last July to repair a torn patellar tendon. He was later traded in July along with Travis Wood, minor leaguer Esteury Ruiz, and cash to the Padres for Trevor Cahill, Ryan Buchter, and Brandon Maurer.
But he’s been a different pitcher since he’s joined the Padres.
Let’s start with the fastball. While the velocity has remained steady, averaging around 94 mph as it had in Kansas City, and while the spin also remains above average (2,367 rpms), the location of the pitch has changed. Strahm is more often elevating his fastball.
Consider Strahm’s fastball location in 2016:
And Strahm’s fastball location in 2018:
Out of 440 pitchers to throw at least 50 four-seam fastballs this season, Strahm ranks 94th in whiff-per-swing rate (25.9%). Over the last three years, he’s always enjoyed above-average whiff rates on his fastball at or near 30%, so it makes sense that he try and hunt even more swing-and-miss at the top and above the zone.
Strahm has also turned with greater frequency to his slider, a pitch he either didn’t have or trust in 2016 . This season, out of 298 pitchers to throw at least 50 sliders, Strahm ranks 19th in whiff-per-swing rate (53.9%).
He has a bending curveball that ranks 15th in called-strike rate among pitchers to have thrown at least 20 curveballs this season (57%). The pitch has above-average horizontal movement (6.92 inches). He also has a changeup.
Here’s a three-pitch sequence to arguably the NL’s best hitter, Freddie Freeman, on Sunday:
Elevated 97 mph fastball:
Freeman is so good he stuck out on three pitches and still reached base.
After having some command issues earlier in the season, Strahm hasn’t walked any of the past 45 batters he’s faced. He’s also demonstrated the ability to vary the velocity and location of his fastball.
He takes something off his fastball here and dots the low-outside corner versus Ryan Flaherty :
Strahm then elevates (perhaps unintentionally, given the target) and adds velocity for the punch out:
Strahm didn’t use his curveball as effectively on Sunday, but the following footage is evidence of it generating a called strike in his previous outing, which is its signature. It’s not been much of a swing-and-miss weapon, nor has his changeup missed many bats this season, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be effective. If nothing else, the curve gives Strahm another shape and speed with which batters must contend.
Green has been interested in using Strahm as a starter. It’s unclear just how much he would be willing to extend him, as he told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
[Green] has been excited about Strahm becoming a starter since the team acquired him. And the 26-year-old’s performances of late – a 0.96 ERA over 18 1/3 innings (11 games) since he allowed three runs in his Padres debut on May 7 – have only accelerated that enthrallment.
Green has increasingly talked about Strahm becoming stretched out, though only as much his knee allows. The Padres will be careful with his arm as well. Strahm threw just 39 2/3 innings last season. He also missed the 2013 season following Tommy John surgery and has thrown just 342 2/3 innings in his professional career, 77 of those in the majors.
Strahm, who was limited to rest and rehab this past offseason, said he is 10 pounds lighter than he usually is for the season because he couldn’t work out. He is still held out of some conditioning drills.
It remains to be seen if Strahm will be further stretched out, if he remains a fixture in this opener-type role, or if he’s eventually shuttled back to the bullpen, which could become less crowded should the Padres elect to become sellers and move in-demand bullpen assets.
Strahm is probably not the second coming of Josh Hader, but who is? However, what if Cameron and the Padres have Hader Lite as an opener or starter of major-league games? The Padres still might have found something in bullpen games, and someone who can open them effectively and even in extended outings. Maybe Strahm will carve out his own role.