Phillies Add Matt Strahm as Caleb Cotham’s Next Project

Matt Strahm
Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

In Game 1 of the World Series, Phillies manager Rob Thomson made a rather unorthodox pitching change, bringing in Ranger Suárez, his probable Game 3 starter, for the seventh inning. He did so because he wanted a lefty to face the heart of Houston’s lineup, and he had already used his best southpaw reliever a few innings prior. Philadelphia did have a second left-hander waiting in the bullpen – Brad Hand – but in that moment, it was clear Thomson didn’t trust him with the game on the line. Fast forward a couple of months: Hand is a free agent, and the Phillies have a new lefty in his place. On Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, the team signed Matt Strahm for a two-year, $15 million contract, per Jeff Passan of ESPN. By giving him the sixth-largest guarantee for a free-agent reliever this offseason, the Phillies are betting that he’ll pitch well enough that they don’t have to put Suárez back in the bullpen anytime soon.

Strahm received a similar deal as Chris Martin (two years, $17.5 million), but he’s far less proven of a player. A 31-year-old left-hander, he spent last season with the Red Sox, throwing 44.2 innings with 52 strikeouts and a 3.72 FIP. It was a solid bounce-back season after he missed most of 2021 recovering from patellar tendon surgery on his right knee. Indeed, the southpaw has had a career full of setbacks and breakthroughs. He was a 21st-round draft pick who pitched just 30 innings of rookie ball before Tommy John surgery shut him down. Yet when he finally began his professional career in earnest, he was utterly dominant, quickly rising through the ranks of the Royals’ farm system. In 2017, five years after being drafted 643rd overall, he was named a top-100 prospect by this very website.

72. Matt Strahm

Scouting Summary: I’m on Strahm as a starter not just because I think his changeup will progress to average as he continues to make up for lost development time due to injury, but also because he has excellent command of a vicious curveball that he regularly works inside to right-handed hitters. He’ll also run his fastball up to 96.

-Eric Longenhagen

Strahm’s prospect pedigree hinged on his mid-rotation potential, a ceiling he never reached. He was terrific pitching out of the pen in 2018, his first full season, yet the Padres (who had acquired him in a deadline deal in ’17) tried moving him into the starting rotation the following season, and he failed miserably. He wound up back in the bullpen by the All-Star break. He was great again in the second half, and it seemed like he had finally found his calling as a dependable reliever. Unfortunately, that stability didn’t last long, as he had a wildly inconsistent 2020 season and ultimately needed knee surgery in October. He was non-tendered after the 2021 season, and the Red Sox picked him up for cheap.

That’s Strahm in a nutshell: from unheralded draft pick to top prospect to failed starter to solid reliever to injured list to eight-figure free-agent deal. As a result of all those ups and downs, he is still figuring things out at 31 years old. Evidently, the Phillies think they can aid in his self-discovery and turn Strahm into a consistent relief option over the next two years.

Strahm doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He averages around 94 mph on both his four-seam and his sinker, which is league-average velocity for a reliever. His delivery doesn’t do him any favors either; he increased his extension in 2022, but it was still only in the 48th percentile on Baseball Savant. Without high velocity (or perceived high velocity), he succeeds by keeping hitters on their toes using a wide variety of pitches. In addition to his fastballs, he throws a slider, a curveball, and a changeup, and in 2022 he used each pitch at least 9% of the time. Such a diverse pitch mix is unusual for a relief pitcher; of 203 relievers with at least 40 innings last season, only 39 threw five separate pitches even 1% of the time, and only 16 threw that many pitches 5% of the time. Strahm is one of only four to use five different offerings at least 9% of the time:

Relievers With Diverse Pitch Arsenals
Pitcher FA% FC% SI% CH% SL% CU%
Lou Trivino 17.2% 15.5% 30.6% 10.7% 23.7% 2.4%
Duane Underwood Jr. 10.4% 27.9% 26.3% 22.0% 13.4%
Nick Martinez 20.3% 20.8% 15.3% 27.4% 16.2%
Matt Strahm 40.8% 12.2% 9.0% 20.8% 17.1%
via Pitch Info

To make things more interesting, Strahm is the only left-hander in this exclusive club. Thus, he’s a bit of a unicorn, and therefore a pitching coach’s dream. His floor is that of a serviceable middle reliever, but his multifarious arsenal gives him the tools to work toward a higher ceiling. The more tools in his belt, the more ways his coaches can change things up.

Caleb Cotham, the Phillies’ pitching guru, had a great deal of success working with relievers to revise their repertoires last season. José Alvarado transformed into a backend fireman following an adjustment to his pitch mix, and Andrew Bellatti and Nick Nelson became competent big-league arms after altering their own approaches. Cotham will hope to achieve similar results with Strahm.

As a place to start, he should focus on Strahm’s approach against left-handed batters. The Phillies need another trustworthy option against the Sotos and Freemans of the world, and presumably, that’s what they signed him to be. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the 31-year-old ended up with reverse platoon splits last season:

Matt Strahm Platoon Splits 2022
vs. LHH 9.24 2.84 0.71 .310 3.98 4.82
vs. RHH 10.97 3.66 1.13 .290 3.61 3.70

In such a small sample size, platoon splits mean little. But as it turns out, Strahm hasn’t ever handled left-handed batters particularly well:

Matt Strahm Platoon Splits 2016-2021
vs. LHH 9.2 3.2 1.3 .315 4.24 4.25
vs. RHH 9.5 2.6 1.3 .297 4.02 4.23

In part, we can chalk this up to the competition he’s faced; as a southpaw reliever, Strahm is more likely to see tough left-handed hitters and weaker right-handed hitters. Even so, you’d expect his stats to look a bit better when he has the platoon advantage. His career numbers against right-handed batters are perfectly respectable. His performance against same-handed hitters, however, leaves much to be desired if the Phillies are going to trust him to face their most challenging left-handed opponents. So where is there room for improvement?

The biggest difference between Strahm’s approach to righties and lefties is that he uses his four-seam fastball as his primary pitch against the former and his sinker as his go-to offering against the latter. He introduced the sinker a few years ago, after lefties annihilated his four-seam fastball in 2018 and ’19. But while the sinker has been a better option, it’s still a mediocre pitch; left-handers had a .341 wOBA and .299 xwOBA against it last season, with a minuscule 9.1% whiff rate. It didn’t help that the pitch had a less movement than it used to, nor that Strahm threw it in the strike zone 69% of the time. It wasn’t bad, per se, but a pitch with average speed and unexceptional movement that ends up in the strike zone almost 70% of the time is going to be pretty hittable. For that reason, if he is going to evolve into a true asset against dangerous left-handed hitters, it all starts with his sinker. He must either replace it with a better offering, complement it with a stronger secondary pitch, or improve the sinker itself.

As luck would have it, Cotham has helped Phillies left-handers to do all three. Bailey Falter found success last year using fewer sinkerballs against left-handed batters. Alvarado turned his cutter into the perfect sidekick for his 100-mph sinker. Suárez broke out in large part because he improved his sinker in 2021 and started using it more frequently. If Cotham can help Strahm get more out of his sinker, the southpaw will be much better off. Clearly, the Phillies think he can do just that.

Philadelphia needed relievers this winter. Three pitchers who played a role in the postseason bullpen — Hand, David Robertson, Zach Eflin — are all gone, as are Corey Knebel and Jeurys Familia. The bullpen depth chart was thin heading into the offseason. In that regard, Strahm clearly addresses an area of need. But if he’s going to fill a more meaningful role for the Phillies as a formidable option against left-handed batters, he still has work to do.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

<3 Caleb Cotham. Phillies were 9th in RP WAR in 2022 after being 28th in 2021. Surely a lot of people had a role in that transformation, but seems Cotham has one of the brightest futures of any pitching coach on the planet

Last edited 1 year ago by diamonddores
1 year ago
Reply to  diamonddores

And that was with Familia, Knebel, and a few others being pretty terrible while they were there. His improvements to Alvarado and Belatti, plus the return of Dominguez and boost from Robertson, were huge.