Surprise, the Royals Have a New Relief Weapon

The Kansas City Royals, like any team would, have missed Wade Davis in his absence, but they haven’t really missed Wade Davis. Davis, of course, would make any bullpen better. But since Kansas City’s star closer last pitched nearly a month ago to the day, the Royals bullpen has performed as well as it has all season. Over the last 30 days, the unit’s run a league-best 1.95 ERA, good for a league-best 2.8 RA9-WAR, and the same group has run a league-best 3.15 FIP, good for a league-best 1.5 FIP-WAR. As the Royals have surged back into the fringe of the playoff discussion, the bullpen’s been a big reason why, and it’s done so without its centerpiece.

Part of it’s been de facto closer Kelvin Herrera. He’s recorded a 2.77 ERA and a 2.99 FIP in Davis’ absence, and gone 8-for-8 in save chances. Joakim Soria‘s played a big role, too. He’s seemingly corrected his early-season woes and posted a 2.03 ERA and 2.85 FIP in the last month. Peter Moylan’s pitched well, and Chris Young hasn’t given up a run since July 26. But neither Herrera nor Soria nor Moylan nor Young’s been the biggest part of Kansas City’s bullpen since Davis went down. No, the most important reliever in Kansas City since Davis hit the disabled list is the guy who only got called up because Davis hit the disabled list.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.26.26 AM

Matt Strahm, over the last month, has put up a 0.84 ERA and 0.43 FIP in the first 10.2 innings of his big-league career. The 24-year-old lefty, drafted in the 21st round of the 2012 draft, has struck out 19 of the 40 batters he’s faced and walked three. Six hits, no homers, one run.

Of course: 10.2 innings. We all understand what that means. Still, acknowledging the absurd sample, set the innings minimum to 10, and you get a pool of 527 pitchers this year. Strahm’s 47.5% strikeout ranks first. His 40% strikeout-minus-walk differential ranks second, between Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. He’s pounded the zone with strikes, and yet has allowed the fifth-lowest rate of in-zone contact. Mix truly eye-popping numbers with a teeny tiny sample, and one is left with uncertainty. And a desire to dig for more.

I mentioned the draft pick. Strahm wasn’t seen as having a high ceiling coming out of high school. A ceiling might not have been considered at all. His senior year of high school, Strahm weighed 150 pounds with a fastball in the upper-70s. He was the third-best pitcher at his North Dakota school. Thirty extra pounds and a Tommy John surgery later, and Strahm’s now touching 97 from the left side with his fastball. He rose quickly through Kansas City’s minor-league affiliates after the surgery, posting obscene strikeout figures and improving his walk rate the further removed he was from the operation. When Davis hit the DL, Strahm skipped Triple-A completely.

And now he’s up in the big leagues, and he’s dominated. The thing that originally caught my eye about Strahm was the fastball. It sits 95 from the left side, and that’ll catch anyone’s eye. Only eight lefties with at least 100 four-seam fastballs thrown this year have averaged a higher velocity on the pitch than Strahm. But even that’s not what originally caught my eye about the fastball. What originally caught my eye about the fastball is this:

Four-seam fastball whiff/swing, all 2016 pitchers, min. 100 thrown

  1. Matt Strahm, 39.3%
  2. Jeurys Familia, 37.5%
  3. Darren O’Day, 37.4%
  4. Nick Vincent, 37.1%
  5. Carl Edwards, Jr., 35.1%

It couldn’t be easier to understand why a pitcher who gets repeated swings and misses on the fastball finds success. The fastball isn’t supposed to be the swing-and-miss pitch. The slow, bendy, loopy stuff that a pitcher plays off the fastball is supposed to get the swing and miss. If a pitcher can get repeated swings and misses with the fastball, he doesn’t need much else. It’s a big part of what makes Rich Hill so good; it’s a fabric of Max Scherzer’s pitching identity. Strahm, thus far, has shown it, and he’s shown it while throwing his fastball three-quarters of the time.

There’s more evidence that Strahm’s fastball is an extreme pitch, beyond just the velocity and the whiff rates. He throws from a sidearm release point, giving it top-five horizontal movement that rivals Chris Sale’s. The spin rate on the pitch ranks in the upper-25% of all four-seams, giving it more rise than most sidearm pitchers are able to generate. And then there’s how he uses those characteristics to his advantage through his location:

newplot

Two-thirds of Strahm’s fastballs have gone to the upper-half of the zone or beyond, putting him in the 93rd percentile of high-fastball pitchers. That view comes from the catcher’s perspective, so picture a sidearm lefty pulling that high-rise fastball across the zone with 10 inches of horizontal movement at 97, elevated. It’s an uncomfortable sight. We can see it in action.

That’s essentially the go-to Strahm fastball. Elevated, at 96, breaking in on the hands of a righty or away from a lefty. Desmond Jennings takes for strike one.

That’s Strahm’s other pitch, a curveball that comes in at 76, on average, 17 mph slower than the heater. This one’s not great. Most are better.

There’s a good’n. That’s about a perfect curveball. Remember how Strahm’s four-seam spin rate ranked in the upper-25%? Strahm’s curveball spin rate ranks in the upper-3%.

Remember how Strahm was in the 93rd percentile of keeping the fastball elevated? He’s also in the 87th percentile of keeping the curveball low. That suggests strong command of the breaking ball. Not only does the curve have top-shelf spin, but he’s not hanging them. This is an uncharacteristically curveball-heavy at-bat; he typically only throws it one out of every four pitches, but it doesn’t seem like that’s for lack of quality.

Anyway, back to the heater. This one’s right down the middle, but after three straight hooks, Jennings can’t time it up. This goes back to that top-five rate of in-zone contact allowed, and it speaks to Strahm’s deception and the life on his fastball.

Strahm’s been a find for the Royals. There’s no denying that. Kudos to the player-development team, or the bullpen machine, or whatever you want to call it. Strahm’s got a future. The question is where. The Royals reportedly plan to stretch Strahm back out as a starter next spring. The key is developing the change, which he’s thrown just 13 times in his nine relief outings. Only time will tell whether the changeup reaches big-league quality. The good news is, the fastball and the curve already did.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

5 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

Leaderboard: Who is Mauricio Cabrera and when did he dethrone Chapman?