The Angels Reinforce Their Bullpen with Hunter Strickland

The Angels made a minor move to bolster their relief corps over the weekend, acquiring veteran reliever Hunter Strickland from the Rays. Strickland has been effective over the first six weeks of the season, with a 1.62 ERA and a 2.83 FIP in 16 innings for Tampa Bay. In return for his services, Los Angeles will give up either cash considerations or a player to be named later.

The Rays love reclamation projects, and Strickland was one of their latest, signing a minor-league deal with the team just before the start of spring training. It wasn’t Strickland’s first time. Once a rotation prospect with the Pirates — he was a Red Sox draftee picked up in the Adam LaRoche trade — he missed the 2011 season due to rotator cuff surgery and was waived by Pittsburgh after a disappointing 2012 season. The Giants moved him to the bullpen, and the big righty with big fastball looked like a future closer candidate. He also came equipped with a big temper, resulting in such incidents and playing the cavalry general for a bullpen charge into the Yasiel PuigMadison Bumgarner incident, yelling at Salvador Perez after an Omar Infante homer in the 2014 World Series, and intentionally hitting Bryce Harper in 2017.

That hot-headedness led to a broken hand that caused him to miss two months in 2018, the unsurprising result of punching a door after blowing a save, and the Giants non-tendered Strickland after that season.

While baseball has been seemingly forgiving to temperamental closers, fitting with the historical trope of the position, teams are less forgiving when poor play comes with it. On the surface, Strickland’s decline from 2014–15 looked gentle, going from a 2.80 ERA in ’15–16 to 3.21 for ’17–18. It was worse under the surface, with his FIP going up by nearly a full run (3.04 to 3.97). Even more concerning, the quality of contact was improving considerably, and his xERA went up every year, from 2.90 in 2015 to 3.38, 4.51, and 5.09 in his last year with the Giants. It didn’t stop there, hitting 5.27 in 2019 with the Mariners and Nationals — the ERA belatedly rising to match that underlying performance. He earned a second World Series ring but didn’t even make the championship roster of the notoriously shallow Washington bullpen.

Strickland never put up huge strikeout numbers, even at his best, with the biggest culprit being the lack of effective pitches other than his fastball. His slurvey curve was never a true swing-and-miss pitch, nor was the slider he later learned from John Smoltz. The changeup, intermittently abandoned, never really developed into a consistent tool, and after holding lefties to a .220 wOBA in his rookie 2015 season, he allowed a .346 wOBA against them from ’16 to ’19. Losing velocity on a fastball is something many pitchers have overcome, but it proved to be more difficult for Strickland, who was extremely reliant on the pitch to get outs.

Strickland has seen his first success in a while in 2021. The slider still isn’t an out pitch, but his command has improved enough that he’s locating it more consistently at a location harder to golf into the stands, setting up his fastball more effectively. Throwing fewer pitches in the zone than at any point of his career, his walk rate has improved from its 2017–18 nadir.

He’s also worked on the temper issue. After the 2018 injury, Strickland saw a life coach and dug into anger management books.

Short of a new weapon in his repertoire, Strickland is unlikely to return to that power closer status from his early Giants career, but he should be able to be a good depth pitcher, eating up innings to save the higher-leverage situations for the players with the filthy sliders or the physics-defying changeups. That’s pretty much how the Rays have used him. In his rookie season, he made 21 appearances entering games with a leverage index of 1.50 or greater. For Tampa Bay, he’s only appeared in a single high-leverage situation: a fifth-inning appearance against the Royals after Brent Honeywell Jr. left a couple runners on.

Given the unlikely chance that there would be a huge trade bounty for Strickland later, his low pecking order in the Rays’ bullpen, and the returns of Pete Fairbanks and Collin McHugh to the active roster, it’s not surprising to see Tampa Bay move him now. The need for the Angels was more urgent. Junior Guerra and Chris Rodriguez have both gone down with injuries in the last two weeks, and their bullpen isn’t blessed with an abundance of depth. There’s a lot of baseball left, but at 6 1/2 games back and fourth in the division, the Angels risk finding themselves in a hole too deep to dig out of. They need more than Strickland, but with the fourth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 5.25 and two months to go to the trade deadline, this was an opportunity to add a much-needed relief arm.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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trentjreimers
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trentjreimers

His name is just so *chef’s kiss* god-tier intimidation