The Prescription That Fixed Dan Straily

Dan Straily needed to see a doctor. He wasn’t running a fever or suffering from strep throat; he had a bum shoulder. The symptoms of his malady were decreased velocity and general ineffectiveness. He initiated some independent research, and upon the recommendation of Houston Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, Straily, 27, picked his practitioner.

After sitting in the waiting room that is Triple-A for much of the 2015 season, Straily paid a visit to Driveline Baseball in Seattle, where he met with Kyle Boddy. Boddy — the subject of a recent post here by Eno Sarris — isn’t an M.D., but you can think of him like a pitching doctor. Straily showed up, rattled off his ailments, and named his desired health benchmarks.

Straily told Boddy he needed to get his fastball back to sitting at 92 mph, with the ability to touch 94. That’s where he was when he first came up as an exciting, 23-year-old pitching prospect with Oakland back in 2012. Lately, his fastball had been sitting 89, and he struggled to touch 92 at all, and his effectiveness plummeted. The reason was the shoulder; he needed to get that healthy. And his breaking ball, he told Boddy, needed sharpening up.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 6.10.50 PM
Straily’s average fastball velocity by year

Boddy listened to his patient, and ran the preliminary examinations. That meant a trip to the biomechanics lab to analyze Straily’s delivery, and some tests to measure the movement and spin rate on his pitches. The doc came back with good news.

“I brought everything back and I said, ‘You know, your breaking ball is actually fine. I think that problem will go away if you throw 94 and sit 92,’” Boddy said. “And [Straily] said, ‘Alright, perfect.’ So we were on the same page from the get-go.”

Straily’s prescription included a new weight-lifting regiment and a revamped throwing program, featuring a steady diet of weighted balls. At the Driveline Baseball headquarters, Straily used the weighted balls for drills like the pivot pickoff throw, which helped strengthen his shoulder, reclaim lost range of motion from after the injury, and feel once again like he was getting behind the baseball when he threw off a mound.

“It really cleans up their force application,” Boddy said, when asked the benefits of the pivot pickoff drill. “They’re really good at figuring out how to transfer all of what they’re generating in the trunk and the torso into the ball in their arm. There’s often a big disconnect between the two and these drills help them feel that again by creating resistance.”

After several months of throwing, weighted-ball drills, lifting weights like Bane, and more throwing, Straily shipped out to Kissimmee, Florida, the home of the Houston Astros’ Spring Training complex. It was time to see whether his prescription would pay off.

The results:

The Astros play their Spring Training games in the Grapefruit League, which is void of any PITCHf/x cameras, so any velocity readings are unofficial. But unconfirmed reports from multiple scouts have pegged Straily as sitting 94, even touching 95 at times. According to PITCHf/x, the highest Straily has ever been clocked during a regular season game is 94.3, nearly four years ago. He’s cracked the 94 mph threshold just six times in his career. Straily isn’t just back to where he was; he could be in uncharted territory.

Quickly, Straily again became a source of intrigue. It wasn’t long ago that the 24th-round draft pick put himself on baseball’s national radar by blazing through the minor leagues with eye-popping strikeout figures before making a name for himself with a 3.94 ERA over his first 34 big-leagues starts with Oakland. If he was back to that 2012 level — or better — Straily would be a name worth keeping an eye on.

But, as mentioned in Drellich’s tweet, Straily is out of options, and Houston’s bullpen was already full, so a decision needed to be made. The Astros had interest in padding their catching depth, and the Padres had a catcher to spare, and so the clubs agreed to a swap on Monday that sent Straily to San Diego in exchange for veteran catcher Erik Kratz. In a bit of a roundabout way, Straily has again positioned himself to be on a major-league roster. After throwing just 68.2 ineffective innings over the past two seasons with a sub-90s fastball, Straily could have a spot in San Diego’s Opening Day bullpen, reportedly sitting 94.

If Straily is truly sitting 94, then he’d be up nearly 5 mph from last year, which would be far and away the largest velocity spike of the spring. Even if he’s just back to sitting 92, touching 94, it would be in the top 10. Such a dramatic increase is nearly unprecedented from such an established pitcher.

“It’s not common,” Boddy said.

Studies conducted at Driveline have shown that when fastballs drop below 90 mph, pitch break and spin rates fall off dramatically, relative to other speeds. A pitcher who once sat 96 can lose 3 mph off a fastball and survive. A pitcher like Straily, who only ever sat 92, cannot withstand such a decline.

On the surface, Straily’s always been intriguing. He’s got a starter’s repertoire — a fastball, slider and changeup, with both secondary pitches showing plus whiff rates. Batters have always had trouble making contact with his offerings; since entering the league, Straily owns the same swinging strike rate as Madison Bumgarner. The downfall in recent years have been the walks and home runs.

Straily’s always had worse-than-average walk rates, but when he came up with Oakland, they were at least manageable. Between 2014 and -15, he walked an additional batter per inning, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Interestingly enough, despite the walks, Straily has never had problems throwing strikes. Could be that the increase in walks was due more to the velocity drop than any command problems.

“The first thing you see from guys who lose velocity is that they start not throwing strikes, not because of any mechanical problem they have, but because they’re just like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m throwing 88, I don’t want to throw anywhere in the zone,'” Boddy said.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the increase in velocity could actually be the key to Straily harnessing his walks. Boddy invoked the name of Barry Zito, who consistently posted poor walk rates despite above-average command, for fear of working inside the zone too often with his mid-80s fastball. With Straily’s velocity well into the 90s again, the thought is that the same hesitation will be gone. With a little extra zip on the heater, coupled with the pitcher-friendly confines of PETCO Park and the west coast, perhaps Straily can rein in the homers.

Dan Straily is now on his fourth team in three years. Admittedly, it’s not the greatest look for a 27-year-old, 24th-round draft pick with the kind of numbers he’s put up the past couple seasons. But Straily isn’t the same guy that got bombed over his last 68.2 innings — not when he’s throwing 94, he’s not. Spring Training reports are still Spring Training reports. At this point, he’s still a lottery ticket, but now, he’s like a $20 lottery ticket, as opposed to a $2 scratch-off. He still has to prove himself in the regular season before we can say anything definitive regarding the benefits of his offseason gains. But for the Padres to acquire a pitcher as young as Straily, with his kind of repertoire and his kinds of recent improvements in exchange for a 35-year-old catcher? That’s the kind of thing that can make a front office look real smart.

We hoped you liked reading The Prescription That Fixed Dan Straily by August Fagerstrom!

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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.

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alang3131982
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Prescription: MORE COWBELL.