Matt Strahm pitched out the of the bullpen for the Royals exclusively last year. This isn’t new to him. Despite being a starter for most of 2016, he was a reliever for a large part of his minor league career. This year it seems as if he’ll get a full season of that same relief role, likely being the setup man to closer Kelvin Herrera. However the Royals front office continually states that they see him as a starter long term. Barring an injury, he isn’t likely to get much of a shot this year. Maybe one of Chris Young/TravisWood/Nate Karns aren’t effective and the Royals stretch Strahm out slowly like they did with Danny Duffy last year.
So I got to thinking what would Strahm look like as a starter? The results as a reliever have been tantalizing but that translation isn’t always one for one. Usually there is some diminishing in the results when moving from the pen to the rotation. Strahm isn’t going to strike out 34% of the batters he faces when he has to pitch over 6-7 innings (otherwise he’d be Jose Fernandez).
Unfortunately we can’t go to our usual go to option: projection systems. They like Strahm but they all see him either entirely as a reliever or spending a considerable amount of time there. So instead, let’s let as comparable players in a few different ways.
First how about the PECOTA comparables:
Gah. That doesn’t particularly help. PECOTA has Strahm as a reliever, and while 2011 Scott Elbert was good (2.73 FIP) we want a starter comp. Side note: 2012 Jake McGee was super good (1.81 FIP 2 fWAR).
So let’s try something else. I took every minor league season for pitchers since 2006 and compared similar age/level to Matt Strahm’s 2016 minor league numbers based on K%, BB%, and FIP. Also only looking at players that did make the majors since Strahm has some experience.
Okay so there are some good names there. Kris Medlen was once a pretty decent pitcher before multiple Tommy John Surgeries, and our comparable system gets bonus points as Strahm has had the surgery too. Medlen was a few years younger than Strahm but Strahm missed time because of his surgery.
Next is Jimmy Nelson who has been okay at the major league level. His biggest issue has been translating his minor league strikeout numbers to the majors but he’s also taken a step back in command too as his walk rates have jumped. Despite the less than outstanding numbers in his big league career, Nelson is something like a league average pitcher, and that’s not a negative connotation either. He’s posted a two-win season previously and projects for the same in 2017.
The next guy on the list is hopefully not just a coincidence and you’ll see what I mean in just a bit. Matz had a little more pre-draft hype than Strahm as he was taken in the second round at 72nd overall but they have similar profiles. Both are lefties and both have had Tommy John, and as evidence above had similar numbers at a similar age in AA. Steven had a late-ish breakout too as he appeared on a top 100 list after his surgery and pitching for a couple seasons. Upon being promoted to the majors though Matz didn’t pitch out of the bullpen for the Mets but instead thrown 168 solid innings at 3.4 fWAR. This year he projects to be an above average pitcher worth 3.2 wins by FanGraps Depth Chart.
The final method took a bit of work. Using Strahm’s PitchF/X profile for his three pitches (fastball, changeup, curveball) I found the Z-Score of each pitches individual components (velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement) and added them up to create a sort of similarity index.
That’s a bingo! I swear I didn’t know this would happen before I started running the numbers but Matz is the closest arsenal similarity as Strahm just as he is also one of the closest minor league stat comps to him too. The stuff looks a lot like Strahm’s visually too:
You can see both of them have that horizontal movement almost like a two seam fastball, breaking back by (negative) 9-10 inches. They also both generated whiffs with it ~30% of the time.
Both curveballs have a bit of loop to them with velocities averaging in the upper 70’s. Matz curveball moves a bit less horizontally than Strahm’s as it’s more of a true 11-5 curve as Strahm’s has a bit of slurve feel to it.
The key to Matt Strahm as a starting pitcher is his changeup, as is the key for most left handed pitchers. Strahm didn’t use it that much as a reliever (he didn’t really have to) but he’ll need to as a starter. Strahm’s changeup is a bit more flat than Matz’s but instead has more of that classic fade horizontally. Sometimes it looks like Strahm’s change is a flat and that’s likely a product of Strahm’s release point.
It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a few more inches lower than Matz, almost at a side arm angle. This is one reason why Strahm is so tough on lefties (1.41 FIP vs a 2.32 FIP against righties - both good of course). However the higher/lower your arm angle is effects horizontal movement; see Peter Moylan’s slider.
The closest pitcher to Strahm vertical release point happens to be
White Red Sox ace Chris Sale:
Usually side armers (and not that Strahm is a true side armer) have bigger platoon splits (side arm LHP have issues getting RHB out more than their regular angle LHP peers). Let’s how similar arm angled lefties as Strahm do against right handed batters:
There are some good names on the list with Sale being the cream of the crop (as a pitcher in general too). In the end though I don’t think Strahm’s arm angle is going to be a huge issue as much as the needle of his success in the rotation with be moved by how his changeup develops.
I actually kinda like the Matz comp to Strahm a lot. That would be a fantastic outcome and they both attack hitters in the same way (though Matz moves a little slower in pace). Meanwhile their plate discipline numbers are similar too:
Strahm allows a good chunk of less contact than Matz but that seems mainly like a function of his high K% that will come down in the rotation (again, he’s not Jose Fernandez).
I’m still a bit skeptical about Strahm being successful in the rotation as well as thinking he maybe poisoned himself by being so damn good in the pen. However if he does get his shot in the rotation I think he’s a league average pitcher with some room for upside if the changeup takes a step forward.