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Is it too soon to worry about Matt Strahm?

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One of my favorite deep league pitching targets for 2017 is off to a very rough start. Is it just bad luck or something worse?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Late last season, I wrote about a Royals pitching prospect that showed very promising stuff in his MLB cup of coffee. This lefty was the Royals’ top prospect, given a 55 future overall value by Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs. He had a 34% K%, 1.23 ERA, 2.06 FIP, 3.04 xFIP, and 12.2% SwStr% in 22 innings of MLB relief pitching. While any pitcher’s stuff will play up in short stints, his stuff as a starter impressed scouts as well. Here’s an excerpt from Longenhagen’s report:

Strahm’s fastball was touching 97 in relief this year. It sits in the low 90s during extended outings but has exceptional, bat-missing life in the zone and is a plus offering. His curveball is already plus, flashes better than that, and Strahm’s ability to locate it in several effective locales allows the pitch to miss bats against both left- and right-handed hitters. Strahm will break off curveball featuring spin rates in excess of 3,000 RPMs. His changeup is fringey right now and only projects to average, but Strahm is able to maintain his fastball’s arm speed during release, which allows the pitch to induce sub-optimal contact.

That sounds like a mid-rotation or better starter toolkit. Thus, I recommended that fantasy owners in deep leagues take a long look at this kid going into 2017. Once it was clear that the Royals were going to start him in relief, his short term value certainly dipped, but in leagues like the dynasty league I’m in, where every potential starter that could be above average is owned, his upside was worth waiting out the relief stint. He’s behind injury-prone guys like Jason Hammel and Jason Vargas, so it seems like starts at some point are a guarantee.

Then came the 2017 season and his first two outings in relief. Yikes. Ouch is another exclamation I might use here. He’s thrown 0.2 innings, but allowed 6 earned runs, given three walks, allowed a home run, and three hits. Yes, it’s a small sample, but he’s looked really bad. Bad enough to make me wonder if there’s something more going on here. So, let’s investigate! It’s what I like to do most.

Let’s start with velocity. I’m going to use Statcast velocity readings instead of those from Fangraphs, because the Pitch F/X values used by Fangraphs changed this season and all pitchers are showing a ~1 mph increase over 2016. I want to compare apples to apples. His Statcast average fastball velocity in 2016 was 94.1 mph, but is down to 92.9 mph this year. That’s not good. Most pitchers do take a while to reach their peak velocity in the spring, but a 1.2 mph gap seems a bit worrisome.

A common sign of injury is a change in release point. If a player’s release point changes significantly from their usual, it can point to a potential injury. Here’s his vertical release point:

And here’s his horizontal release point:

Ignoring the spring training data points from March, it looks like he’s more or less right back to his usual range. However, I did notice the error bars are noticeably larger in the 2017 release point data, meaning there’s been more fluctuation there. That could just be because he’s thrown so few innings, but it could be a sign something isn’t right with his mechanics. There’s not enough here to say he’s injured, but it’s something to consider.

Pitchers throwing through an injury often lose their command and control. Strahm has walked three of the eight batters he has seen. He has allowed another three to get hits, one of which was a home run and he has yet to strike anyone out. Those are not signs of good command and control.

For what it’s worth, his fastball spin rate is down about 100 RPM, from 2348 in 2016 to 2251 in 2017. I’m not sure that’s anything more than noise, but add it to the pile of minor bad signs.

From what I can tell, he’s thrown exactly one non-fastball so far. His curveball is an excellent offering and he needs to throw it with confidence 30+% of the time to be successful, in my opinion. Hitters are able to sit on his fastball, which is slower than in 2016, has a little less spin, and is being thrown all over the place. Hitters just have to wait for a walk or a mistake right now. They aren’t being fooled. He walked Jason Castro on four straight pitches, all fastballs.

What does this all mean? Is he doomed? Well, of course it’s still too early to say he’s injured or his mechanics are broken beyond repair, but there are real warning signs here. I’m going to keep watching him, but if you are using him as a reliever right now for holds or ratios, you need to bench him until he shows signs of improving control and velocity. With this diminished velocity, no confidence in his curve, and a complete inability to throw strikes, he is useless in all leagues. I’m still hopeful he can get this all figured out and finish the season as a solid member of the rotation, but right now, he shouldn’t even be used in tight situations in the bullpen, let alone the rotation. He has some work to do.

I hope you enjoyed this adventure into the crazy world of small sample sizes, obscure middle relievers, and Statcast data. Tschus!