Not a lot of people remember this, but Hunter Strickland sure had a miserable time in the playoffs last year. You can look it up if you want, but it's true! His ERA was over 7, he came into some close games and turned them into blowouts, and he even gave up several home runs. I don't think anyone ever said how many. It's a shame. I really could have used that information for this article.
But this year, Hunter Strickland has been great! Gosh, it's a good thing no one publicly declared their hatred for both his baseball skills and personality after some rough playoff games, or that person would have to eat a whole lot of crow right now. Close call there. Thankfully, we're all very rational and clear-headed in the heat of the moment.
So why is Strickland one of the bright spots in the bullpen now? Let's look at what he's been doing differently.
Hmm, well let's see. My advanced degree in Statsology tells me that compared to the playoffs last year (in yellow), Strickland is striking out more guys, walking fewer, and giving up home runs 25 times less often. I wonder which of those is the most important factor. Maybe we'll never know.
Perhaps the difference lies in pitch location. As Jeff Sullivan showed in his article about Strickland's first five postseason homers allowed, his fastball location was very bad on every one (The other home run, off the bat of Mike Moustakas, came on a low hanging slider – shout out to Wendy Thurm). Can we see any difference in where his pitches are going this year instead of last year?
Here are side by side comparisons of his locations in the playoffs against what he's done this year. First against righties:
And then lefties:
The right-hander graph was mostly included for the sake of completeness, as, with the exception of Omar Infante, all the guys who homered against him and whose runs were charged to him hit left-handed. So what can we see that's different about his approach to lefties? For one thing, he's going down and in on them much more frequently. For another, he's going above the strike zone, which seems like a good idea for a guy with a fastball that can hit 100. So, that's pretty much solved, right? He's been throwing high fastballs and getting lefties to chase, which has improved his strikeout rate and kept him from giving up so many dang dingers (or "dangers," as no one will ever call them again). Surely this next chart won't show that to be an incorrect assumption.
Now, he has improved, if only because in last year's playoffs, Hunter Strickland didn't get a single lefty to swing through the ball on anything higher than the middle of the zone. But the real improvement has come on strikes. Last October, one lefty swung through one pitch Strickland threw in the zone out of 19, a swing through rate of about 5%. This year, it's been more than 13%. He's also doing much better out of the zone. He's doing much better in general, really, which is why I wrote an article about why he's doing better.
There are other things that Strickland has done differently this year, of course. He's thrown his four seam fastball less and his two seamer and slider more, he's drastically cut down on his fly ball rate (and his HR/FB ratio), and he hasn't yelled at a single opposing batter in a way that convinces the entire Internet that they're expert lip readers. If whiff rate is anything to go by, using the fast fastball less has made it more effective, which makes intuitive sense. The less a batter sees HELLA FAST, the less prepared he is to deal with it, and the better the pitch looks. You can tell this must be true because it's inferred anecdotal evidence, also known as "the best evidence."
So, why is he better now? What's causing him to get more swing throughs and give up less dingers? Well, remember that he had some strikes against him (baseball pun!) last year. Strickland was coming off Tommy John surgery a year earlier when he made his debut in AA, and while the arm strength certainly came back, it wouldn't be surprising for him to have felt a little fatigue as the year went on. This is especially plausible because he'd been a career minor leaguer before 2014, so not only had he never pitched in October before, he hadn't really pitched in September.
Then when you add to that the adrenaline of being in the majors for the first time, and then add to that the adrenaline of being in the playoffs, and there's no telling how the mix of new mental and physical stimulations affected him. Hopefully, that's all behind him, and he continues pitching as well as he has so far this year. If the Giants make the playoffs, it'll be interesting to see how he responds. If not, it'll just be fun to watch him throw baseballs, and that's not a bad consolation prize.