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Hunter Strickland’s rough ride to the end

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After an encouraging start to the season where he really seemed to turn a corner, the Giants’... temperamental... former closer is just trying to end the season on a positive note.

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve given Hunter Strickland enough guff over the course of the season, so this isn’t an attempt to single him out. He does stand out as the most obvious negative regression candidate on the entire roster, and that’s largely because of an in-season split created by an inability to control his temper.

In nine games since returning from the disabled list stint as the result of a broken hand, Strickland’s workload has been all of 8.1 innings, but his ERA is a rough 7.56 with 10 runs allowed (7 earned), including 2 home runs and an opponents’ OPS of .981. That’s on a BAbip of .250, which suggests that he’s gotten lucky with those results.

He began the season as the team’s closer, a visible position he earned because of a strong spring and a new slider that he learned from John Smoltz over the winter. The slider was an effective pitch right out of the gate:

Paired with a 96-98 mph fastball, Strickland had all the makings of a premiere closer. It really looked like a renaissance, and maybe his performance would be enough to wash the taste out of the fan base’s collective mouth when it came to his attitude. Or, at the very least, give us a reason to not think about it when he came into the game.

All of that changed against the Marlins, of course, and a 3-run outing really caused him to have a meltdown and punch a door, breaking his hand. A closer look at the numbers, though, reveals some startling trends.

Like I did with Bumgarner, here’s a survey of Hunter Strickland’s Statcast spin rate data... as a reminder:

4-seam FB: high spin good for swinging strikes and flyballs, low spin good for groundballs.

2-seam FB: can also be a sinker. Have less spin and less velocity; hence, more groundballs.

Slider: faster than a curveball but with less spin and less movement, but also not as fast as a fastball (FB) but more movement than a FB.

Changeup: low spin and low velocity, about 6-10 mph slower than a FB.

Statcast says:

Strickland relies on 4 pitches. Four Seamer (55.6%), Slider (24.4%), Changeup (12.1%), Sinker (7.9%)

More often than not, Jon Miller & co. call that sinker a two-seamer, but again, they’re interchangeable where Statcast is concerned, so, just go with it.

Additionally, here are the spin rate averages for the relevant pitch types (as of 2015):

4-seam FB: 2,226 rpm / 92.9 mph

2-seam FB/sinker: 2,123 rpm / 91.9 mph

Slider: 2,090 rpm / 84.6 mph

Changeup: 1,746 rpm / 83.9 mph

Statcast spin rate data only goes back to 2015, so here are the 3-year averages (2015-2016) for Strickland of each pitch type —

4-seam FB: 2,425 rpm / 97.0 mph
2-seam FB: 2,333 rpm / 96.2 mph
Slider: 2,728 rpm / 84.0 mph
Changeup: 1,672 rpm / 89.0 mph

— and here are the 2018 totals:

4-seam FB: 2,402 rpm / 95.1 mph
2-seam FB: 2,246 rpm / 94.1 mph
Slider: 2,660 rpm / 82.7 mph
Changeup: 1,661 rpm / 87.9 mph

Strickland used to throw a curveball, but I omitted that from the analysis, since he replaced it with the slider and that’s most relevant for our purposes, so that means the slider sampling in the 2015-2017 sampling is only from 2017 (he threw the pitch 295 times, or 30% of the time).

The slider has remained an above average pitch for him, drawing a 43.8% Whiff Rate (or, as Statcast calls it, whiff-per-swing rate), the highest total of any pitch in his entire career, so let’s ignore the slider.

That decline in his 4-seam velocity might have some intention behind it (he was striking out players with 97 and 98 mph to start the season, but clearly added and subtracted as needed, too), but the Whiff Rate has declined to 18.1%, dropping below 20% for the first time in his career. That’s for a pitch he throws the majority of the time. The average exit velocity on the pitch has jumped along with the pitch velocity’s decline (89.5 mph this year after 87.4 mph in 2017).

He’s thrown his changeup more than ever before — 80 times in 2018, to be exact, which is one more than every changeup he’d thrown in his MLB career in the four years prior. As a result, it’s a career high 27.5% whiff rate on the pitch. And that sinker’s whiff rate has also risen to its highest ever (21.1%). For the most part, he managed to offset his declining fastball velocity with better sequencing and command of his secondary pitches.

The decline in spin rate could be troubling if not for the other numbers clearly showing adjustments on his part. Also, three of those four pitches are well above the major league averages, spin rate-wise.

That’s fantastic news, really. It shows a pitcher growing into his skill set and growing wiser through experience. But let’s take a look at the data since his return:

Strickland post-DL velocity

DATE & OPP. 4-SEAM FB SLIDER CHANGEUP 2-SEAM FB
DATE & OPP. 4-SEAM FB SLIDER CHANGEUP 2-SEAM FB
8-18 @ CIN 93.2 80.0 86.0
8-19 @ CIN 92.3 79.8 85.5
8-22 @ NYM 92.6 79.8 87.0
8-25 V TEX 93.8 80.2 87.0
8-27 V ARI 93.7 81.8
8-29 V ARI 92.6 78.6 85.3
9-1 V NYM 93.8 80.2 87.3
9-7 @ MIL 94.3 81.2 88.1 91.6
9-10 V ATL 94.8 81.3 87.9 93.9
AVERAGES 93.45555556 80.3 86.8 92.75

I don’t have spin rate data for these outings, but just off velocity alone, that’s a steep decline across the board. Maybe it has something to do with whatever new regiment he’s employing to manage his emotions and/or deal with his potentially debilitating ulcerative colitis and maybe it just has to do with healing broken bones in his pitching hand, but whatever the cause may be, he and the Giants have a lot of unanswered questions than they do answers as Hunter Strickland heads into his first year of arbitration.