Examining Grips with Dan Straily

When Dan Straily graduated high school, he was a big-bodied pitcher with one pitch coming out of a town of 18,000 with no fanfare. After hitting the mid nineties on a few guns at the local Western Oregon University, he suddenly was on his way to Marshall University. Then came the Oakland farm system as a 24th-round pick. Now that he’s overcome some long odds to appear in the big leagues, he took a minute to reflect on the process that got him to where he is today. Oh, and while we were talking, he showed me all those changeup grips he tried along the way.

Growing up in Pendleton, Oregon did not allow Straily many opportunities to refine his game. “I never had any formal pitching coaching,” Straily said of his time there. The town of 18,000 wasn’t known for producing athletes — “there’s been one guy, ever, to make it into professional sports out of there, and he played football” — so there just wasn’t anyone with experience ready to give him formal lessons. His pitching coach in high school (also the team’s manager and the history teacher) did as much as he could.

changeone“My college grip,” Straily said, admitting he didn’t throw the change much back then.

Without the exposure (“I wasn’t even elite in high school,” Straily admitted to Guy Haberman recently on the Bay Area’s 95.7 FM), he ended up going to the nearest school with a baseball team, Western Oregon University, where he caught the eye of Marshall. That’s where Straily got his first real coaching — his pitching coach there had spent 13 years in the minors and had knowledge to impart — and they had a lot to work on. “I used to knee myself in the nose any time I pitched. Imagine El Duque. A 250 pound kid,” said Straily.

Marshall helped him iron out his mechanics, simplify, and begin the process of slimming down to get into game shape. He began hitting 94 mph, and that was enough for the Athletics to draft him in the 24th round and give him a chance — despite showing ERAs over four and not really having a single secondary pitch.

change four“The three-finger changeup.”

John Farrell’s son showed him a slider grip the last year at Marshall, and that’s his slider grip today. But once he got into a major league system, things changed — he had more pitches to learn. “I’m a product of the Oakland A’s organization with respect to developing a pitcher,” admitted Straily to Haberman.

The changeup? That took a bit longer than the slider. Even as late as 2011, he didn’t really have one. He went through as many as 17 different grips, which he showed me on the field before the Athletics took on the Jays earlier this week. The most distinct of those grips you see pictured here, but it was basically “grab a baseball as awkwardly as possible” and then “trial and error” according to Straily. “Some of them lasted two pitches, some of them lasted two weeks, one of them was there for half a season,” he said of the different grips. Any time the Oakland pitching coordinator came to town, they’d try a new slew of finger placements. All of a sudden, in late 2011, he found his current grip (pictured last) — and it worked.

changeseven“Three fingers, but all the way back in the palm.”

It wasn’t easy, obviously. He doesn’t know why it took so many grips — “my arm speed, arm slot, all those things figure in” — and it took work even once he found the right mechanics. In order to make him throw the pitch, the Oakland organization actually threatened (small) fines if he didn’t throw 15 in a game. Straily told Haberman that early on in that process he actually would throw all of his changeups early in the game to get them out of the way. But he gradually began to figure out how to work the pitch into his plan of attack more organically.

Now that he’s thrown the pitch for two years, it’s settled in. But there’s still a little mystery to the pitch. “I used to think my changeup was too hard. It was the same pitch, but it used to be 87 mph. I don’t know how it slowed down. I don’t try to do anything different. Now it’s 81 to 84,” he admitted to me. Now it’s ten miles per hour slower than his fastball.

changenine“One time they had me put all three together.”

In general, Straily is appreciative of the training he’s received in the Oakland organization. But he also pointed out that if “someone ever says that one pitching coach made all the difference in their entire career, call them crazy.” You learn a little bit from each guy along the way, and then “a little bit from yourself and you perceive things,” add it all together “and that’s your philosophy on pitching.” “We are all our own pitching coach,” Straily said, “it’s over the course of a lifetime that you gain all these insights about yourself.”

So what is Straily’s approach these days? “I’ve always been a strike thrower, that’s my thing,” Straily says. And one of the big differences between last year and this is more command of his breaking balls, he added. The numbers agree, this year he’s generally in the zone more, he’s getting strike one more, and the ball rates on his slider and curve have lurched in the right direction.

changeeleven“A lot of variations on each grip.”

But learning when to throw balls on purpose was a big deal too — in the minors it was just “how hard can I throw it and how far away from hitter can I put it,” because they swung at everything. “Against one team, I had 11 strikeouts the first time out, then 13, then 15. Six starts in, and I had 45 strikeouts against one team. You’d think they’d stop swinging at the slider low and away and they never did,” Straily said of his time in the minors. In the big leagues, many of those sliders low and away just elicit an “eh.”

One facet of his philosophy is not getting ahead of yourself. “You’re only as good as your next pitch, your next pitch is the most important one,” Straily said. Then he told a story about asking Bartolo Colon how many pitches he as going to throw one spring day. “One” replied the veteran. When prodded, Colon said “I have to throw one first, and then I’ll throw one more, and then I’ll throw one more.” No word if it was a reference to Colon’s all-fastball repertoire right now.

changetwelveWith the seams, instead of against the seams.

The Oakland pitcher ingests the scouting report and looks for weaknesses in the hitters, but also thinks you have to “trust yourself and throw to your strengths.” Even if a guy can cover the slider down and away, Straily thinks he’ll have to throw it at some point because that’s a big part of what he does. “Doesn’t matter who it is in the box, I’m saying my strength is better than your strength,” Straily said, and thinks that’s the truth for most ballplayers: that belief is why most athletes are in the big leagues. Despite knowing that his changeup and slider are Straily’s best pitches, hitters whiff on both pitches at above-average rates. Strengths indeed.

Scouting reports can also have limited benefits according to the Oakland pitcher. They break down the game against “every right-hander and every left-hander” but if they like fastballs, is it “my fastball, Colon’s frisbee ball, or a sinker?” Straily asked. He also felt that the “advantage should go to the hitter,” because “it’s a lot easier to categorize pitchers.” But Straily tries to use that to his advantage by identifying pitchers with similar arsenals and arm slots (with hitting coach Chili Davis’ help) and watching their starts against the teams he’ll face.

changethirteen“Tried the circle in a different place.”

He also gets a lot of help from his catchers. “They know the game plan inside and out, our job is to execute pitches,” Straily said. And while they have to be on the same page, the pitcher has the final say. Except when Derek Norris is behind the plate, apparently. “I’ll shake him off four times in a row and he’ll just set up,” Straily said, before shrugging and saying “trust in your catcher.”

There’s still a ways to go. He’s refining his strategies for bullpens. For now, it depends on what happened the start before. He’s thrown 15 fastballs and declared himself fit. And then, in Chicago, coming off a decent start, he threw 52 pitches. “Just kind of happened,” Straily said, because he was “working on backdoor sliders.” Of course, he came out against the Yankees in his next start and was “tired after 60 pitches” — he barely cracked 91 after his 60th pitch — “but got out of some really tricky situations with backdoor sliders against left-handers.”

changefourteen“That one was with me for like half a summer.”

Even warmups are a work in progress — he throws a curve every single time in between innings, but never a slider, and only one or two before the game starts. “That’s why you might see the first one of the game go ‘nnnnn’,” Straily admitted, mimicking a straight slider, and that’s mostly because the slider “doesn’t get going” until he gets his fastball going and his arm loose. For what it’s worth, Jose Bautista took his seventh slider (17th pitch) of the game deep in his last start.

In any case, Straily knows from experience that the work is not done. It took him 17 grips to get to the one pictured below, after all. “The luxury of being the starting pitcher is you get the opportunity to work on stuff,” Straily said, “you don’t want to always be tinkering but there’s always room for improvement… You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.”

changeseventeenFinally he found the right grip.

Thanks to Casey Pratt, Michael Kreuser and Guy Haberman for help with the research and video for this piece.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

30 Responses to “Examining Grips with Dan Straily”

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  1. Mel says:

    What a great article. Thank you Eno and Dan.

    +33 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Joe Don says:

    What a terrific piece! Thanks, guys. I’m a sucker for how-I-pitch articles. I was lucky enough to sit next to Warren Spahn in a bar one afternoon. He showed me how he threw his screwball, and I was hooked.

    +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • cass says:

      Did it look a lot like a circle change, Joe? I’ve heard theories that he actually threw what we’d call a circle change-up rather than a true screwball.

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      • tz says:

        I’d be shocked if it was a “true” screwball, given how many pitches Spahn threw in his career.

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        • cass says:

          There’s a discussion about the pitch in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. They speculated, based on descriptions of the pitch, that it might have actually been a circle change.

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  3. Cauld says:

    Big fan of these articles too. If you write enough of them you could even compile them into a book

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  4. cass says:

    Great article. Love reading about pitching from this perspective. And the photos are really fun. Also would like to hear more about Derek Norris and pitchers shaking him off!

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    • Rick says:

      I recall watching Straily pitching in a game with Norris catching; and Straily shook him off, then Norris called for the same pitch, and Straily shook again, this time Norris called for the same pitch more emphatically with his fingers, again Straily shook, and then Norris just set up – I thought it was pretty comical. And low and behold, Straily got the swinging strike out on that pitch.
      I figured maybe it was just with Straily that Norris was like this; but I’ve seen him do the same, even with successful veteran Balfour.

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  5. channelclemente says:

    Thank you guys, what a wonderful, insightful, and revealing article/interview.

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  6. Just so we’re clear, I would visit a site called ChangeupGraphs regularly.

    +23 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Aidan says:

    This is fantastic. Love the grip pics. Especially dig the demonstration that an interview of a professional athlete can be interesting – that these guys do have enlightening stuff to share. First rate, man. Keep ‘em coming!

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  8. That Guy says:

    Almost OT: Is that a ball you brought yourself? It doesn’t look prepped with the clay, and I figured no fresh balls would be found in any dugout/clubhouse. Did you ask for a signature while you where there?

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  9. DowntownChico says:

    Fantastic article. I’ll definately be looking for the change-up and slider the next time Straily is on the mound.

    This is also a great example of a team drafting a ‘stuff’ guy, and being confident that they can develop him into an excellent professional ball-player.

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  10. tz says:

    I love the part about watching hitters’ reactions to pitchers with similar stuff/arm slots. It’s a real-life way of minimizing the SSS impact while scouting the opposition.

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  11. Krog says:

    Seeing how major league pitchers grip the baseball for their various pitches is my absolute favorite thing in the world. Thanks for making my week Eno.

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  12. FeslenR says:

    Nice piece guys, always root for players like Straily.

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  13. MJ says:

    That was awesome! Go Straily!

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  14. Jay29 says:

    Great article, love looking at pitch grips and trying to replicate them on my own baseball.

    BTW, according to Wikipedia, Dave Kingman is also from Pendleton, Oregon.

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  15. DNA+ says:

    I could never throw a changeup until listening to Jim Kaat during a Yankees broadcast one day. Kaat said the way to throw a changeup was to keep your fingertips off the ball and pretend you are pulling down a window shade when you release the ball. Following that advice I’ve found its almost impossible not to throw a decent change no matter what the finger placement. Circle change grip definitely makes it break down and in to a right hand batter though.

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  16. bh192012 says:

    … asking Bartolo Colon how many pitches he as going to throw ….. “One” replied the veteran.

    Colon is saying the only pitch that matters, or that he’s thought about is the next pitch. It’s the one. The only one he knows he’s going to throw for sure.

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  17. chuckb says:

    Great, great stuff, Eno. This was honestly one of the best things I’ve read on this site, and I’m here every day.

    Thank you.

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  18. Andrew says:

    Cool insight here. Seems like there are a lot of admissions going on here though.

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  19. RMR says:

    Great article. The biggest thing that’s missing in baseball media today is players talking about the one thing they are truly expert in — playing the game. Fun stuff!

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