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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”