Pitching, Not Throwing, With Dan Straily

“This is a great time to be a baseball player and have all this info,” Reds starting pitcher Dan Straily told me last month when his team came to town. Minutes later, I was talking with a member of his front office who lauded the pitcher as “maybe the most dependable” of his squad. These things are related. It’s taken all that info for the pitcher to mold himself into the useful arm that he is today.

That info has helped Straily refine not only his approach, but also the movement on his pitches and the mechanics that created them. And it helped him when things were dire. His velocity dipped into the low 80s at one point, and he was released by two teams in a one-season span. “When I lost my velo, I had to learn how to pitch,” the righty remembered. “Now that I got my velo back, I’m still pitching the same way, but with better stuff.”

Snark about his sub-90 fastball average aside, this velocity does represent an improvement, and one that Straily attributes in large part to his work at Driveline Baseball. But that was the only time we talked about velocity, because the pitcher preferred to talk about movement, location, and selection.

The first thing the data told Straily was that he needed to work on getting his release point back up. “After 2013, my arm slot dropped almost eight inches,” he pointed out. He’s not back up to that point, as you can see below, but he’s also gradually pushing that point back up.

StrailyRelease

That’s been big for the “ride” on his fastball. The more vertical your release point, the more you can convert your spin on the four-seam into the kind of rising action that leads to pop ups and swinging strikes. Straily uses PITCHf/x to track his vertical movement, and pointed out that his best outing by that stat came in Los Angeles this year, and that it was the first time in a while that he’d pushed back to where he was when he debuted with Oakland. “That’s that deceptive angle that a guy that throws 90 on his true four-seam needs,” he added.

4sVertStraily

Getting that rise up on the four-seam has also made another pitch better. A relative of Straily’s pointed out to him that the movement difference between his changeup and four-seam was elite. And the changeups around him on that leaderboard are almost all very good changeups. Some are league leaders in results as well as movement.

Biggest Difference Between Four-Seam, Changeup Vert Move
Name FA Move CH Move Diff Move CH% CH swSTR%
Matt Andriese 10.3 0.6 9.7 15.8% 17.4%
Anthony DeSclafani 8.3 -0.2 8.5 2.1% 11.4%
Michael Fulmer 10.1 1.7 8.4 17.2% 18.8%
Dan Straily 9.7 1.9 7.8 18.5% 14.1%
Scott Kazmir 11.6 4.0 7.6 20.0% 17.0%
Danny Salazar 10.5 3.1 7.4 18.8% 23.1%
Max Scherzer 8.3 1.0 7.3 12.4% 18.0%
Zack Greinke 10.2 2.9 7.3 20.9% 15.3%
Johnny Cueto 9.2 1.9 7.3 16.6% 18.4%
Felix Hernandez 7.2 0.1 7.1 28.2% 16.2%
Minimum 100 innings thrown.
Average swinging strike rate for a changeup ~ 14%

Straily has had that changeup ever since he experimented with 17 grips before finding it, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t discovered a new way to use it since. Straily saw that the exit velocity heat maps for an elite lefty hitter showed a hole on the inside, especially against changeups. After he saw Kyle Hendricks do something similar, the Red had an idea. “I started throwing that inside change to that left-hander, and he’s 0-for-7 against me,” the righty pointed out. “How many righty-on-lefty inside changeups do you think he sees inside? I’m trying to speed up his bat so much because I can see what your exit velocities are on pitches away from him.”

He had a similar epiphany when it came to his other secondary pitch, the slider. All that time spent refining his approach in the minor leagues allowed him opportunities to work on the pitch, which he doesn’t throw in the bullpen. “I couldn’t control the slider,” he said, “but I kept working at it, playing catch, and now it’s a really good pitch for me.”

It only gets average whiffs, but it’s equally effective against lefties and righties, and that’s been the step forward he’s taken with the pitch this year. He’s not only throwing back-door sliders to lefties, he’s throwing some high in the zone that probably look like fastballs above the zone until they fall in. Look how he’s moved his slider location from the middle of the zone against lefties in 2014 (right) to high and low in the zone this year (left).

StrailySLvL

He also noticed something else about lefties during the course of the season, thanks to tracking results and location on his pitches. Lefties did poorly against him in the first month, and then started teeing off on him in May. “I tried to figure out what was going on, and I was pitching down in the zone some more,” Straily remembered. “So I brought everything back up in the zone and I got more pop ups, more weak contact.”

Dan Straily vs Lefties by Time Frame
Time Frame K% BB% HR/9 BABIP Down%
April 19.1% 16.7% 0.00 0.115 6.6%
May 19.3% 12.5% 1.86 0.241 11.9%
June-Sep 16.3% 13.3% 0.98 0.235 9.4%
Down% = fastballs on the lower third of the strike zone and below.

As for the risks of throwing high in the zone in Great American Ball Park, he had a few thoughts. “Tradition says we should pitch down in the zone, but you have to know what you’re good at,” he said. Also, Straily wanted to point out that “you’re going to get hurt, but you’re going to get hurt everywhere in the zone, and if you don’t throw in the zone, you’re done. The name of the game for me is mixing speeds.”

Predictability has been something Straily has been thinking about, too. “A couple of years ago I figured out that I was like 87% fastball at 2-0,” the righty said. “I was wondering why I was getting hit so hard, so I started throwing different things.” The change has been minor, but it has helped. He’s now throwing fastballs 73% of the time in those counts, or 190th-most out of the 303 pitchers who have had 20 or more 2-0 counts.

So, sure, Straily throws 89. But that’s better than the low 80s. And, as the pitcher says, “It’s not always how fast it is, it’s what the other things do off of it.” So, given his innate stuff, he thought he would study what he could and make the most of it.

He looked at his release point and pushed it up to get more movement. He looked at his location of his slider and changeup. He looked at zone rates. He looked at pitching mix by counts. He looked at how, when, and why he used his pitches. In another time, we might call this the growth from being a thrower into being a pitcher. But here and now? Let’s not mince words — he’s a pitching nerd, just like many of us.

We hoped you liked reading Pitching, Not Throwing, With Dan Straily by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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bunslow
Member
bunslow

It sure sounds like there’s a lot in common between him and The Professor, at least in approach if maybe not in results. But at least he knows the sky’s the limit, and maybe he’ll figure out what it takes to be elite with this sort of stuff.