Every off-season, we talk about sleepers and busts, underrated players, overrated players, rebounds, regression candidates, high upside and high risk options and a bunch of other labels to characterize players that might give us any sort of edge entering our fantasy baseball drafts. In recent years, it has been increasingly difficult to find the diamonds in the rough without your leaguemates knowing as information is so easily accessible, with multiple publications advocating the same players for the same reasons.
Well today, we have a pitcher that very few have discussed – in fact I don’t believe I’ve seen a single sleeper article dedicated to this player – and I’m excited to share why I believe he’s the sleeper of the draft.
The Kansas City rotation was three strong with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Jason Vargas before they signed Jason Hammel last night, leaving one spot still up for grabs. The favorite is currently Nate Karns to win it out of camp, however, if youngster Matt Strahm snags that #5 SP label instead, the fantasy implications are major.
Strahm debuted last season as a reliever for the squad and flat out dominated. A 1.23 ERA, 12.27 K/9, and a 1.09 WHIP to his name across 22 innings should turn heads despite his small sample size. He was predominately a starter in the minors where he displayed plenty of upside during A+ and AA ball in 2015/2016 holding a K/9 over 10.00 and 2.22 BB/9 across 190 innings. The numbers look pretty and all, but for you to really grasp the possible upside of Strahm, let’s take a look at how his stuff played out on the big stage last year.
Strahm threw a total of 333 heaters last season, with an average of 93.8mph and topping out at a blistering 96.8mph. Here’s a quick look at the pitch in action:
Look at the horizontal movement he gets on the pitch. He’s using a two-seam grip and pairing it with both a 3/4 release point and a closed landing – watch how his right foot lands closer to first base despite starting on the third base side of the rubber – which has Strahm getting extra torque to generate extra lateral ride. Strahm featured the pitch a ton in 2016, equating to 78.6% of all of his pitches, but that is to be expected when he was featured exclusively as a reliever, while we often see rookies rely more heavily on their Fastballs when first entering the grand stage. What’s impressive here is that despite using the pitch so frequently, Strahm still managed to maintain an elite 12.3% whiff rate on Fastballs. I wouldn’t expect that to stick as a Starter when the velocity most likely will fall slightly, but that whiff rate is a combination of both its movement and his location. For example, Strahm was able to jam Todd Fraizer with an exceptional Fastball to earn a strikeout on the slugger:
While he also nailed his spot to fan Tyler Saladino on a heater up in the zone at 96mph:
The pitch lays a great foundation for Strahm as a starter – it registered a 6.5 pVal after all – and while there is a slight concern over control problems, I expect the southpaw to feature a walk rate closer to his minor league numbers as he gains experience getting the ball every five days.
What every good starter needs is that one putaway pitch to shut the door when getting two strikes on a batter and Strahm certainly has that in his Curveball. Just ask Marcel Ozuna who swung well over this nasty hook:
Mmmmmm that’s a beautiful pitch. On top of getting over half an inch of bonus drop with his deuce than the typical lefty, Strahm’s Curveball had 3.7 extra inches of horizontal movement as well, which means this yacker passes both the eye and stats test. Speaking of that eye test, let’s watch him fan a few more batters with the hook, like Jose Abreu and Dioner Navarro.
First there’s Abreu on a ball that hit the dirt before the plate:
Then Navarro on a pitch similar to Ozuna’s:
Surprisingly, the pitch only registered a 12.8% whiff rate last year, but that may be because he rarely offered it early in the count and was used so heavily as a chase pitch – just look at the heatmap for his Curveball from last year. Using it so frequently as a chase pitch makes me believe batters learned to lay off the deuce (sub 30% zone rate), while I can believe Strahm didn’t make the pitch convincing enough to get the whiffs the movement demands. If Strahm slightly changes his approach with his deuce where he can mix in both strikes over the plate and hooks down out of the zone, he’ll have yet another facet to crafting a complete starting pitcher.
When discussing starters, I like to hammer in the point that no pitcher is going to have continued success without three strong options in their arsenal. It doesn’t matter if they have two plus pitches, without that third weapon it will be difficult seeing time on the mound past the fifth inning on the third pass through the lineup. We didn’t get to see a whole lot of Strahm’s Changeup in 2016, but among the 43 he threw, not one was put into play despite throwing over half of them inside the strike zone with a 16.3% whiff rate – very encouraging numbers for a young arm. Here’s the pitch in action as Strahm trusted in on a full count to JT Realmuto:
While the location isn’t ideal, his execution was perfect and came in nearly 10mph slower, forcing Realmuto to swing well before the ball arrived at the plate. He’s using a two-seam circle-change grip, which helps add to the deception featuring the same spin with added drop. To reinforce the potential of the pitch, let’s watch it again, but this time including a Fastball from earlier in the plate appearance that Realmuto swung through:
That speed change paired with identical spin could make Strahm’s Changeup an excellent addition to his repertoire and will keep batters on their toes when gearing up for his mid 90s heater. He only threw the pitch 10.1% of the time as a reliever, but expect that to increase if he transitions from the pen to a starting gig. The one caution here is the arm angle on delivery. If you watch the above GIF again, you can see a slightly higher release point for his heater with a near side-arm action on the Changeup. This could be a problem as identical arm action is imperative for a proper Fastball/Changeup combo. I will keep an eye on this as the season develops.
PitchF/x would like to tell you that Strahm doesn’t throw a Slider. Well, that he threw just one, which we normally write off as an anomaly. That’s not true as Strahm clearly threw the pitch a good handful of times last year…with nearly all of them located heavily off the plate and one being smacked a long way foul by Miguel Sano. Below is the sole exception that gives us some idea of what the pitch actually does:
It’s pretty apparent why he threw the pitch so infrequently as his Slider doesn’t have nearly the same sharp break as his Curveball and his command is nowhere near where it needs to be to trust the pitch – especially in a relief setting when he has three other dependable options. It’s possible we see more benders if he gets the fifth rotation spot this season, but I would imagine it would be the rare mix-up pitch as he can fly high just with his Fastball/Changeup/Curveball combination. It’s possible it would turn into a Cutter, which we’ve seen before from lanky left-handers ala James Paxton, which would be a helpful tool for keeping right-handers off balance. For now, let’s assume he’s just a three-pitch pitcher.
It’s important to understand the innate risk involved here – simply put, the Royals may not be slotting Strahm in as a starter out of spring training as he’ll be in a tight competition with Nate Karns. But if Strahm has the green light as their #5 SP, there is plenty of value to be had in your drafts. With his stellar Fastball, huge Curveball and solid Changeup, Strahm could return as high as #3 SP value for the price of your last round pick in drafts. Don’t reach too far with the questions still at play, but it’s hard not to chase a ceiling of a near 9.00 K/9, a walk rate below 3.00 BB/9 and solid ERA/WHIP numbers across 170-180 innings at such a cheap price.