Piggy-backing off of my previous article on Chris Stratton’s emergence, today I’ll expand on why his reliance on a new, vertically breaking curveball (rather than his slider) has been such an effective weapon for Stratton and his ability to keep hitters honest and off balance. Since July of 2017, Stratton has gone from a forgotten man to a frontline starter, as not only does he provide the Giants with depth while Jeff Samardzija and Madison Bumgarner heal, he does so at the Major League minimum.
When I review video from Stratton during his resurgence, and compare it to his performance in the past, I can’t help but be encouraged by the significant progress. It’s clear that while Stratton’s “stuff” has remained mostly the same, he’s learning how to pitch, and it’s because of that, that I believe Stratton may be more of a long-term answer than many would project.
Last year, I wrote an article about Jeff Samardzija and why, despite such an electric arsenal, he gets hit so hard. One of the takeaways was that Samardzija often fails to change the sight-lines of hitters, therefore making his pitch locations and types more recognizable. In comparing Stratton when he struggles versus Stratton now, we see a much similar trend.
The video below was taken from Stratton’s 2nd outing this season, when he allowed 5 runs on 4 hits in 1/3 of an inning to the Padres. If we, again, establish a “hitters window” (Illustrating the flight of the ball as it comes out of the hand, and noting that the more a pitcher can keep varying pitch types in the same window, the harder it is for hitters to decipher what type of pitch it is), we notice Stratton’s inability to provide different looks to hitters. Every fastball looked the same, and the only breaking ball thrown in these high-stress situations, was recognized easily and early by the hitters due to the trajectories being entirely different. With only 2-pitches to choose from, Stratton essentially tipped his hand in terms of what he was throwing simply in the manner of how it came out of his hand.
Fast forward to now – not only has Stratton become infinitely more effective in his ability to stay within the same window, he’s also incorporated two more pitches to keep hitters off balance. According to Brooks Baseball, Stratton relied mainly on a fastball and slider when he first got called up to the Major Leagues in 2016.
As seen above, the fastball (which also includes the sinker) and slider made up almost 83% of pitches Stratton threw. In my opinion, this trend had to do with the fact that those pitch-types are thrown with the most velocity, and by nature, appear most-similar to fastballs (therefore in similar hitters windows”). Over his most recent 7-game stretch, Stratton’s pitch chart looks significantly different…
Not only has Stratton eliminated his sinker, he’s become much-more curveball dominant, which has been instrumental in his success. That alone has forced hitters, not only to account for the varying movement between his fastball and curveballs, but also for the increased speed variability from 9 mph (fastball to slider) to 14 mph (fastball to curveball).
The proof lies in the numbers…since his July 25th relief appearance against the Pirates, Stratton has thrown 103 curveballs. 13 of those have resulted in a strikeout, 3 have resulted in a walk, and only 2 have resulted in a base-hit. Opposing hitters are batting .087 against Stratton’s curveball and zero extra-base hits. There is no question that Stratton’s curveball has become an effective tool, however, what the pitch has really done, is provided him with a way to keep hitters honest. Rather than being able to sit on a fastball, hitters are now forced to formulate a plan against Stratton that’s based far more on guessing pitch percentages.
In reviewing video from his August 13th outing in Washington, we get a comprehensive view of why Stratton’s curveball has been so impactful.
In viewing his 10 strikeouts, we see a healthy mix of fastballs, sliders, change-ups and curveballs – all of which he’s able to throw effectively now because of his ability to keep hitters guessing.
Similar to Samardzija, Stratton’s success (or failure) goes hand-in-hand with his ability to be consistent in the hitters’ window. And in the same way that Barry Zito approached hitters, Stratton pitches off his curveball (meaning that he used the sight-lines and movement of his curveball to set up his fastball), so if he can continue to command the pitch to make it look the same as his fastball out of his hand, he’ll continue to be successful. However if he gets back to throwing curveballs similar to the one in the video that he threw Yangervis Solarte of the Padres, he’s much more inclined to struggle.
From my standpoint, talent has never been an issue for Stratton. After reviewing the video, I have every reason to believe that his recent performance is anything but a flash-in-the-pan. Sure, he still has a long way to go towards becoming a middle-of-the-rotation starter for a contending team, but if this season has been any indication, Stratton could prove to be precisely what the Giants need. He’s relatively young (27), he’s cheap (making the minimum for at least the next 2 seasons), and he won’t be eligible for free agency until 2023.