Dan Straily has always been a pitcher with an identity. In the minors, he was the Strikeout King. In the Majors, he became the Home Run King, which is a good thing if you're a hitter but a decidedly bad thing if you're a pitcher. There was something really weird about his long-ball tendencies, though. This table shows Straily's home-runs-per-9-innings rates throughout his career:
In his entire minor league career, Straily allowed 37 homers in 538 innings and was actually improving in that department as he rose through the ranks. Then, he allowed 11 gopherballs in 39 Major League innings in 2012, and, faster than you could say "Jamie Moyer," Straily was labeled as a homer-prone pitcher. It wasn't such a ridiculous label to put on him if you weren't aware of his professional track record. However, that sustained stinginess in the minors suggested that this sudden spike might just be a fluke born of a combination between small-sample wonkiness and Young Pitcher Development Syndrome.
When you're presented with a sample which seems too small, all you can really do is collect a larger sample. Here is what Straily has done in 2013:
Straily, 2013: 52 innings, 3 homers, 0.52 HR/9ip
Well would you look at that. His home run rate is back down to his minor league levels, and he hasn't allowed one in his last five starts. Perhaps Straily is not as homer-prone as everyone thought in 2012. Let's see if we can figure out what, if anything, has changed since last year.
1. Straily's control and command have improved.
When he came up last year, Straily was a bit wild. He walked 9.3% of the batters he faced, which Fangraphs classifies as being between "below average" and "poor." In 2013, he has improved that mark to 7.0% of batters he faces, which Fangraphs describes as "above average."
His peripheral stats suggest that there are reasons why he is walking fewer hitters. He's hitting the zone more often (46.6% of the time, up from 43.0% last year). He's getting hitters to chase more often at his pitches out of the zone (35%, up from 31%), and getting more swinging strikes overall (12.2% of his strikes, up from 9.2%). And, when hitters swing within the zone, they aren't making contact as often (82.3%, down form 88.7%). All of these numbers come in small samples, but the picture they paint for me is of a pitcher who is making more effective pitches both inside and outside of the zone. When he throws a strike, it's not as hittable of a pitch, and when he throws a ball it's more likely to fool a hitter. The control is improved (hitting the zone more often), and the command is improved (hitting his spots and missing bats more often).
2. He's keeping the ball out of the air.
Last year, Straily was a flyball pitcher. Of all of the balls hit against him, 55% were flies while only 30% stayed on the ground (the rest were line drives). This year, only 44.7% have been flies, while his ground ball rate is up to 35.5%. He has cut his flyball rate by about 20%, and those hits now either stay down for liners (which are more likely to be hits but less likely to be homers) or stay on the ground. A great way to allow fewer homers is to allow fewer fly balls.
3. His fastball has improved significantly.
Straily's fastball has been a point of concern since his promotion to Oakland. He doesn't have overpowering velocity or amazing movement on the pitch, so if he's not locating it well and getting ahead in the count then his secondary pitches won't be as effective. Last year, he seemed to leave a lot of fastballs up, and it generally didn't seem like a very strong pitch. Would he be able to succeed in the Majors with a below-average fastball?
In a recent Drumbeat by Susan Slusser, Straily talked about being more confident on the mound and going after hitters more aggressively:
Afterward, he said he never really considered himself a strikeout pitcher even while racking up the Ks at Double-A and Triple-A last year. He's a strike-thrower, not necessarily a strikeout pitcher - he's happy to let his defense do the work and get quick innings when possible.
"Fill the strike zone, let everything fall where it may," he said.
Straily's numbers back up his assertion that he's trying to hit the zone more often. In addition to the aforementioned increase in pitches within the zone, Straily is also throwing more first-pitch strikes (59.4%, up from 51.2%). In other words, he's getting ahead in the count more often.
Another indication of his improved fastball comes from Pitch Values, a metric that assigns a value to each of a pitcher's individual pitches. In 2012, Straily's fastball was worth 6.6 runs below average, making it a poor pitch. So far in 2013, it has been worth 3.3 runs above average. In other words, his fastball has gone from a very bad pitch to a fairly good one.
4. Home run rates tend to be variable over time for most pitchers.
A predominant school of thought in sabermetrics is that home run rates are mostly variable. Over a large enough sample, most pitchers will tend to settle toward a league-average rate. Some pitchers might break this rule, but for the most part, a short-term spike or dip in home run allowance should be seen as a fluke.
Nothing in Straily's minor-league career suggested that he was particularly homer-prone. In fact, his track record suggested that he might be slightly above-average at preventing the long-ball. Therefore, 39 innings of failure in this regard should be viewed as an aberration until it is sustained over a longer period. Predictably, that variation has corrected itself. There was a spike in homers in a small sample. It went away. From a sabermetric standpoint, this should not come as a surprise.
Putting it all together
Dan Straily was wild in 2012, and his fastball kind of sucked. In 2013, he's using his fastball more effectively, he's hitting the zone and getting ahead of hitters more often, he's inducing more swinging strikes and swings outside of the zone, and he's getting more ground balls while significantly lowering his flyball rate. In addition to all of this, he has a track record of keeping the ball in the park, coupled with a generally universal tendency for pitchers' home run rates to regress toward league average.
Straily was the Strikeout King in the minors, but he's not really a strikeout pitcher. He was the Home Run King in 2012, but he's not really homer-prone after all. What will he be known as at the end of 2013? My money is on Rookie of the Year.