By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Minors): 22 G, 18 GS, 102 1/3 IP, 4.13 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 3 W, 107 SO, 23 BB
2016 season (Majors): 21 G, 0 GS, 22 IP, 1.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 2 W, 30 SO, 11 BB
Tommy John surgery is never something you want associated with a young pitcher. In the rare case of Matt Strahm, however, his best has come after undergoing the famed procedure.
Strahm was selected by the Royals in the 21st round of the 2012 MLB Draft out of Junior College and featured a fastball that sat in the low-90s. After a rough 19 games with Rookie level Idaho Falls in ‘12, Strahm got hurt and ended up missing all of ‘13 and much of ‘14 after the surgery and things were looking bleak. When he returned near the end of ‘14, though, he looked like a new pitcher. He struck out 27 in 19 1/3 innings and followed that up with a 2.59 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 121 strikeouts in 94 innings during what turned out to be his first full pro season.
Last season, his first at a level higher than Class A, Strahm was mostly a starter for Double-A and pitched well enough before the Royals decided his left arm could be of use to them out of the bullpen. It turned out to be a wise decision for Kansas City, as Strahm was a huge boost to the ‘pen. Pitching against both left- and right-handed hitters, Strahm used his fastball that averaged 94 miles per hour according to PITCHf/x data along with a plus-curveball and changeup to manage an impressive 12.2 SwStr% (swinging-strike percentage), 12.27 strikeouts per nine innings and a .171 batting average against.
After proving that he can be an asset as a reliever, the Royals now face the decision of whether or not to keep him there or try him as a starter — a role that he had some success with in the Minor Leagues. When pitching out of the bullpen, Strahm maxed his fastball at 97 mph, so as a starter he’d probably stick around 93-94 mph consistently. Given how effective his changeup and curveball were, there’s no reason to believe he can’t succeed as a starter with three plus-pitches,
Early on in Spring Training, the Royals have used him out of the bullpen in short appearances, and it doesn’t appear that he will be stretched out immediately. While he seems destined to pitch out of the ‘pen to start the year, manager Ned Yost and others with the Royals have stated that they view the 25-year-old Strahm as a starter long-term.
Like most pitchers, the simplest path to success in the bigs is as a reliever, and Strahm seems slated to set up closer Kelvin Herrera to start this year. In a full season in that role, the lefty could be one of the better setup men in the league. There is still that chance we see the Royals stretch Strahm out and put him in the rotation at some point in the year, but if he’s succeeding in the ‘pen then the team will have a tough choice to make.
Another young Royals lefty, Danny Duffy, went back and forth as a starter and reliever for a few years before finding his groove and settling in as a starter last year. Duffy made the transition last May, making his first start after 16 appearances out of the ‘pen. Don’t be surprised if Kansas City decides to go the same route with Strahm. If it does, KC can only hope it works out as well as it did for Duffy last year.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.