When the Giants decided to non-tender Hunter Strickland at the beginning of the offseason, the general feeling among Giants fans was relief. At one time, Strickland appeared to be the closer of the next generation. His career in San Francisco was mostly good if one only considers the stat line, but Strickland’s temper always drew more attention than his performance.
Strickland came up to the big leagues in 2014, skipping Triple-A altogether. To earn his call-up, Strickland dominated the Eastern League that season. In 35 2/3 innings at Double-A Richmond, Strickland struck out 48 and walked just 4. He carried that success into the bigs, striking out more than a batter per inning and walking no one in limited innings. Strickland demonstrated a high-90s fastball with great command and a workable slider. He had the makings of a power closer, and he gave Giants fans a reason to be excited about his future. That is, until the postseason.
The 2014 postseason was when the veneer began to peel away. Just because he had been decimating the Eastern League didn’t mean that he could succeed against elite major league hitters. Strickland gave up six home runs in eight innings that October, two of them came off the bat of Bryce Harper.
It wasn’t the poor performance that brought Strickland’s future into question. It was how he dealt with the failure.
In Game Two of the World Series, Strickland snapped at Salvador Perez after Omar Infante hit a home run, establishing a pattern of him losing his cool. Strickland infamously carried a grudge against Bryce Harper into the 2017 season. The ensuing altercation led to Jeff Samardzija and Mike Morse colliding, giving Morse a concussion that would end his career. Strickland missed two months of the 2018 season after blowing a save against the Marlins because he punched a door and broke his hand.
The Giants non-tendered Strickland for character reasons, sure, but Strickland also displayed some warning signs. Strickland has always outperformed his fielding independent metrics, but in 2015 and 2016, his xFIPs of 3.35 and 3.70 were fairly good. Things began to slip away in 2017, when Strickland posted a career high FIP and an xFIP of 5.07 even though his ERA was a shiny 2.64.
Strickland continued to outperform until he broke his hand in response to Lewis Brinson expressing joy. After Strickland came off the DL this last season, Strickland struggled mightily. In 13 2/3 innings Strickland struck out eight, walked eight, and gave up three bombs. In his final appearance in a Giants uniform, Strickland allowed two inherited runners to score and gave up another three runs himself. Strickland’s luck had run out and it was seemingly correcting itself all at once.
Looking at what has happened to his fastball, it’s not hard to see how this happened. At the tail end of last season, his velocity was way down. The sudden drop might have been a result of the injury and losing time and thus arm strength, but his velocity has been steadily decreasing since 2016.
The results have also been easily to see. Strickland’s fastball is a bit straighter than most, so it relies more on velocity. Hitters haven’t had as difficult a time making contact with the pitch.
His command has also suffered. Strickland’s strength in the early part of his career was that he could pound the strike zone with high-90s heat, but now, he’s not hitting the zone with as much regularity.
These things in conjunction explain why Strickland’s strikeout rate has dropped while his walk rate has risen. What it doesn’t explain is what the Mariners see in Strickland. Seattle has ostensibly replaced Edwin Diaz, one of the best relievers in the majors with Strickland. Strickland not only has a track record of harming his team with his temper, but he’s showing some clear signs of regression, too.
Strickland signed for a one-year deal for a guaranteed $1.3 million before incentives, so there’s essentially no downside for the Mariners. The absolute worst-case scenario is that Strickland starts another brawl, and Ichiro sprains his ankle stepping on a bucket on the way out to join the scrum. The more realistic scenario is that Strickland pitches poorly and the Mariners’ playoff odds aren’t affected in any way.
The upside is that Strickland regains some of what made him successful in 2015 and 2016. If he does, Seattle retains control over the righty through 2021. Perhaps Seattle’s player development team led by the well-respected Andy McKay can figure out a way to adjust his usage. Since Strickland’s fastball has more natural downward movement and he’s losing velocity, it might make sense for Strickland to buck trends and throw his sinker more. Maybe the Mariners want to teach him a cutter. Maybe they just need a warm body to pitch innings while they retool their roster.
Regardless, Strickland has a chance to revitalize his career, and the Mariners have a cheap pitcher with some upside.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.