With a full season to gain strength in a knee that was repaired in late 2017, Matt Strahm should be poised for a great year for the San Diego Padres.
Matt Strahm spent the 2018 season as one of San Diego’s most valuable weapons out of the bullpen, but he’s expected to enter spring training right in the middle of a very crowded and wide open competition for a spot in the starting rotation. Can Strahm maintain the high level he displayed in 2018 coming out of the rotation instead of the bullpen?
Rotation work isn’t anything new to Strahm, he’s already started a handful of games over his time with the Padres and Royals, including a stretch of four straight appearances this past June. He never appeared past the fourth inning in any of those starts as he was appearing in the recently popularized “opener” role that has been employed with varying degrees of success by teams such as the Rays and the Athletics.
However, it’s likely that Strahm would be used as a more traditional starter if he were to make the rotation out of camp as, over Strahm’s minor league career, roughly one-third of his appearances came as a starter. He had stints in Double-A and High Single-A in the Royals’ system, where he was used almost exclusively in the rotation. He’s reportedly been preparing throughout the offseason for this role with the Padres. It’s likely that even through the first month of the season we’ll see him making shorter appearances in more of an opener role as the team stretches him out.
Strahm boasts a solid 4-pitch mix, headlined by a low-to-mid 90s fastball that’s often followed up by a mid 80s changeup that was absolutely devastating to hitters in 2018. He doesn’t seem to showcase his slider too often to right-handed hitters, which is wise because he has had a tendency to hang it in the zone when he does. Against lefties though, the pitch has a very late break that makes it seem to just drop right off the plate, generating a lot of frustrating whiffs.
His mix was very good at limiting hard contact last season at just 34.2%: that’s lower than Corey Kluber’s 36.6% and AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell’s 35.7%. The big adjustment he’ll have to make out of the rotation will be saving things for late matchups as hitters get more looks at him. Hitters rarely saw him more than once in a game in 2018, so he was able to flash everything he had each at-bat. In order to continue to fool hitters, he’ll have to work on his game planning. As a result of him being a mostly two-pitch pitcher to righties, one would expect teams to go very right-handed heavy against him. He’s going to have to become more comfortable throwing his slider down and in to righties if he wants sustained success out of the rotation and to continue limiting hard contact.
The final question is going to be his health. Strahm missed much of 2017 and didn’t appear in a game for the Padres until May of 2018 after tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee. Strahm didn’t even spend a full year rehabbing before appearing back on the mound, so it’s likely he still wasn’t pitching at 100%. After a full offseason of workouts, he should likely be ready to go out of the rotation in 2019, though his innings limit will land somewhere around 120-130 this season to build up to a full workload in 2020. For comparison’s sake, Lucchesi threw 130 innings in 26 starts this season, but that was after spending his minor league career as a starter.
As frustrating as it is for Padres fans, the window is not opening in 2019 as we were originally told, and midway through a slow offseason, it appears this is going to be another year of evaluating the talent that is already in the system. Strahm is just one of a load of guys in Triple-A or already at the major league level that we can look to in 2019 for flashes of what future seasons may hold for us.