Despite a busy offseason overall, it’s the first major-league signing made to bolster the team’s bullpen. Assuming good health for all — an admittedly risky proposition for pitchers — Strop is likely locked into a roster spot along with Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson.
Strop will almost certainly be the oldest member of the Cincinnati bullpen at 34. In parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues, Strop has a strong 3.28 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 3.55 xFIP, and 3.33 SIERA. The elephant in the room, along with his age, is he’s coming off one of his worst seasons as a major-leaguer. However, there’s still plenty of life left in Strop’s arm and reasons to believe he can pay high dividends for the Reds in the coming year.
What went wrong in 2019?
In 41.2 innings with the division-rival Cubs, Strop posted a 4.97 ERA. His peripherals, though better (4.53 FIP, 4.19 xFIP, 3.94 SIERA), still represented a stark decline from his peak.
The main culprit for his down season was control. Strop had his highest walk rate (11.2%) since 2012, when he was a member of the Orioles, and only 41.9% of his pitches were thrown in the strike zone. The other glaring issue was a dip in fastball velocity — by about 1.5 mph — for a second straight year.
As a result, batters made harder contact against Strop. He allowed an average exit velocity of 89.3 mph, a .351 expected weighted on-base average on contact (xwOBACON), and 9.6% barrel rate — his worst marks by far in the Statcast era (since 2015). The juiced ball didn’t help matters, and he surrendered the most home runs he’d ever given up in a season (6) and an elevated home run to fly ball ratio (18.8%) despite being a prolific ground-ball pitcher.
Age is one possible cause of Strop’s 2019 woes. It catches up to every player eventually. But there’s another factor at play that may explain his struggles: injury. Strop’s 41.2 innings were his lowest total since 2011, when he was still a young player bouncing between the minors and the Baltimore bullpen. He made two separate trips to the injured list due to a left hamstring strain and neck tightness.
The hamstring strain was the more serious issue for Strop, keeping him out for nearly a month. Hamstring issues have been a recurring theme for Strop, too.
When Strop hit the injured list on May 8, that was the third hamstring strain he’d experienced in the previous eight months. In 2018, he was shut down in September with the same issue and pitched through the pain in the Cubs’ loss to the Rockies in the Wild Card Game. He then hurt his right hamstring in the following spring training before straining the left one again in May. It doesn’t definitely explain his velocity dip, but it’s known that the plant (front) leg plays a more significant role in a pitcher’s velocity than the drive (back) leg. If Strop’s plant leg was bothering him all season, it may have diminished how hard he could throw.
Strop’s velocity started roughly where it did in 2018, but it took a nosedive once he re-injured his hamstring in May and never recovered.
The hamstring injury may have also played a factor in his control issues if it caused him to threw off his mechanics.
Reasons for optimism
Assuming he’s healthy in 2020, there’s reason to believe some of these issues will correct themselves. Plenty went wrong for Strop in 2019, yet he still showed he has a lot left in the tank.
The right-hander adds another high-strikeout reliever to a Reds bullpen that ranked seventh in strikeout rate (25.5%) last season. Strop has a 26.3% strikeout rate for his career and beat that mark at 27.5% in 2019. It was a strong rebound from 2018, when his strikeout rate (23.8%) fell to its lowest point in six seasons. Although his whiff rate dropped from 34.5% in 2018 to 30.0% last year, it was still better than league average (25.7%) by a healthy margin.
Not only does Strop strike out a lot of hitters, but he also gets a lot of ground balls — a huge asset in Great American Ball Park in the era of uppercut swings and juiced baseballs. Strop had a 52.9% ground-ball rate in 2019, just under his career mark (53.9%). That would’ve trailed only Jared Hughes, Matt Bowman, and Garrett on last year’s Reds team.
Strop throws three different fastballs — a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter — a slider, and a splitter on occasion. The slider is the pitch that makes him tick. Since 2015, only Ken Giles has a better slider whiff rate than Strop’s 51.5% (note: Amir Garrett is third). Strop has also held hitters to a tremendous .122 batting average (.136 xBA), .190 slugging percentage (.206 xSLG), and .174 wOBA (.195 xwOBA) during that span. His whiff rate on the pitch did drop to 44.9% in 2019, his lowest mark since 2011, but that was still well, well above league average (35.1%). With 3.4 more inches of drop than the average slider, Strop’s breaking ball was just as elite as ever at getting batters to chase out of the strike zone (46.6%). Only Corbin Burnes, Will Smith, Justin Verlander, and Roberto Osuna had better chase rates.
In 2019, Strop also followed a trend many Reds pitchers have: he threw his best pitch the most, something he’d gotten away from the previous two years.
Under Derek Johnson and company, that trend seems likely to continue in 2020 after Stephenson and Garrett, among others, had success with the approach.
The right-hander would also be well-served to throw his cutter more, especially against right-handed hitters. Since developing the cutter in 2018, it has proven to be his second-best pitch behind the slider. The cutter has held hitters to a measly average exit velocity of 83.9 mph and a .265 xwOBA. Right-handed hitters managed only an 83.4 mph exit velocity and .217 xwOBA.
Compare those impressive numbers to the overall performance of his four-seamer and sinker the last two seasons:
- Four-seam: 87.9 mph EV, .424 xwOBA
- Sinker: 89.0 mph EV, .418 xwOBA
While the four-seamer has never been a dominant pitch for Strop (-3.9 weighted pitch value), the sinker — a once-mighty pitch — has become less effective as more batters adopt upward swings.
Not only have hitters squared up the sinker often, but its ground-ball rate has also fallen from an eye-popping 76% in 2017 to a career-worst 45% in 2019. Part of that traces back to reduced movement, too. Since 2016, Strop has lost four inches of horizontal movement from his sinker, going from 7% above average to 18% below average.
Better health may help him recapture the sinker’s former glory, but he has two strong pitches to fall back on if that doesn’t happen.
Some of Strop’s down year in 2019 was likely age-related, and he’ll turn 35 on June 13. But injuries undoubtedly hampered him as well. With healthy hamstrings, there’s still plenty to like about his game even if his velocity doesn’t bounce back. He still has an offering that borders on elite in his slider, and tweaking his pitch mix could help him rediscover success with the Reds. At a modest $1.8 million, he’s a worthwhile addition to the bullpen who could yield a high return on investment or be easily released if he can’t get back on track.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison. Image was cropped to fit the dimensions of the site.