Hunter Strickland’s return to the Reds

Hunter Strickland’s return to the Reds

Yesterday, the Reds announced they had agreed to terms with Hunter Strickland on a minor league contract with an invitation for the veteran reliever to the major league spring training camp.

The deal set up the possibility of a return engagement for the 34-year-old right-hander who pitched for David Bell’s club all of the 2022 season. Last year, Strickland and the Reds had agreed on a one-year, $1.875 million contract. In 2022, his ninth season of major league service, Strickland threw a career-high number of pitches (1,082) and innings (62.1).

The Reds became the eighth team Hunter Strickland had pitched for in his 9-year major league career, although he was with the San Francisco Giants for the first five. Since 2019, he’s pitched for the Mariners, Nationals, Mets, Rays, Angels, Brewers and the Reds.

In our 2022 scouting report on Strickland, we pointed out a few reasons for optimism based on his 2021 season, namely his higher K%, bringing his BB% down to league average and limiting exit velocity (97th percentile). You can also read more details on Strickland’s history, career and pitch portfolio there.

Strickland had posted a glittering 2.61 ERA in 2021. But with that in mind, we also pointed out significant warning signs. We cautioned that Strickland had been lucky in 2021 with balls put into play and his strand rate. His fastball continued to get destroyed as its velocity declined. With his up-in-the-zone heater, Strickland is an extreme fly-ball pitcher.

Yes, Strickland’s ERA in 2021 had been great, but his fielding-independent measurements at the time told the opposite story. His 4.71 xFIP in 2021 pointed squarely toward what would become Hunter Strickland’s atrocious 2022 performance.

Strickland’s 2022 Season with the Reds

Strickland’s ERA shot up from 2.61 to 4.91. His xERA (a stat that normalizes actual batted-ball outcomes) likewise soared from 3.78 to 5.38. Strickland’s fielding-independent measures were among the league worst among relievers, 4.78 FIP and 4.96 xFIP.

It doesn’t take a long look under the hood to see what happened. Strickland’s strikeout rate fell from 24% to 21%, putting him in the 38th percentile for pitchers. His walk rate skyrocketed from 9% to 11.6%, placing him in the bottom 8%. On batted balls, Strickland gave up career highs in average exit velocity (16th percentile) and barrel% (11th percentile).

Beyond those outcomes, Strickland’s good fortune in 2021 didn’t return in 2022. His BABIP went from .250 to .301. His left-on-base percentage regressed from 83% to a league average 71%.

Strickland’s fastball, which he stuck with on over half his pitches, continued to get hammered to the tune of an eye-popping .420 xwOBA and exit velocity of 92.8 mph. Here he serves up a July fastball that Marcel Ozuna demolishes. Strickland blew the 2-run lead in the 9th.

Strickland was also among leaders in batters hit-by-pitch. On July 27, he came in for the 9th with the Reds holding a 5-4 lead over the Marlins. After giving up a lead-off homer, Strickland walked the next batter and then hit Jacob Stallings who was trying to bunt.

The Marlins scored three runs off Strickland in the 9th and beat the Reds 7-6, with Stallings scoring the game-winning run.

Was it Only April?

You might take a superficial glance at Strickland’s 2022 splits page and conclude his troubles mainly occurred in April and that if you exclude those, his performance for the Reds was OK.

It is quite accurate that Strickland was dreadful in April. But that’s not a reason to exclude it from his evaluation. The stats from every game count. But if you were looking at just April, one could make the case it was the most important month for the Reds as they struggled to a fate-sealing 3-22 start.

But cherry-picking months out of season long stats, especially for relief pitchers who have small sample sizes to begin with, is an unsound form of analysis. To begin, analysis-by-month is senseless because player performance doesn’t change because the calendar page turns. Was Strickland somehow different in his two shutout innings on May 1 than he was a couple days before that?

The subtract-a-month methodology makes wildly varying narratives possible. Suppose I said “let’s exclude Strickland’s month of September because he was largely facing lineups with call-ups and teams that were out of contention.” In that case, excluding a different month, the reliever’s ERA would shoot up to 5.40, same with his FIP and xFIP (5.59), telling the opposite story of the “exclude April” narrative.

Even accepting the premise to exclude April, Strickland was still well below average. League average ERA, FIP and xFIP for relievers in 2022 was around 3.90. Strickland was at least a half-run worse in each of those categories, excluding April.

April might have been his worst month, but if we’re going to use turning calendar pages for analysis (again, don’t do this), he had other clunkers as well. League average wOBA for 2022 was .316. Strickland’s wOBA allowed was .340 in June, .393 in July and .359 in August. Including April (.442), that’s four of the season’s six months.

Bottom Line

Expert projections for the 2023 season don’t seem to buy the “only a bad April” theory of Hunter Strickland’s 2022 season. ZiPS (4.82) and Steamer (5.16!) project his ERA in the area that his season-long xERA and xFIP have pointed to once again.

Neither did major league teams, including the Reds, feel inclined to overlook a calendar month. There’s a reason Hunter Strickland didn’t receive a major league offer this spring. It has been reported he drove to spring training without a job offer and approached the Reds last week about letting him try out, which they agreed to do.

Minor league contracts are no-risk moves by clubs, although the game-innings one pitcher gets assigned are innings opportunities lost for others. And risk does attach if front offices over-read the results of a few spring training outings and let it taint their Opening Day roster choices.

If you looked at the right stats, Strickland’s poor performance in 2022 wasn’t a surprise. Those same numbers say his 2023 will be worse.

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.