As the regular season approaches, questions will begin to be answered about who makes the 25-man Opening Day roster for each respective MLB team. From position players filling bench roles and pitchers sliding into spots in the bullpen, the reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants will have some difficult decisions to make before their April 6 opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
One of the questions the champs will be looking to answer is what to do with Hunter Strickland. San Francisco has had a very successful bullpen over the last five seasons, which is one reason the team has claimed three World Series titles during that time frame. Stalwarts Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez have all recorded key outs during the Giants’ title runs, while Jean Machi and Yusmeiro Petit found success during 2014.
But Strickland also worked his way into the San Francisco bullpen during the 2014 playoffs. The right-hander was called upon several times during the postseason, recording some key outs for the Giants, but mostly struggling, giving up six home runs.
Despite his struggles during the postseason, it is quite possible that Strickland could parlay his minor league and regular season performance during 2014 into a spot on the Giants’ 25-man roster come Opening Day. He would serve as a weapon against right-handed hitters, thanks to his high-90s fastball and sharp, late-breaking slider, though left-handed hitters proved to have success against him, which was evident during the postseason.
While making the Opening Day roster would be an impressive feat for Strickland, especially after starting the 2014 season at High-A San Jose and spending the majority of the year at Double-A Richmond, would Strickland and San Francisco be best served if he started the 2015 season in Triple-A, where he could develop into the Giants’ closer of the future?
Last season, Strickland tossed just three innings at San Jose, recording seven strikeouts, before he was called up to Richmond. As a member of the Flying Squirrels, Strickland made 38 appearances, working 35.2 innings while recording 11 saves – the most of his career. He demonstrated good command while at the Double-A level, recording 48 strikeouts while walking just four batters. Strickland averaged 12.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings.
His performance while in Richmond earned Strickland a promotion to the Giants, where he debuted with one inning of work against the Colorado Rockies on September 1, 2014. Strickland allowed two hits during his inning of work, but did not allow a run to cross the plate.
He would make eight more appearances during the last month of season, tossing a combined seven innings. Strickland faced 25 batters during his initial introduction to the majors, allowing five hits, no runs, no walks while striking out nine batters, which was good for 11.6 strikeouts-per-nine-innings.
Strickland’s production was only magnified by his intensity on the mound. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Georgia native exudes confidence, which borders dangerously close to arrogance, something established major leaguers do not like from rookies. Who can blame him for his confidence, though, with the stuff he possesses and the success he has having to start his career?
It appeared that Strickland could have an impact on the 2014 MLB Postseason much the same way Francisco Rodriguez did for the 2002 Los Angeles Angels, where the now established reliever earned the moniker “K-Rod.”
Unfortunately, Strickland did not have the breakthrough that Rodriguez had. Instead, the hard-thrower struggled with location, giving up six home runs during the postseason, including two towering shots to Washington Nationals’ outfielder Bryce Harper — a player who knows a thing or two about the thin line between the perception of confidence and arrogance. He also almost started a brawl during Game 2 of the World Series when he began yelling at Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez after Omar Infante had launched one of Strickland’s 98-MPH fastballs over the wall in left.
It is a moment that Strickland surely regrets but will need to learn from in the future. It is OK to have intensity and passion, but it is important to make sure that it is well placed and surfaces at the proper moments. And Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy seems to agree, saying after the dust up with Perez, “He needs to get a little smarter.”
Strickland finished the 2014 postseason with a 7.56 ERA. He allowed seven runs (all earned) on seven hits in 8.1 total innings of work. Despite his struggles during the postseason, Strickland never appeared to lose confidence.
“The failures are what make guys better,” he said. “I feel like they made me better. Just being in tune with yourself and knowing who you are and what you’ve got to do. In this game, you’re not going to make it too far if you don’t have confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?”
Despite Strickland’s confidence in his abilities, it is my opinion that the Giants organization would be best served if Strickland started the year at Triple-A, where he could harness his confidence, intensity and stuff that could allow him to become a very successful closer at the MLB level. While he was in pressure-packed situations during the 2014 MLB Postseason, Strickland needs to experience at least half a season as a full-time closer, facing the intense situations of trying to record outs in the ninth with his team only winning by a run.
A start in Triple-A would also allow Strickland to develop his slider more, which will be a very important pitch at the MLB level if he hopes to be a successful relief pitcher. At this time, when thrown near the strike zone, the slider is an effective out pitch against right-handed batters. But, if he wants to succeed as a closer and not just a right-handed specialist, he will need to learn how to throw and locate the slider against left-handed hitters so that it does not travel into their hot zone, which is low and inside. All that the work could be accomplished with a start at the minor league level and could allow Strickland to become more of a pitcher instead of a thrower and the Giants’ closer of the future, if not later this summer.