On January 2nd, Jerry Dipoto said in an interview with 710 ESPN’s Danny, Dave, and Moore that the Mariners’ 2019 closer might not yet be on the roster. Three weeks and a day later, former San Fransisco Giant Hunter Strickland signed a one-year deal with the Mariners. Could he be the door-closing bullpen piece Jerry referenced?
While Strickland isn’t a glamorous signing, he holds one statistical advantage over every other Mariners reliever: he has recorded double-digits saves in his career. The 30-year-old righty notched 14 of his 19 career saves last season, 13 of which came before he broke his throwing hand in June. During his stint as San Fran’s closer, Strickland ran a respectable 3.38 FIP while striking out just over eight batters per nine innings. Before we dive further into his performance in the Giants’ ninth-inning role, let’s look at his journey to the bigs.
The Red Sox drafted Strickland in the 18th round out of Pike County High School in Zebulon, Georgia during the 2007 MLB Draft. The 18-year-old elected to to sign with the club and started pitching professionally that summer.
The long, athletic righty had a low-90s fastball that he located well; however, he lacked a second offering that could generate swings and misses. Consequently, he was still an underwhelming starter pitching in Low-A three years after being drafted. Despite success keeping runs off the board in his first few professional seasons, Strickland struggled to generate strikeouts, running a K/9 rate under six during that same stretch.
The Red Sox traded him to Pittsburgh during the summer of 2009 in a deal that brought Adam LaRoche to Boston. Injury issues prevented Strickland from finding his groove in the Pirates’ system. He battled through an elbow strain in the 2010 season, which led to an uninspiring 5.53 ERA. A shoulder injury forced him to undergo rotator cuff surgery, causing him to miss all of 2011. Five seasons after getting drafted out of high school, Strickland was an injury-plagued starting pitching prospect who had yet to touch AA.
The following season, the Pirates elected to move Strickland to the ‘pen when he was finally called up to AA. For the first time since rookie ball, he saw his strikeout rate jump north of seven punch-outs per nine innings. As a reliever, Strickland’s fastball jumped to the mid-high 90s weapon it is today. Additionally, his slider became more of a weapon, generating swings and misses at a higher clip. Although his performance wasn’t enough to prevent the Pirates from designating him for assignment, it convinced the Giants to pick him up off waivers. He started the 2013 season in A+ and was off to a dominant start, allowing just two runs in 21 innings. Unfortunately, his season was ended abruptly by Tommy John surgery.
Nevertheless, Strickland returned in 2014 stronger than ever. He struck out over 12 batters per nine innings over the course of 35.2 innings in AA before getting called up to the bigs on September 1, 2014. From that point forward, he was a mainstay in San Fransisco’s bullpen, locking down a setup role and performing far better than his memorable playoff combustion might lead you to recall.
After initial success as the Giants’ closer in 2018, he saw his prominent role in the ‘pen disappear quickly. Between June 14th and June 18th, Strickland was charged with two blown saves in three appearances. After exiting the June 18th game, he broke his hand punching a wall in frustration. As a result, he missed exactly two months and, unsurprisingly, lost his spot as closer. Despite strong pre-injury numbers (2.84/3.38 ERA/FIP) he struggled mightily upon his return, as evidenced by a 6.82 FIP. The Giants designated him for assignment after the conclusion of the season.
What went wrong for Hunter after breaking his hand? For one, his fastball velocity dropped from his 96.52 MPH average prior to his injury to 94.30 after coming back. Furthermore, his slider lost its bite. He had posted an impressive 44.44-percent whiffs/swing ratio prior to the June 18th incident. That number dropped to 28-percent after getting hurt. A less effective slider mitigated his strikeout rate, while a slower fastball became a pitch that hitters could capitalize on. Opposing batsmen had an impressive .833 slugging percentage to go with a .368 BABIP against his heater following his August 18th return.
Although he’s only pitched for one team in the bigs, Strickland has a journeyman story to tell. He’s fought through injuries, transitioned from starting to relief pitching, and has had some interesting press along the way. Considering his history, this was a very low-risk signing for the rebuilding Mariners. At the very least, the M’s have a bounce-back candidate closer. A full offseason to heal his hand him to get his velocity back, prompting his numbers to follow suit. Besides, he’s overcome tougher ailments in the past.