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The former 24th-round selection in 2009 leads every level of the minor leagues with 124 strike-outs this year, and could find himself in Oakland’s rotation soon given the way things have gone for the Oakland A's in 2012.
With Double-A Midland – where Dan Straily began the season – he was a roommate of A.J. Griffin, who made his major league debut with the A’s last weekend against San Francisco. Griffin was so good in his 15 starts between Midland and Triple-A Sacramento (6-3, 2.66 ERA and 0.91 WHIP), he made it to the show before July.
Following a similar path, Straily is hot on his former roommate’s heals after being promoted to the River Cats on June 20. In his two starts for Sacramento, Straily has allowed just eight hits in 13 innings with 16 strike-outs. His two earned runs allowed gives him an ERA of 1.38. Straily is using Griffin's success as motivation.
“I talked to him [Friday night] after his start. I told him congratulations,” Straily said of Griffin.
“It’s kind of fun – a friendly competition. We were joking around in the beginning of the year how we were going to battle it out for the top spot in all the stats. I told him he’s probably going to win everything but I’m going to get strike-outs. I have him in strike-outs and he has everything else.”
Not only does Straily have more strikeouts than Griffin, he has more strike-outs than anyone in all of baseball, including the major leagues.
“They’re very similar type pitchers command-wise,” River Cats pitching coach Scott Emerson said of Straily and Griffin.
“Straily’s stuff is probably a click better overall. And his breaking pitches are probably going to be better because you have a little bit more velocity.”
Featuring a mid-90s fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, Straily has the makeup of a major league pitcher in waiting. But prior to this year, Straily’s repertoire wasn’t quite as refined or diverse. With High-A Stockton in 2011, he had a solid year, but not one that projected to the outstanding season he’s had so far in 2012. He went 11-9 with a 3.87 ERA in 160.2 California League innings in 2011.
This season, the continued improvement of his changeup to compliment his outstanding slider has made a big difference. Straily said he worked with 10 different changeup grips before settling on an unconventional “two-seam” grip. The feel for that pitch has come a long way since he started throwing it in 2010, he said, and he can use it effectively against hitters because he’s past the point of learning how to throw it.
The right-hander is considerably outperforming most 24th-round draft picks and resembles a prospect drafted much earlier. One of the biggest reasons for his drastic increase in production was moving to the far right side of the pitching rubber during spring training in 2010.
“I think it’s offered some deception to a right-handed hitter," Emerson said.
"Any time you throw a breaking ball as good as his, that’s been his strike-out pitch, and you can start it at a hitter or behind a hitter, that’s deception. That’s a key and I think that’s helped him out a lot."
It was an idea that was presented to Straily just weeks before camp broke and he set off for his first full season as a pro with Low-A Kane County in 2010. It was a tough adjustment to make. He spent time exaggerating the motion by throwing further off the right side of the rubber in bullpen sessions than he would in games just to become comfortable. Ultimately, it paid off in a big way.
“It seems so small looking at it, but it’s actually a big mechanical change," Straily said.
"It’s been something that now I’m completely comfortable with it and I really like it. Just being able to create and angle in on lefties and still get in on righties."
The concern with pitchers that strike-out a lot of hitters is always the amount of pitches they throw and their ability to pitch deep into games. That hasn’t been a problem for Straily this year, as he has lasted into the sixth inning in 11 of his 16 outings. He hasn’t thrown fewer than six frames since May 13 with Midland, giving him a streak of eight-straight quality starts between Double-A and Triple-A.
In the major leagues, the emphasis for pitchers is to pitch to contact early in the count to get through innings efficiently.
“This guy has very good stuff inside the strike zone and has the ability to expand the strike zone," Emerson said.
"He may not get as many strikeouts in the big leagues. But with his stuff and facing big league hitters, they’ll put the ball in play a little bit more, but that’s what you want. For me, he’s pitching to contact here, but his stuff has been good and he’s been getting the strike-outs.
“In the big leagues, we want you in the seventh. Here in the minor leagues we want you in the seventh inning as well. Build that endurance and get you deeper in games. He’s done a great job so far.”
The A's starting rotation has gone through a massive transformation this season with Brandon McCarthy being the only regular to return from the A's regular 2011 rotation. Coming into the year, it was projected that youngsters Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker and Tyson Ross would fill out the rotation with Brad Peacock and Sonny Gray sitting on the major league doorstep.
Things haven’t quite worked out that way with Peacock and Gray, who haven’t yet lived up to expectations after their solid seasons a year ago. But Griffin and Straily have stepped up in their place, giving the organization even more depth in the starting pitching department.
Given the health issues with McCarthy and Bartolo Colon (both of whom are currently on the A's 15-day disabled list), the 23-year-old Straily could get to the major leagues at some point in July to join his former roommate Griffin, as long as Straily continues to pitch well for the River Cats. The idea of possibly making the major leagues is something that Straily didn’t think was possible heading into the season. His promotion from Double-A to Triple-A in June was the first time he had moved up a level during the season.
“It is very motivating. I didn’t think it was a possibility. Wherever I end up is where I’m going to be all year," Straily said.
"I’ve seen a lot of guys kind of beat themselves up inside because they’re pitching really well and they think they should be up a level. But then they start pitching really bad because they’re beating themselves up about it. I’ve always just kind of taken the approach that ‘I’m where I’m at because this is the level they think I need to be at right now.'
“But they told me this summer that they’re getting me ready.”
Straily’s strike-out numbers are so good they are comparable to some of the best pitchers in the game. In his lone minor league season, Justin Verlander averaged 10.3 strike-outs per nine innings. In his two years in the minors, Stephen Strasburg struck out 11.2 per nine innings. This year, Straily’s strikeout rate is 11.3 per nine innings.
Should he stay in the minor leagues all season, Straily has a legitimate chance to eclipse the 200 strike-out plateau, a rare feat in the minor leagues. Matt Moore, the top prospect in baseball coming into this season, is the only minor league pitcher in recent years to reach that total. Chances are, however, that Straily won't have the opportunity to throw enough innings in the minor leagues this season to get to 200 strike-outs if he continues to pitch as effectively as he has for Sacramento thus far, as he could find himself on the rubber opposite Verlander or Moore in the big leagues later this summer.
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