When right-handed hurler Dan Straily made his major league debut with the Oakland A's on Friday, he came up burdened with the label as baseball’s leader in strikeouts.
That thought would lead one to believe that his repertoire featured a high-90s fastball with a hard slider and hammer of a curveball – reminiscent of Stephen Strasburg or Justin Verlander.
In reality, it’s quite the contrary. His fastball rarely comes in above 92 and his success is predicated on pinpoint control and the ability to throw any pitch in any count. Many young arms come to the major leagues with great stuff, but lack the ability to place pitches where they need to or have the confidence to throw their secondary pitches in hitters’ counts.
“For a kid that’s 23 that can do that and get ahead with breaking pitches, it really makes it tough for the hitters to jump on him because he really does have great off-speed,” A’s catcher Derek Norris said.
“And you do have to be conscious of the heater that will get passed you if you’re not ready for it.”
Straily’s extreme strikeout rate of 11.4 per nine innings in the minor leagues this season doesn’t mean strike-outs are going to be his staple in the majors. His strike-out numbers are likely a testament to his ability to pitch “backwards,” a talent that’s not often seen in the minor leagues.
Pitching backwards is when a pitcher throws an off-speed pitch when a hitter is expecting a fastball, and vice-versa.
“Something like that has just been engrained in me from day one since coming to the Oakland organization,” Straily said.
“They’re not going to care about your minor league stats when you’re in the big leagues. They tell that to everybody. That’s a very firm belief and it makes sense now.
"It’s about developing. When you’re down 2-0, they’re going to call a changeup and you’re going to need to throw it with confidence in the strike zone. That’s something that takes some guts to do sometimes, to trust your pitches in hitting counts."
Straily's changeup is a pitch that has taken a huge step in its evolution over the past two seasons. It’s a major factor that has helped him advance all the way from Double-A to the big leagues in just four months. Coming into the year, the 24th-round selection in the 2009 draft was a relatively unknown prospect and he had not pitched above the California League.
But that changed after he refined some minor adjustments he made in spring training in 2010, including moving to the far right side of the rubber. The switch changed his release point in the eye of the hitter and created more deception to his delivery.
After toying with multiple changeup grips, he settled on an unconventional two-seam grip that he’s able to throw in-and-out of the strike zone.
“He’s almost got two different [changeups],” Norris said. “He’s got one that’s got a slow fade and he’s got one with almost like a split action.”
Norris caught Straily for the first time in his major league debut and might have mistaken his lack of command for throwing two different changeups.
“That was a pure accident if that’s the case,” Straily said.
“I’ll throw the same changeup. Some I’ll throw to try to stay in the strike zone and others I’ll throw that link in and fall out. It was just a combination of rushing. I watched the film. Every single pitch I was rushing, just getting out in front of myself. I wasn’t relaxed.”
After striking out his first major league hitter, Straily appeared to let nerves get the best of him. He said he was far from sharp, but still threw well enough to only allow one run on five hits through six innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. Straily struck out five.
To pair with the changeup, Straily features a slider that comes out at nearly the same velocity. The debate about which pitch is more effective depends on which he’s throwing better at the time. As of Friday, it was the changeup, although Norris said Straily's slider is his best strikeout pitch. He also throws a curveball, though not as advanced, and a two-seam fastball.
The Marshall University alum struggled to get on top of his pitches and may have been helped out by the Coliseum’s spacious outfield in a few instances. He allowed 13 fly balls, including four line drives and induced just five groundouts. Regardless, the A’s feel Straily has a nice foundation to build upon going forward.
"Before he left, he told me,'Emo, I always get nerves my first start somewhere,'" Triple-A Sacramento pitching coach Scott Emerson said.
"If that’s nervous, I’ll take nervous every night. He’s a sponge. He’s a guy that wants the information and soaks it up and keeps coming back for more."
Straily had a 3.38 ERA in 14 starts in the Texas League with Double-A Midland, but improved his numbers dramatically in the more hitter-friendly PCL when he was promoted to Sacramento on June 20. Under Emerson’s watch, Straily went 5-2 with a 1.36 ERA and allowed just 27 hits in 53 innings. He strikeout rate was identical, whiffing 67 hitters.
Combined, Straily struck out 175 in 138.1 minor league innings to lead all of professional baseball, including Strasburg and Verlander.
Before making his debut with the A’s, Straily didn’t have the luxury of preparing for his start with the major league coaching and training staff. Straily came to Oakland right from Sacramento and hit the ground running.
Straily didn't even have the luxury of having spent time with the big league team during spring training, having never been a non-roster invitee to big league camp.
"Luckily they have really good communication. The training staff knew my routine," Straily said.
"Even though they’ve never seen me pitch they know exactly what I was going to do before I got there. There’s a masseuse here. But it’s still going to be baseball.”
Straily joins an Oakland rotation that is second in the AL in ERA at 3.74 and leading the team currently in the hunt for a spot in the post-season. Straily’s next start will come against the Angels, who are a half-game ahead of the A's in the standings after they defeated Oakland on Monday.
“One of the first things I realized when I got here was that it’s all about winning," Straily said.
"If it’s ugly, if it’s pretty - it doesn’t matter. It’s about winning and that’s the most important thing."
That is in stark contrast to the minor leagues, where the focus is on player development.
Winning is something the A’s figured out how to do in July to the tune of a 19-5 record for the month. The A's lead baseball with 13 walk-off wins, including 10 in the last 23 home games.
The latest came in the game Straily started, giving him the rush that has been the A’s calling card this year.
“Just to get up here and experience the walk-off, that was a lot of fun," Straily said.
"We kept going and going and everyone in the clubhouse was like, ‘just hit a homer. Let’s win this right now.’ It was a lot of fun, just to be apart of it."