A few months back at the winter meetings, the Marlins passed on a multitude of offers they had on the table offering proven MLB pitching help for their top pitching prospect above A, Luis Castillo. They passed on all of them. This week, the Marlins dealt Castillo along with swing man Austin Brice and raw but talented outfielder Isaiah White, three of their top 16 prospects, for first-year Reds’ starter last year, Dan Straily whom they claimed off of waivers last April.
Straily is a 24th round draft pick by the Oakland Athletics from 2008. He had an average to mediocre start to his minor league career, posting a 4.09 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP before breaking out in AA and AAA in 2012. In 152 IP that year, he had a 3.02 ERA and an even 1.000 WHIP before getting his first major league cup of coffee in August. In two combined short stints with the A’s that equaled 39 IP at the end of that season, he held down an ERA just shy of 4 (3.89) and a 1.322 WHIP. Despite the fairly solid year, Straily was left off the A’s 2013 Opening Day roster and began a second year in AAA. But after holding down a 1.14 ERA in his first five starts, he was called up to begin his first full year in the majors. Pitching in 27 starts and 152.1 IP, the 24-year-old rookie was moderately impressive. He negated a pretty high walk rate of 3.4 by allowing just 132 hits, spelling out a 1.241 WHIP and a 3.96 ERA Five years younger than the average major leaguer, it looked as though Straily, with a solid enough for a back-end starter rookie year in his pocket even though he had a very limited arsenal of just two plus WAR pitches, good heat and a nasty slider and was very susceptible to the homer (2.5 HR/9), had plenty of room to grow.
However, in 2014, Straily faded back into mediocrity. He made his first Opening Day roster and despite one start in which he allowed six runs, was his usual self, posting a 3.5 walk rate and a 2.1 HR/9 but again negated them by allowing a total of 33 hits, leading him to another solid WHIP of 1.252. On the forefront his 4.93 ERA beginning to his second MLB season was hideous but erase the aforementioned one bad start and his ERA was 3.54 with four quality starts. However, the A’s apparently couldn’t look past that one unfortunate outing. They sent Straily back to AAA on May 8th. For the next two seasons, Straily would remain mired in the minor league systems of three different organizations, unable to return to the form he flashed in 2013 and 2014. From a 4.71 ERA, 1.270 WHIP first half of 2014 with the Sacramento Bees of Oakland’s system to a 4.09, 1.436 second half with the Iowa Cubs whom he joined as part of the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija trade to a 4.77, 1.402 full season with the Fresno Grizzlies, Houston’s AAA affiliate whom he joined after the trade that sent Dexter Fowler to the Cubs in 2015 with a few equally unimpressive MLB spot starts sprinkled in, Straily was in serious danger of putting a label on himself that no baseball player wants: AAAA player.
This past year, the Reds gave Straily perhaps his final chance to prove he can make it in the majors. After joining the Padres in a minor trade only to be DFA’d by them before ever appearing in a game for their organization, the Reds, Straily’s fifth club in four seasons, claimed him off waivers. In a do-or-die year in reference to his career in Major League Baseball, it would appear on the forefront that Straily was able to return to to form. In the most hitter friendly park in the league, he posted a 3.76 ERA by way of a 1.19 WHIP. However, if we delve deeper into Straily’s stats, it is revealed that he seems to have been a very fortunate beneficiary of circumstance.
First, let’s take a look at Straily’s BABIP. Where the major league average is .298 and Straily’s career MLB average is .255, he put up a .239. Unsustainable. Also unsustainable is Straily’s LOB%. Where that MLB average was 72.9% and Straily’s career average is 74.3%, he stranded runners at a ridiculous 81.2% rate. Unless you believe Straily has suddenly become comparable to guys like Jon Lester, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks (all of whom had higher BABIPs than Straily), he will not be capable of posting metrics like that again. The numbers from Straily’s good full season with the Astros are astronomically different. That year, his BABIP was a much more realistic .266 and his LOB% a much more regulated 70.3%. So again, Straily didn’t return to that form last year; he was just lucky. What aided him in his good fortune was a good Reds’ defense. Even though it committed the seventh most errors in baseball, the Cincinnati D only lost a total of 6.5 runs to them. In nearly every other one of their advanced fielding metrics including their 17.1 range runs above average which ranked ninth in baseball, their 6.0 ultimate zone rating which ranked 13th, their 10 runs above average good fielding plays which ranked third and their overall 11.0 Def rating, the Reds’ defense was one of the better manned fields in the league.
The luck Straily had and the aid he got from his defense is further proven by the 5.02 xFIP, the rate at which Straily could’ve been expected to give up runs independent of fielders. It was the highest xFIP among NL starters. Straily’s good fortune is also proven by the rate at which he gave up hard contact, 32.2%, 11th highest among NL starters. Straily induced ground balls at the absolute lowest rate in the NL among starters, 32% which is fine for a pure fly ball pitcher. But he also allowed the most homers in baseball, 31, by way of the 15th highest HR/FB ratio among NL starters. Great American Ballpark which had the fourth highest park factor in baseball is to blame, right? Well, no. In almost the exact same amount of innings on the road (92) versus at home (99), Straily gave up 18 homers. His total surrendered at Great American was 13. Looking at those same home/road splits a bit further will just baffle you even more and points to just how much of a ridiculous anomaly Straily’s 2016 campaign was. He was overall better — a lot better — at the his hitters’ haven band box of a home park as opposed on the road. Again, in nearly the same amount of innings at home versus on the road, he held hitters to a .193 BA and posted a 2.90 ERA. On the road? .242 BAA and a 4.70 ERA. His home and road BABIPs? A virtually unheard of (especially considering where he was pitching and a mark which very well may be the lowest ever posted at that park) .213 versus a much more regulated .266 on the road.
So here we have in Straily, a guy which had one decent full season in the majors before spending most of the rest of his career in the minors, a guy the Reds threw a bone by giving him quite possibly his final chance to succeed in the majors, and a guy who did so by having one of the luckiest seasons imaginable. It is only fair to mention that Straily’s 2016 season shouldn’t be completely written off as nothing but good fortune. He appeared to make some adjustments for the second half which brought an 8.3 K/BB% all the way up to 11.2% and he had one of the best sliders in baseball, value wise at 13.9 wins above replacement. It is on those hopes and the move to pitcher friendly NL East that the Fish are basing their hopes on Straily continuing to “rediscover” himself. If he can’t, at least he won’t be costing Miami much money. He is under club control until 2020.
While that all would be well and good to confide a couple B-C type prospects in, the Marlins parted with Luis Castillo (for the second time in a year, no less which raises questions about what the Marlins thought of his ability despite great on-field performance) their best minor league pitching prospect above single A, a guy who has the ability hit triple digits with his great sinking fastball and who has a fantastic changeup as well as great control over both of them and who is very close to making a major league debut, especially if he can continue to improve his command. They also lost a very solid hurler in Austin Brice, a guy who can pitch either from the back of the rotation or out of the bullpen thanks to a free and easy repeatable delivery despite his large size. Pitching in a swing man role this past year, he appeared to iron out the rest of his control issues on his way to a 2.74 ERA via a 1.098 WHIP between AA and AAA on his way to making his MLB debut. Brice has a debilitating curveball and, getting his 6’4″ 235 pound frame behind his pitches, a fastball that consistently sits mid 90s and has the ability to go even higher. He shortens the distance to the plate by throwing from a full circle arm angle in which he hides the ball well. Whether it be as a back end starter or a reliever, he definitely has a future in the majors that, like Castillo, isn’t far away.
The Marlins could have simply given their final rotation spot to Jeff Locke, a guy who has struggled last year but, with his return to the tutelage of the famous “pitcher whisperer”, Jim Benedict, the guy who made him an All-Star in 2013 and a 3.69 ERA, 1.365 WHIP, 4.02 xFIP contributor from 2013-15 in Pittsburgh, had as good a chance if not a better one as Straily did to return to his former “glory”. If Locke didn’t, Castillo, with continued success in AA/AAA, would be waiting in the wings to join the rotation and/or Brice, who already made his MLB debut last year, would be waiting to join either the rotation or the bullpen in long relief, allowing the Marlins to move David Phelps back to the rotation. Instead, the Fish lose both of those young prospects for a 27-year-old former journeyman with very little self-made major league success in his pocket.
All things considered, what can we expect from Straily? If he does manage to win the final rotation spot out of spring training, something the Marlins have yet to commit to him in favor of saying they will still run an open competition, home league aside, there is no way he will post another BABIP as low as he did in 2016. That said, even though the Marlins have a better defense than the Reds did last year, his ERA, unless he’s on the same level a two-time lottery winner, should be closer to his xFIP. With Straily turning 28, making an educated guess, I would credit him with no better than a 4.50 ERA via a 1.3 WHIP and 20+ homers allowed. That is what not one, not two but three of our top 16 prospects will have cost us.
Bravo, Mr. Hill. Bravo.