Hunter Strickland was pitching for Single-A Greenville in 2009 when the Red Sox traded him to the Pirates. (Billy Crowe/Greenville Drive)
It has represented a parenthetical remark to an extraordinary emergence. Hunter Strickland, the Giants reliever who has been unleashing 100 mph comets in the postseason (including in his 18th-inning save on Saturday night/Sunday morning in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Nationals), was once a Red Sox.
But when he was with the Red Sox, he didn’t resemble the fire-breathing late-innings force that he’s suddenly become in the past five weeks for the Giants.
Strickland was an unheralded right-handed in Georgia when the Sox drafted him in the 18th round of the 2007 draft and signed him to a low six-figures bonus. In parts of three seasons in the Sox system — a pro debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, an assignment to Short-Season Single-A Lowell in 2008 and three and a half months with Single-A Greenville in 2009 — he proved a solid performer, going 10-9 with a 3.66 ERA.
But his success (at a time when he was a starter — sometimes in a piggyback role) was based on his intelligence and ability to throw strikes with a relatively modest arsenal, rather than with overwhelming power. He struck out just 6.6 batters per nine innings with 1.7 walks per nine while in the Sox system, at a time when game reports often featured him averaging 88-89 mph and topping out for much of that time around 91 mph or so. (He did show an uptick in velocity to about 93 mph in some of his starts leading up to the 2009 trade deadline.)
When Strickland was at that early stage in his pro career, he made a highly favorable impression on the Red Sox, though that impression was based as much on his personality and competitiveness as it was stuff.
“He’s one of the brightest guys — a straightforward, shake-your-hand, look-you-in-the-eye guy. He’s one of the top five guys I’ve ever had makeup-wise,” said Kevin Boles, now the manager of the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, who had Strickland in Greenville in 2009. “He showed some pitchability. It looks to me like his arm slot has dropped a little bit. His velocity has definitely up ticked, no doubt about that. He was probably sitting high-80s, low-90s, when he was with us. He had terrific game makeup. One of the best overall guys I’ve ever had. Terrific on and off the field.”
Boles recalled Strickland working with a mix of that pitch-to-contact fastball in the high-80s and low-90s, a changeup and a slider. He showed mound aptitude by adding and subtracting velocity and he was aggressive in attacking hitters even though, at the time, he was doing so without premium stuff.
As a pitcher in the low minors, the projections for him were hazy at best — perhaps, given his ability to command, he could become a fifth starter if his breaking ball developed (his changeup looked like it would emerge as an average pitch at the time; the breaking ball was a question). Perhaps that same command, even without an above-average pitch, would allow him to be a middle innings reliever. But Strickland struck the Sox as a player who would work to maximize his abilities.
That said, based on the projection and the stuff that he showed, Strickland was hardly going to be a deal-breaker when the Sox acquired Adam LaRoche (meant to give the Sox corner infield depth at a time when Mike Lowell‘s health was becoming a growing concern) in late-July 2009. Indeed, Strickland was viewed as the second piece in the deal, with shortstop Argenis Diaz (a gifted defender) representing the player who was considered the more valuable chip at the time.
The Pirates continued to develop him as a starter, where he performed well down the stretch in Single-A in 2009, but he struggled in two levels of A-ball the following year, had to be shut down for shoulder soreness and ultimately required a rotator cuff repair that wiped out all of his 2011 season. When he returned to the mound in 2012, he pitched well in nine starts, but his stuff became more powerful when he was shifted to a relief role that June. He got up to 95 mph and started opening eyes, to the point where the Pirates added him to their 40-man roster that offseason, and where the Giants claimed him on waivers and committed a 40-man spot to him in April 2013.
In working out of the stretch and pitching with more aggressiveness and tempo, Strickland’s delivery seemed to sync up in a way that permitted him to realize previously untapped reserves of power. He looked dominant with the Giants’ High-A affiliate in 2013, only to blow out his elbow in May, resulting in Tommy John surgery that came at a time when he seemed to be positioning himself for big league consideration.
But he evidently approached his rehab with extraordinary determination, based on the high-90s to triple digits fastball and slider combination that he’s shown since his return this year. For the first time in his life, he was able to combine health with the command he’d shown as a 20-year-old with the Red Sox and electric arm speed to yield a 55-to-4 strikeout-to-walk rate in High-A and Double-A this year. The performance was sufficiently dominating that the Giants elected to call up Strickland — who had never pitched above Single-A with the Red Sox, and who’d never pitched above Double-A in the seven-plus years since he’d signed with the Sox — to pitch in the big leagues down the stretch while now entrusting him with some of their most critical outs.
From afar, the Sox have been thrilled for the 26-year-old’s success. “It’s terrific, what I’m seeing. It’s outstanding,” said Boles. “With him, to say that I would have ever thought he’d touch 100? No. I couldn’t tell you that. I hadn’t seen that. But that’s a credit to his work ethic. He had a work ethic that was second to none. Obviously, he put the time in. … Watching him now, his arm speed has definitely picked up. He’s got a lot of velocity and a lot of real quality stuff coming out of his hand.
“To see him now on one of the biggest stages, it’s pretty special,” added Boles. “I just think that it shows you that anything is possible. There’s guys that have gotten a lot of attention. But you can never say never with guys. You can’t sell short, especially, intelligence and game makeup. Obviously, having the stuff to match that plays a key component. But you just can’t write anybody off at any given point in time. Unless they say that they’re finished, you just never know, and that’s the beauty of this. Anything is possible with these guys.”