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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Matt Strahm

Looking at one of the more interesting possible bargains in free agency.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Strahm might be the least sexy name that appears in a headline with the words “Yankees Potential Target” this offseason. He might still be worth a call. Pitchers like him sure don’t make or break a championship season, but they can be important for getting you there in one piece.

Non-tendered by San Diego last offseason after an injury-wrecked 2021 saw him allow 15 hits and 6 runs in just 6.2 innings, Strahm latched on with the Red Sox for $3 million in 2022. He rewarded them with a 3.83 ERA over 50 appearances covering 44.2 innings, and now reportedly seeks an opportunity to start wherever he lands in free agency.

However, whether or not that starting opportunity actually materializes is questionable. Strahm has only once started more than five games in a season, when he did it 16 times in 2019, and has only a single start to his name since then while averaging under an inning per appearance. Unless he truly wants to bet on himself with a minor league contract or no guaranteed opportunity, a more realistic role is likely as a swingman or multi-inning reliever who can make a spot start in a pinch. Think the Nick Martinez role for San Diego, or how the Dodgers often utilized Ross Stripling during his stint in LA.

The Yankees could use such a swingman, especially if they ultimately decide to let Clarke Schmidt take one more crack at the rotation. By no means does the roster replacement for Aroldis Chapman or Zack Britton need to be a lefty — the Astros just won the World Series with the fewest left-handed bullpen innings in recent memory — but the left-handed pitching depth is quite thin behind Wandy Peralta and Lucas Luetge. And even if it’s as likely as not that the team’s pitching development gets an as-yet unheard of minor league southpaw to pop into something nasty next spring, the dearth of innings in the rotation as its currently slotted means that someone interesting with at least a little experience churning through big league innings is good roster padding.

Strahm is interesting. There’s nothing super noteworthy about a high-threes ERA in under 50 innings, but it was enough to flash the kind of ability that a smart team can utilize. His four-seamer showed more life in 2022 than it had in a half-decade, averaging a touch over 94 mph after spending the majority of his career bouncing around the 91-93 range. More importantly, it was an actual weapon for the first time, earning a .215 xwOBA and 23-percent in-zone whiff rate that were light years better than anything he’d ever done before. Here’s a modest 92-mph heater against the black hole that was late-career Chris Davis back in 2019:

And here’s one that zipped in at 96 mph in the same ballpark this past season:

We don’t have time for a full-on breakdown, but there are a few things going on here. The simplest factor is release point: It’s not super visible on video, but Strahm has raised it several inches since 2019 while also increasing his extension by roughly the same amount.

The mechanical adjustments that account for the change are subtle, but still visible. The most obvious change is that Strahm now begins his stretch in a much more athletic position than his last full season, putting a significant amount of bend in his knees and hips after being mostly straight-up in 2019. He subsequently manages to get a much deeper hip hinge when he shifts his weight back to begin his delivery, which gives his front leg more space to swing out freely and act as a counter-balance before planting. This, in turn, allows Strahm to hold his torso back until it’s ready to rotate over the front leg, taking the ball with it. The pitcher throwing 96 mph looks so much more explosive and athletic than the one throwing 92 mph simply because it’s a smooth, well-executed motion, rather than a bunch of herky-jerky parts thrown together.

This doesn’t just add velocity to the heater — it gives it an extra few inches of rise, too, more than Strahm had previously seen in his career. As his arm slot inched upward, his fastball’s spin direction straightened out by roughly 30 degrees, which is enough to create a not-insignificant amount of extra carry when you spin the ball as efficiently as Strahm (97 percent in 2022). Combining that with the extra extension was enough to actually make his fastball’s vertical approach angle flatter than it was before. All in all, while a .215 xwOBA is hard to repeat, it doesn’t seem like a total fluke, either.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Boston Red Sox Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Strahm supplements that fastball with four other pitches, none of which are terribly remarkable on their own but have some outlier traits that could be of interest to a team like the Yankees. His primary secondary pitch is a slider (21-percent usage in 2022) that generates a healthy amount of seam-shifted wake and has the flattest VAA of any left-handed slider in the game that doesn’t come from a sidearmer. He dabbles with a curveball (17 percent) that’s also exceptionally flat and gyro-heavy, though he still probably doesn’t have the fastball life to take advantage of such a pitch in the same way that Jesús Luzardo and Julio Urías do. Finally, Strahm also possesses a sinker (14.5 percent) that’s had modest success and bears a slight resemblance to the one thrown by Wandy Peralta, and a changeup (9.5 percent) with a ton of arm-side fade. At the very least, there’s enough to work with that it feels like a smart team should be able to find a consistently better-than-average pitcher somewhere in there.

Strahm might not get his wish of joining a starting rotation, but it sure looks like his improvements in 2022 were engineered, rather than luck-of-the-draw. He can likely make some starts for a competitive team, and if he’s willing to shed any full-time starting aspirations for a role that might entail somewhere from 60-to-100 innings of multi-inning relief and spot-starts, the Yankees ought to come calling. The combination of what appears to be genuinely remade stuff with essentially no other recent track record makes Strahm a rare chance to acquire a healthy chunk of league average or better innings for virtually nothing, in baseball terms. For a team with so much fortune tied up in high-salaried veterans, finding good value at the bottom of the roster should continue to be a priority.