Perhaps the Phillies’ front office saw something we didn’t. Perhaps it was sheer dumb luck that this is the guy they chose as a potential innings-eater out of the bullpen. Whatever the case may be, Matt Strahm has been a revelation. Whatever you thought of him coming into the season (that is, if you thought of him at all), he has exceeded all expectations at this point in the admittedly-young season. His 12.34 strikeouts per nine innings is top-10 in MLB among pitchers with 20 or more innings pitched this season. His 2.31 ERA is top-20 with the same innings qualifier, placing him among starters like Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman. Not too shabby for a guy who hasn’t been a full member of a rotation since 2019.
Strahm has taken his opportunity and run with it. It became clear in the last week of spring training that Strahm would be the team’s fifth starter to begin the season and he embraced it, helping the Phillies earn their first win of the season in his first start since August 2021. Minus a shaky outing on April 15th, in which he lasted 2 ⅔ innings while allowing 3 ER, he’s surprisingly been the team’s most reliable starting pitcher. It’s not like his stuff’s the most overpowering - quite far from it. According to Baseball Savant, his fastball velocity is among baseball’s lowest and his velocity across all of his pitches is down this year after a few years of trending up. He’s not really getting guys to chase pitches out of the zone either.
What he seems to be doing is keeping batters on their toes by mixing up his arsenal and trying to stay unpredictable. Here’s a breakdown of his pitch mix so far this season:
He’s throwing his four-seamer almost half the time but the other half isn’t dominated by a single pitch. Along with that, while he has spots that he likes to hit, he’s painting a good portion of the strike zone. Strahm’s playing rock paper scissors out here and he’s on a heater.
This begs the question: Can he keep this up all season and, if so, will that be in a continued rotation role or out of the bullpen?
Well, as for the first part, we can look back at that 2019 campaign when he was last considered to be a starter and say…probably not? He was decent in April and May of that season but a subpar June and prospect Dinelson Lamet’s return from injury left the struggling Strahm as the odd man out. His starter/reliever splits from that year look like this:
As a starter: 16 appearances, 3-7 record, 5.29 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 1.31 WHIP, 81 strikeouts over 81 ⅔ innings
As a reliever: 30 appearances, 3-4 record, 3.27 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, 37 strikeouts over 33 innings
Strahm might be a different pitcher than he was four years ago but his longevity remains to be seen. The 114 ⅔ innings he threw that season remains a career high by a significant margin. How will he look over the course of a season?
For his part, Rob Thomson had kept Strahm on a pretty short leash. Although he told reporters before Strahm’s last start that he was good for 80-plus pitches, he pulled him after just 60 having faced each batter exactly twice. It’s clear that Topper doesn’t want lineups to see Strahm a third time, having allowed him to face only five batters this year more than twice (two in the Phillies’ April 10 blowout of the Marlins and three in Strahm’s 11-strikeout performance against the Rockies on April 20). So far, this has looked like the right call. Why push it with Strahm, given his injury history and dearth of innings-rich seasons, when the bullpen is more than capable of taking the reins? If it ain’t broke, etc.
So then, back to the second part of our question: will he remain in the starting rotation? If the question was “should he?”, then the answer based on his performance so far would be a resounding yes. He’s been the team’s best starter so far this season, hands down. “Will he?” is a bit more complicated. With the impending return of Ranger Suarez and the eventual debut of Andrew Painter, barring injury to another member of the staff, there’s not really any room for Strahm long-term.
For the near future, once Suarez rejoins the team, we’re looking at one spot for Strahm and Bailey Falter to duel over. Falter has been solid but certainly fits the profile of a number five or six starter in the big leagues and it doesn’t seem like the Phillies see him as a viable reliever. Therein lies the argument for sending Strahm right back to the bullpen - Falter slots in as the SP5, Strahm becomes the bullpen’s Swiss Army knife and de-facto SP6 when needed, and both add some value to their role. This in opposition to having Strahm in the rotation and either trying to force Falter into a bullpen role or sending him to Lehigh Valley.
Another factor is the return of Andrew Bellatti and Nick Nelson, two relievers who essentially combine to fill Strahm’s many potential roles - Bellatti as the middle-innings stopgap and Nelson as the long reliever and potential spot-starter. Those guys rejoining the bullpen could make it easier for Strahm to remain a starter, so long as one or both are effective.
While Thomson has a few more weeks until the reinforcements arrive to fully decide on Strahm’s role, it’s clear that he’s risen to the challenge of filling a desperate need for this team. Plus, he’s a dude you wanna root for - a scrappy underdog who will do anything the team needs to be successful. He’s one of us.
“It’s easier playing ball with a bunch of dirtbags.” - Matt Strahm— Sixto Lezcano (@mleif) April 27, 2023