Consistently good in his time with the Cubs, despite what the hat-haters and nay-sayers might grumble at you, Pedro Strop is just doing his thing once again this year.
In a bullpen that has been loaded with great performances, Strop’s been right up there among the best Cubs relievers, posting a 1.59 ERA, great peripherals, and working on a long scoreless streak. It’s what he always does.
Except he’s doing it completely differently so far this year.
When I think about Pedro Strop and how he does what he does, I think about two things: huge strikeout rate and even huger groundball rate. (I like the word huge.) The guy has one of the best sliders in the game, and it pretty much nets him whiffs and grounders, and that’s that.
But this year, Strop’s strikeout rate is far from elite, at just 23.1%, and his groundball rate is even further from where it usually is, at just 40.0%. His strikeout rate is usually closer to 30% and his groundball rate is usually closer to 60%.
The great results are still there … but does that mean we’re just looking at good luck? Is Strop, who turns 33 next month, just getting older and worse?
I’m not so sure about that. He might be just as good as ever, but in a very different way.
First, consider some peripherals: although the strikeout rate and groundball rates are way down, so, too, is his hard contact rate. Moreover, his soft contact rate is all the way up to 23.9% (up for the third straight season). He’s getting way more infield pop ups than usual. And the real kicker? Strop’s walk rate is down to 6.2% – more than three percentage points better than league average. Did you ever think you’d see that attached to Pedro Strop’s name?
How’s he doing it? What’s changed? Who is this guy?
Well, he’s apparently a guy who figured out how to throw a fantastic cutter.
Strop started playing around with the cutter late in 2016, and then incorporated it more regularly last year, when it proved to be a very effective pitch, generating a lot of whiffs and very few hits. Intriguingly, unlike his slider, the cutter generated far fewer groundballs. So why go to it at all? Well, aside from the fact that it proved very effective last year, Strop had seen his batting average against and slugging against his slider climb a bit the last two years, climb a lot against his four-seamer and sinker, and he’s seen the velocity drop on all of those pitches this year. If he was going to continue to be a dominant reliever, he was going to need to tweak something – hence the cutter.
And since it was pretty effective in 2017, he’s relied on it even more heavily this year. After throwing the cutter 14.3% of the time last year, he’s throwing it 31.8% of the time this year. It’s his most heavily used pitch.
For good reason: batters are hitting just .177 against his cutter this year, and every hit has been a single. He’s also got a 19.7% whiff rate against the cutter, which is almost as high as his slider (24.6%). That’s a pitch you want to use more.
But there’s more! It’s not just that Strop is using the cutter more often because it worked for him last year. It looks like he actually improved the pitch this year, as the horizontal movement is way up and the vertical drop is way down. In other words, Strop’s cutter is moving more like a true cutter this year, and less like a baby, higher-velocity slider. That’s the kind of pitch that often generates weak contact, because it’s hard to square up.
And sure enough, Strop’s cutter rates as the fifth most valuable reliever cutter in all of baseball right now! Think about that – it’s a pitch he just added last year!
Strop has lowered the release point on his cutter considerably over the past two years, so perhaps that’s been the process of him mastering the pitch. In other words, this may be something that will stick.
I can’t tell you that Strop’s success with the cutter will continue all year, but clearly it’s a pitch that, right now, batters cannot hit hard, and that he can consistently throw for strikes. That’s a tremendous addition for a reliever who already threw two different fastballs and a top-tier slider.