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The trade deadline is almost here (already!). We’re just 17 games into this season, and yet, trades will be off the table come August 31st. There’s not much time for the Yankees to decide what or who they want to pursue, but one area that the organization clearly emphasizes is a deep bullpen. And with Tommy Kahnle down for the season, the team could use a reinforcement in relief. Over the next few weeks, we’ll profile players the Yankees could go after (not just relievers, by the way). Today, we start with someone you’ll probably deem an obscure target: Pirates’ right-hander Chris Stratton.

Background & Performance

The 29 year-old Stratton has a chance to be another example of a failed starter turned good reliever. The Giants drafted Stratton as a starter out of Mississippi State in the first round of the 2012 draft. It took him a while to climb the minor league ranks, but by mid-2016, Stratton debuted for San Francisco in relief. He spent some more time in the minors in 2017, but finally got a real opportunity in the Giants’ rotation come late-2017.

Stratton was decent in the rotation for the Giants: in 193 innings as a starter between 2017 and 2018, he recorded a 4.24 ERA and 4.28 FIP. Good enough for the ever-needing Angels to trade for and install in its 2019 starting rotation. Unfortunately, it took just five starts (7.04 ERA) for the Halos to give up on him. To the bullpen he went, and eventually, to Pittsburgh by mid-May.

The Pirates didn’t bother with Stratton as a starter last summer. He went into the ‘pen in a long relief role, and did well. In 28 games and 46 2/3 innings, Stratton recorded a 3.66 ERA and 4.11 FIP. His strikeout rate jumped to 23.5 percent and his fastball velocity creeped up to the 93-94 range. He was still nothing to write home about, but it was a step in the right direction.

Fast forward to 2020 and things start to get more interesting. Now, we’re talking about an extremely small sample size of seven games and nine innings. But in those opportunities, Stratton has been very good. And it’s not just his results that have popped out, but also a few underlying things that make him worth a look for the Yankees. First however, the stats. He’s posted a stellar 37.1 percent strikeout rate along with a respectable 8.6 percent walk rate en route to a 2.89 ERA and 1.21 FIP. Save for his most recent outing (three innings against Detroit), Stratton’s worked mostly in short stints.

Intriguing Underlying Metrics

What makes this admittedly limited track record sustainable? His breaking balls look pretty nasty. Let’s get a high level overview of his arsenal:

Pitch (count)Avg. VeloSpinWhiff %
Fastball (68)93.52,61332.1
Slider (49)87.02,89218.2
Curve (28)80.53,06163.6

The spin and whiff rates on those breakers, particularly the curve, are enticing. Those spin rates are elite too. Here’s where they rank this year

  • Fastball: 11th
  • Slider: 15th
  • Curve: 6th

Perhaps he’s found more results-based success this year because he’s leaned into throwing them more:

Stratton’s had elite spin rates on his breaking pitches for a few years now, so the pitch mix change makes sense. That said, it may also make more sense for him to use his curve (19 percent usage) more than his slider (33 percent). He’s garnered more whiffs on the curve than slider this season and in past seasons, for one. xStats favor the curve too. A reason for this may be that Stratton more efficiently spins his curve than his slider.

Active spin — which is the spin that directly contributes to movement — is very important in conjunction with spin rate. Stratton could stand to do better in that regard. It’s pretty high for both his fastball and curve (above 70 percent active spin), but his high spin rate on his slider is doing very little for him (24.4 percent active spin).

One other note: Stratton’s throwing his curveball and slider harder this year. His curve is up 3.4 MPH and his slider is up 2.5 MPH. I don’t have much to add on that, other than I surmise it’s helped his pitches be a little less loopy than prior seasons.

Enough numbers, let’s get a good look at him in action. Take a look at some of these curveballs:

And for good measure, a nice back door curve:

Now, let’s watch a couple of sliders.

I still prefer his curve, but clearly, either will play.

Now, for all the emphasis I’ve placed on Stratton’s breakers, we should touch on his fastball too. It’s improved quite a bit this year. While he’s not a flamethrower, he’s bumped his average velocity up from 92.2 to 93.5 MPH. If he needs it, Stratton can reach back for 95 as well. Lastly, his spin rate on the pitch jumped compared to last year. It was just under 2,500 RPM last season, but this year, it’s at 2,613.

No one will mistake Stratton’s heater for, say, Chad Green’s. But the added spin and velocity is undoubtedly making a difference, while also throwing it less often makes it harder to sit on.

Injury History

There’s not too much here. What’s better: nothing arm related. He hit the injured list twice last year with the similar issues: right side discomfort and right side inflammation. In other words, oblique problems. In total, Stratton spent time on the injured list from May 25 to June 18 and August 29 to September 17. This year? So far so good.

Contract

With just over two years of service entering 2020, Stratton is on a near league-minimum deal this season but is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. So, he’ll get a little more expensive, albeit not too much. It’s also worth noting that he’s out of options and can’t go to the minors. Finally, he won’t be a free agent until after 2023.

What would a trade look like?

I really have no idea. As much as I like Stratton’s underlying stuff, I don’t think I’d give up much based on a small sample of games. I don’t expect it would take anything big to make something workm either. Pittsburgh isn’t contending anytime soon and are surely hesitant to start paying anyone as they go through the arbitration process. They’re as cheap as it gets.

Now that we’re in trade season again, a reminder is in order: your (and my) trade proposal sucks. Nonetheless, let’s put something out there. I think a good place to start is scanning impending Rule 5 eligible minor leaguers that the Yankees may not want to protect, but also not lose for nothing. Roster Resource lays out who’ll be eligible pretty plainly. Would Hoy Jun Park or Isiah Gilliam do the trick? I’ll say yes.