Last month, 15 San Francisco Giants and some of their wives and girlfriends held a skeet shooting competition at a range in Hayward.
The outing was hardly team-bonding chill-time. It was pure competition, with a highly-coveted ‘Jackalope’ — a mythical hunter’s target — as the grand prize.
“He won by one shot! He won by one and I probably hadn’t shot in about a year and he’d been going for practice about four, five times before I got there. I showed up cold turkey and only lost by one and I thought that was pretty good.”
Kontos will get a chance to hang the Jackalope on his locker; they’ll have an off-day rematch soon. But can anyone dethrone Strickland?
Shooting guns is a Strickland’s bread and butter, just take a look at his Instagram account. An obvious, corny question had to be asked: is Hunter a hunter?
“I grew up hunting. I got four brothers and we always went with my dad and it was a way of life back home…I guess you could relate it to anything, as far as shooting it’s kind of a direct line. You can kind of relate that to pitching over home plate.”
Strickland grew up in Georgia and was drafted by Boston after high school in 2007. He bumbled around the Red Sox system before being traded to Pittsburgh at age 20.
He’d already undergone two surgeries before joining the San Jose Giants in 2014, one on his shoulder in 2011 and then Tommy John in 2013. He was hurling 100-mph fastballs just 11 months after:
“I came back throwing harder after shoulder surgery. That’s what kind of helped me after Tommy John. I had already gone through one surgery so I already knew what to expect.”
For Strickland, the surgeries weren’t just tall hurdles, but means of motivation. His doctor took photos during his Tommy John surgery that Strickland hung in his locker until the graphic images became too much for squeamish teammates:
“I kind of feed of that stuff. I don’t mind it.”
The images are now framed in his home in a shadow box along with his debut jersey; they’re no longer a part of the clubhouse.
Strickland has made a rapid rise through the Giants’ ranks and, this year, has broken out as a part of a burgeoning high-velocity bullpen.
But first, the debut
Strickland got off to a rough start in the big leagues; a fact obscured by the bright lights of the Giants’ World Series glory.
He got the call up as a part of the September roster expansion and wowed with his fastball. Power out of the bullpen was something the team had been lacking all season; heck, they’d been lacking it for a few years.
But he struggled with command in the playoffs, especially against lefties. Bryce Harper (twice), Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt Adams, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas took him deep over 8-1/3 postseason innings. Strickland said he was just trying to do too much:
“I came up and my fastball was feeling good and I’m trying to overpower guys which you obviously can’t do at this level. It’s the best hitters in the game. … I was trying to manipulate it and make it move and it was slowing down my delivery. It was just about going out there and throwing it with the same mentality as my fastball.”
New year, kinda new stuff
An old scouting report via this Grant Brisbee article articulated a key concern that arose after the 2014 run: Strickland didn’t have a K-worthy secondary pitch.
The Giants went into the offseason on a championship high; Strickland went back to work in Spring Training and with the Sacramento River Cats developing his breaking stuff and fastball location.
He was recalled to San Francisco on May 23 and never went back.
Batters had a little more to worry about now; they’d have to consider his changeup, slider and sneaky fastball movement:
“I’ve always had it, it’s just better now. That’s with anything, the more you work on it the better it gets. I’m definitely throwing it more.”
“I’m not intimidated by any hitter out there. There’s great hitters and if we make mistakes, they’re going to capitalize on it.”
Strickland’s not a stats guy, he’ll tell you, but appreciate what he’s done so far; 48 strikeouts and 32 hits in 46-1/3 innings.
And he’s rocking a 2.33 ERA, above 2.00 for just the second time since July after a semi-meltdown against Cincinnati Monday night. He’s improved his consistency in the zone against lefties; the three home runs he’s given up has come off righties’ bats and lefties are hitting .190 off him this year.
Bruce Bochy has continually been impressed with his progression:
“He’s becoming more of a pitcher. He’s just not gonna use his fastball… He’s got a better breaking ball, so he can mix it up a little bit. Here’s a guy that we brought up last year. It wasn’t too long off his Tommy John. Had a little hiccup there in the postseason, but had a good spring, carried that into triple-A and that’s why he’s up here. He’s forced his way into the setup role.”
Oh, and Strickland didn’t give up a home run until August 3, when the Braves’ Chris Johnson took him deep in the Giants’ 12-inning loss.
Though those breaking pitches have been the apparent X-factor propping Strickland’s season, it’s the mastery of his high-velocity stuff that’s kept him chugging:
“You definitely have to keep them off balance and mix your pitches well, but more so than that, you go back to the location part. I’m hitting my spots a little bit better and I am mixing it up.”
His pitch velocity sets him apart, and he’s leading a new wave of flame-throwing talent into the Giants’ bullpen. Josh Osich and Mike Broadway are a couple of names that have emerged from the farm system. Both can throw a fastball upwards of 95-mph. Kontos noted:
“It’s some high velocity arms and that’s something we haven’t really had here in a while. It’s really nice to see. … They’re getting their feet wet, and that’s how you get everybody experience, when everyone has the confidence to go out there any inning and pitch. It really takes the load off of the guys who are normally in those roles like Javy (Lopez), Jeremy (Affeldt), and Sergio (Romo) and (Santiago) Casilla, the guys who have been in the back end of the bullpen for a long time. Having other guys who can come in, step in and get big outs is definitely helpful.”
Strickland is a confident pitcher, you have to be. He’s admittedly shaken by the sellout crowds at home — AT&T is packed even on Monday nights, he noted — but calmed by the pressure once he toes the rubber:
“If you don’t have the confidence, not being arrogant… It’s our job. When you’re standing in the dugout and stuff and see the crowd,when you first come up, it can seem overwhelming, if you let it. But when you’re out on the mound, I don’t even notice any of it.”