Strahm in for more conventional role after ascending to a new level in 2023

Strahm in for more conventional role after ascending to a new level in 2023 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

CLEARWATER, Fla. — He loved having the opportunity to take six turns in the rotation early last season, but Year 2 with the Phillies should be more normal for Matt Strahm.

The lefty unexpectedly found himself starting games for the Phillies last April after Andrew Painter went down in spring training with an elbow injury and Ranger Suarez was slowed by a forearm/elbow issue of his own.

The Phils used Strahm as a starter six times from April 4 through May 2. He had a 2.42 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and .154 opponents' batting average through the first five before appearing to run out of gas at Dodger Stadium.

Conscious of his innings count, the Phillies put him back in the bullpen, where he filled multiple roles the rest of the season — multi-inning guy, opener, lefty specialist, high-leverage reliever. He found success in each spot. He held lefties to a .209 batting average and .553 OPS with 31 strikeouts and two walks. Righties fared better but still hit only .214 with a .274 on-base percentage.

Strahm's a pretty important player for this team or any other with designs of contending — a reliever with good enough stuff and command to trust late in games, but one who can also bridge the gap to the back end of the bullpen when a starter doesn't go deep. He went more than an inning in 18 of his 49 appearances last season after moving back to the bullpen.

Despite throwing his most innings in four years and pitching deeper into the season than ever before, he's shown up to camp looking sharp. He pitched a scoreless inning Saturday against the Twins, his third of the spring.

"He's come into camp in great shape," manager Rob Thomson said. "We'll start at some point pretty soon, I don't know whether it's going to be his next outing, maybe do one-plus or a two-inning piece."

When Strahm does enter for a few batters or one inning, there's no tonal shift.

"I'm all gas, no brakes every time I'm on the mound so I don't look at it like I have one inning now, I better empty it all," he said. "I'm emptying it all from the first pitch until Topper takes me out anyway. It's not that my stuff plays up, I just think feeling good is gonna make me that much better."

Health has played a key role. The offseason leading into 2023 was the first in six years that Strahm didn't have to focus on rehab and recovery. He tore his left patellar tendon in 2017 and spent every winter from then through his signing with the Phils working on strengthening his knee.

"I feel like I'm 19 again," the now 32-year-old Strahm said at camp last March. "Ever since 2017 when I blew out my left knee, it's kind of been a bumpy road and I never felt like I had my legs under me. My offseason was more about rehab than getting ready for a season. It was more so about getting healthy for a season."

The results spoke for themselves. Strahm pitched 87⅔ innings, 93 when including the playoffs. The year prior, he threw 44⅔.

He struck out 11.1 batters per nine and walked 2.2. No pitcher in the majors last season with as many innings as Strahm had that high a strikeout rate with as low a walk rate.

It didn't happen by coincidence. Phillies pitching coaches Caleb Cotham and Brian Kaplan worked with Strahm last spring on a new grip for his breaking ball. It had been more of a curveball, or at least that's what Strahm called it. Cotham slightly altered Strahm's grip, and the new sweeper took Strahm to another level.

His opponents went 12-for-109 (.110) in at-bats ending in the sweeper, a term Strahm is still getting used to.

"I credit that all to Caleb and Kap with my sweeper last year," he said. "You can probably go back in my career, I don't have many breaking balls that I threw below the zone until last year. My curveball had always been a strike pitch, I can land it in the bottom third of the zone but I struggled to get it to the back foot. And then in my first bullpen session here last year, I remember Caleb asking me, 'Hey what is your curveball?' That's what I called it at the time. I showed him and he just seam-shifted a little bit and had me open my fingers a smidge, and then all the sudden, the very first one I threw was back foot to a righty. I literally had never done that in my life and I'm 30 years old, like where's that been?

"That helped me a lot. Because my fastball is up, I need to get something to go down. I can locate my fastball down which makes them then chase that pitch down. But if I'm just throwing up and landing in the middle of the zone, as soon as I throw something down it's just shut down and it's just a ball. That helped me a lot last year, the sweeper. The sweeper, I hate calling it that, it's a slider."

The Phillies, barring injuries in camp, are set to open the season with six core relievers: Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto, Strahm, Jeff Hoffman, Seranthony Dominguez and Orion Kerkering. Two more will make the team and one will be a long man or second multi-inning option on top of Strahm.

They had one of baseball's better bullpens a year ago. The Phils' 3.56 relief ERA was behind only the Brewers and Dodgers in the National League. The only NL bullpens with a higher strikeout rate were the Cubs and Braves.

Bullpen performance is volatile from year to year because of how few innings relievers throw in comparison to starters and the importance those innings carry. Strahm sees a few reasons why the Phillies' relief corps may be able to replicate or improve upon its work from 2023.

"I feel like they did it from '22 to '23," he said. "A lot of them were on that team as well. A reliever can wake up and all the sudden have it, and he can wake up and all the sudden lose it. But I think what's cool is how tight-knit this group is. We learn more from each other — not saying Caleb can't teach us, but we're with each other all the time, we're playing catch all the time. To have that familiarity and coming back with everyone again, I just think it makes us that much better."

This is the second and final year of a $15 million contract Strahm signed with the Phillies. Falling one win short of advancing to the World Series left a bitter taste in the mouth of every player in that clubhouse, but the other aspects of Strahm's brief time as a Phillie have gone the way he'd draw it up.

"Last year, the postseason was everything I thought it would be and even more," he said. "The atmosphere at The Bank is unmatchable in my opinion. I'm kinda mad we have to play May through August, I'm ready for October already."