Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson give opponents that sinking feeling
Buck Showalter managed Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland for the Yankees in 1995. That was one year before the pitchers emerged as the game's most potent late-inning duo. Rivera totaled 26 holds in 1996* in the role of set-up man, while Wetteland notched a league-leading 43 saves as the Yankees' closer.
On Monday, Showalter watched from the visiting dugout as a new late-inning duo strutted its stuff at Yankee Stadium, this time for the Orioles. Pedro Strop (17 holds in 2012) and Jim Johnson (31 saves) may not be Rivera and Wetteland, but they've emerged as a heck of a close-'em-out combo, helping the Orioles to a 44-1 record this season when leading after eight innings.
Whereas Rivera and Wetteland intimidated batters, Strop and Johnson give their opponents a sinking feeling.
Rivera posted career bests in strikeouts-per-nine innings (10.9) and strikeout percentage (30.6) in 1996. Wetteland, meanwhile, had 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and a strikeout percentage of 26. Strop (6.7, 18.6) and Johnson (5.2, 14.2) are nowhere close to those totals. Instead, the crafty O's pair gets its results by inducing roughly twice as many ground balls as fly balls (Strop - 1.95 GB/FB ratio; Johnson - 1.98 GB/FB ratio). No other Orioles reliever has a ground ball/fly ball ratio of more than 1.00.
The Sun's Eduardo Encina chronicled Strop's evolution, including the development of his all-important two-seam fastball, in a June profile of the young pitcher.
This off season, Strop knew this might be his best — and maybe last — chance to find a home in the big leagues. He knew he'd enter spring training out of minor league options. For the first time, he didn't pitch winter ball in the Dominican, instead choosing to focus on the weight room.
He came to camp showing off a high 90s four-seam fastball and a biting mid-80s slider. But it was his ability to hone a 97-98 mph two-seam sinking fastball that made him stand out.
He said he toyed with the two-seamer before, but struggled controlling it because of the movement it gets. He's still working on controlling the sinker — Strop has walked 18 batters in 34 innings (but allowed just 20 hits and has 29 strikeouts) — but it has contributed to a 69.8 ground-ball percentage (the league average is 44), giving him the ability to pitch out of any jam.
"We talk a lot about baseball and things," Johnson said. "He knows he can't just sit there and blow it by guys. He knows he's got to think. He can locate. When we got him, I really felt like we stole him from Texas. He has great composure. He's still learning a couple things, but stuff-wise he's got some of the best stuff in the game."
Strop will post the lowest strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio of his brief career in 2012. His strikeout percentage is likely to be a career low as well. And, paired with the Orioles' All-Star closer, the results have never been better.
*The holds stat wasn't created until 1999, but Baseball Reference lists holds in historical box scores.
July 31, 2012