Dan Straily chose the Orioles as his late-spring free agency destination in part because of the opportunity to step right into a starting rotation and the data-informed environment the organization seeks to foster under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his top deputy, assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal.
With the Houston Astros, an organization at the cutting edge of so much of baseball's nascent pitching technology boom, Elias and Mejdal helped build a team at the bottom of the league into a World Series champion. Straily spent some time in Houston, and has long been an acolyte of such methods.
He has his own Rapsodo unit, which combines radar-readings and a camera to provide instant analysis on the spin and movement of a pitch, and he takes it on the road. He's trained at Driveline, a player-development facility that touts itself as one of the most progressive in the game.
So when he says that no one wants to figure out what's been keeping him from sustained success more than him, it’s also true that few might be as willing to invest as much as he has to improve.
Straily, 30, finished April with a three-start span that featured a 2.57 ERA after his rocky Orioles debut week, but struggled again in May and is bringing an 8.51 ERA into Wednesday night’s start against the New York Yankees.
Straily spoke to The Baltimore Sun this week about how he uses data and technology to identify how to get better, his between-start routine that helped foment the turnaround he hopes for, and how pitching coach Doug Brocail has been a good conduit for balancing the data and the message it's supposed to send.
If you want to just start with Friday, do you have a regular, day-after-start routine? What's Friday like for you, specifically this Friday when you probably had a lot of stuff you wanted to look at and work out?
You come in and try to do an honest self-evaluation as to what went right and what went wrong, and how can you get more of what's right and less of what's wrong in an outing? I came in and looked at it and sat down, and there was some good, some bad. And some of the times where I got hurt wasn't balls being hit hard; it was balls being hit soft, right? Those spots that I threw the ball, it was sliders that were jam-jobs, basically. They were up in the zone a little bit, so I induced the contact like I was trying to induce. It was soft contact, but with the location of the ball, they're not going to hit the ball on the ground when the slider is up like that.
There's a lot of different things like that that go into it. I took it one step further and was looking at some spin-axis on my slider, some spin-rate on my slider to see where it was at. I compared it to a specific game that I really liked my slider a couple years ago and noticed a difference in it. So then it's, “OK, how do I then correct that issue?”
That's where you've got to wait a little bit at that point, knowing what you're trying to pitch, but I pitched the night before, so you're not going to be doing much the next day in terms of throwing. So you wait until you get to a bullpen session when you can actually try to get after it a little bit.
The hard thing with bullpens sometimes is that you're giving it all you've got that day, but you're not fresh. You've pitched two days prior, so your body is ready to throw, but you have a short window of time to work in because a lot of time when you go out there and throw a bullpen, if you get too many pitches deep, like 30, 35 pitches deep, your body is tired, essentially. You're working differently than you would in a game, so your window of work is pretty short, and so that's why tools like Rapsodo exist, things like that — so you can really hone in and take a lot of the guesswork out of things. When I throw a pitch, you can see the spin-axis. You can see the way it's coming out of my hand, not just an eye-test version, but what the ball's actually doing?
So you brought it out there with you Saturday?
It wasn't with me [in Cleveland]. This time through was an eye-test, but honestly, what we were working on, that's fine. I didn't need the Rapsodo to tell me that. It's a matter of execution, and Rapsodo isn't going to tell you if you're executing something or not. You don't need that to see if the catcher doesn't move his glove, or that kind of stuff.
We're just constantly evolving as pitchers, and constantly trying to figure out how to get the most out of ourselves.
They talk a lot here about how everything is so fresh in getting that type of stuff [such as Rapsodo data] to the players. They pull all the data and figure out how to get a world of information distilled to the one or two things you need. Was what you were looking for available to you pretty easily Friday?
You come in the day after, we have access to essentially everything in the video room, we can go watch the clips. There's a button you click that's enhanced data, and enhanced data pulls up all the data — I don't know if it's Statcast or TrackMan — and you see the enhanced data on your pitches. It's each pitch, and you can watch each pitch. ... It shows everything.
Basically, all the information that you would need to essentially try to correct an issue. In the old days, you had guesswork. You had to just go up there and try to fix something and take it into your next start and see if it worked. Nowadays, we can pretty much hone into here's what happened, here's where you went wrong, here's where this pitch was off that day. You can get that back on track quickly.
It seems like this time though, it was a good meld because it wasn't like you had a camera behind you and you could see your hand was right here. You used the data, but were you going back to try and find a feel, or something mechanical?
Essentially, I was kind of rushing a little bit down the hill. So to counteract that, I just changed something slight in [my] mechanics, where I can't go fast down the hill now in my windup. You'll see it on Wednesday. It's pretty obvious what I changed. It's basically to the point now where I can't be in a hurry to home plate. I can't go to home plate until I get to the top of my delivery, because this change in the mechanics will not allow that.
That was something that Brocail came in right away and said, “Let's do this.” We went and threw, and I actually threw off the mound a couple days [in Cleveland] just to get a feel for it. It was pretty much night-and-day difference in that right there.
That's something that 20 years ago, I'm sure Doug's pitching coach would have done that, too. He'd have said, “This is what you're doing and here's a way to combat that.”
Exactly, and I think that's where using Doug as an example, it's really important. You have all this information, but there's also a vessel to go through, and that is Doug. Delivering that information to you in a way that a pitcher will understand is really big. Not everyone will understand when you throw a fastball at 185-200 [degree] spin-axis, what that means. You can't just go up and say that to certain people, and say, “Hey, your fastball spin-axis is 215 [degrees]. It needs to be 200.” They're not going to know what that really means.
I understand that because at points in my career where I've asked, “How can I make my stuff better?” I thought it was that I needed to throw a two-seamer, but no, [they said] your four-seamer plays up and plays faster than 90 [mph] because of the way I spin, the way it comes out of my hand. It's not something you can really teach. It's something you have to know about yourself, about how your anatomy plays into things.
A lot of times, like when I go to Driveline, a lot of people don't understand that one of the big things they do up there is they work with your anatomy on how you throw a baseball, and we work on pitch development. Here's how you throw a baseball, and these grips will help you get better spin on it. One of the ways they believe pitchers get hurt is when you try to change that — when you try to change your arm slot, or your release point, or if you're moving your wrist around. You want to be the strongest possible thrower, and your body is naturally going to have a strongest position. So trying to find the proper grips and how to maximize what your body can do is a big part of that.
But coming back to Doug on this, sometimes, a lot of times it comes down to the feel of the pitcher. If you can be told what to do all the time, you can try to correct things all the time, but until you go out there and actually feel it or get a feel for the change, you're not going to change anything on the game mound if you don't totally trust it or buy in. That's where Doug comes in. He really helps you believe and shows you what needs to change it and how you can change it, and helping you understand that is the proper change.
And just to wrap it up, everything like this is new here. You have nothing to do with that — you weren't here before and basically no one else was here before. But you have your own Rapsodo. You're a modern embodiment, in a way, of the things they want to do here. Is that something that's struck you? Is there more pressure that you want it to work? Is it reading too much into it to say you're an avatar for all the things this stuff can do to make the Orioles as an organization better?
What it comes down to is all this stuff is just tools, and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of what we're trying to do. If you can take guesswork out, and you can fix a problem between starts instead of taking four or five starts to really try to figure out what the problem is and fix it, then the technology has accomplished itself. It pays for itself. I own a Rapsodo, and I spent a couple thousand dollars on buying one, but when I bought it, I was having an issue with a pitch, and I was able to fix it in one bullpen session.
Now, the cost per win of any given team is far greater than the cost of that machine for me, right? That machine, being able to fix that pitch, if it helps me get 18 outs, that's big. That's huge. That investment paid for itself right there. I would say that as things keep advancing here, I think we'll start seeing a lot of what Sig is capable of, in terms of analyzing data and bringing things into play to help people get the most out of themselves.
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That's really the goal of this thing, for Dan Straily to be the best version of Dan Straily, for Dylan Bundy to be the best version of Dylan Bundy. The list goes on. You can say every single guy in that sentence, and just be the best version of who they are. These tools just help unlock those best versions of ourselves.