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Brent Strom: The Wizard of Stros, Revisited. Baseball America’s Coach of the Year.

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Brent Strom just won a Coach of the Year award. Is he a pitching wizard? A hurler whisperer? Let’s look.

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

C’mon, just because the Astros in 2018 had the lowest ERA in baseball, 3.11, the eighth lowest ERA+ since WWII,* gave up the fewest runs, and had the most strikeouts in the entire history of baseball while allowing the third fewest walks this year, there’s no reason to call Brent Strom a wizard. Didn’t Baseball America know when they named Strom Coach of the Year, that any team with talent like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers et al is bound to make their coach look like a genius. Is he really?

Yeah he is.

Let’s take a look at some of the remarkable before and after transformations since Strom began waving his magic pitching wand.

OK, back to business.

This article is a re-visitation of a Fanpost I wrote last year called Gerrit Cole and the Wizard of Stros. In it, I examined the number of remarkable before and after transformations already accomplished by the Master before 2018, and then asked: “can we expect the Strom sorcery to resurrect Gerrit Cole?”

In that article I did not discuss the improvement of Justin Verlander during the small sample under Strom in late 2017, but the answer is now clear: On top of all of the transformations of relatively unknown pitchers already under his belt, Brent Strom took both of these great but declining players and made them All Stars once again. His legend is now complete.

Let’s look at some of his miracles.

Before and After Strom Pitching Chart

PITCHER ERA FIP WHIP Hits/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
PITCHER ERA FIP WHIP Hits/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
Charlie Morton, pre-Strom 4.54 4.10 1.441 9.6 3.4 6.3 0.7
Charlie Morton, post-Strom 3.36 3.53 1.176 7.3 3.3 10.4 0.9
Will Harris, pre-Strom 4.26 3.16 1.349 9.4 2.7 9.7 0.8
Will Harris, post-Strom 2.58 2.95 1.000 6.8 2.2 9.6 0.8
Dallas Keuchel 2013, pre-Strom 5.15 4.25 1.536 10.8 3 7.2 1.2
Dallas Keuchel 2014, post-Strom 2.93 3.21 1.175 8.4 2.2 6.6 0.5
Collin McHugh, pre-Strom 8.94 5.86 1.796 13.7 2.5 5.3 2.1
Collin McHugh, post Strom 3.51 3.50 1.217 8.4 2.5 8.8 0.9
Ryan Presly, 2013-2017 3.81 3.85 1.292 8.7 3 7.1 0.9
Ryan Presly, 2018 Astros 0.77 1.49 0.6 4.2 1.2 12.3 0.4
Justin Verlander, 2016-17, pre Strom 3.50 3.73 1.16 7.49 2.94 9.56 1.13
Justin Verlander, 2017-18, post-Strom 2.30 2.92 0.860 6.17 1.52 11.89 1.24
Gerrit Cole 2016-17, pre-Strom 4.12 3.81 1.320 9.3 2.6 8.3 1.1
Gerrit Cole 2018, post-Strom 2.88 2.70 1.033 6.4 2.9 12.4* 0.9

For every pitcher in this chart, ERA, FIP, WHIP and almost everything else are considerably lower post Strom compared to pre-Strom. For all of the pitchers on this chart the average drop was 2.36 in ERA. Even All Stars like Verlander and Cole both dropped well over a run from their more recent ERA’s. Ryan Pressly went from a career nearly four ERA pitcher to under one in his 23 innings with Strommie.

How did Strom do it?

In typical Astroball fashion, by a combination of the most advanced metrics and technology available, and by old school gut feeling applying that information to bring out the best in what that pitcher has within. As Justin Verlander said:

“When I first got to the organization they kind of showed me some of the stuff that they can do, and try to do. When you get older, every competitive advantage is an advantage, and I wanted that. I joke with guys in the organization that I was probably the first pitcher to come over and ask for more information, because they can kind of give you a lot. I want more. Give me everything you’ve got.”

With Collin McHugh it was about taking advantage of his high spin rate. For Will Harris it was about greater reliance on his best pitch, the cutter. With Dallas Keuchel it was about synchronizing the arms and legs during delivery. For Charlie Morton, a first time All Star under Strom at age 34, it was about “using the entire zone, elevating above the zone, expanding east and west.” For Ryan Pressly it was about throwing his curveball more. For Gerrit Cole it was about dumping the low sinkerball approach and relying more on his elevated four seamer and curve.

In general, Strom’s magic is about using the mountain of data on each pitcher available at his disposal, and using it in the way most applicable to aid each pitcher. As I said in the first article:

“I believe that what has made Brent Strom so successful is his flexibility in dealing with each individual player...He seems to have a knack for molding each pitcher, not into the preconceived mold of another pitcher according to some dogma, but into the best latent mold already lying within himself, waiting to be discovered.

And isn’t that what the Wizard of Oz did? When he was outed and his wizardly powers disproved, still he fulfilled his promises. To the Straw Man he gave brains, not by wizardly conjuring, but by showing him the intelligence he had within. To the Tin Man he gave a heart, thus helping uncover his latent compassion. And to the Cowardly Lion he gave courage, by inspiring within him the true lion-heart he really was.

Or as Jeff Luhnow put it, “He has such a passion for helping pitchers be their best...He derives so much joy out of helping these guys maximize their abilities...He’s also one of the most curious minds in baseball and completely open minded.”

Not every pitcher at whom Strom has waved his magic wand has responded like the ones above. Some continued on their normal career trajectory, to be fair a few seemed to underperform while on the Astros, if only slightly; Mike Fiers, Ken Giles, Scott Kazmir come to mind. But as I concluded in the first article:

“So no, Brent Strom does not have magical wizard powers. But chances are good he will help Gerrit Cole realize that top of the rotation pitcher that he already really is.”

This he did, as well as transform a group comprised of more than a few ne’er do wells into one of the greatest pitching staffs in all baseball history.

Trevor Bauer, it’s not pine tar that made the Astros pitchers better. It’s just good, old-fashioned, great coaching.

Brent Strom, Baseball Coach of the Year. At least. And at long last. Well deserved. I truly wonder if the Astros could have done it without him.

*ERA+ measures how well a team pitches compared to league average, park adjusted, in a given season. One hundred is league average. A number above 100 indicates better than average. For example, 130 indicates 30% better than average for the season in question.

The seven teams ahead of the Astros since WWII are:

  1. 2017 Cleveland Indians, 138
  2. 2015 St. Louis Cardinals, 134
  3. 2016 Chicago Cubs, 133
  4. 2002 Atlanta Braves, 133
  5. 1954 Cleveland Indians, 133
  6. 1954 NY Giants, 132
  7. 1997 Atlanta Braves, 131
  8. 2018 Houston Astros, 130

Notorious teams not on this list: the 1969 Orioles (Palmer and Cuellar, 126) the 1966 Dodgers (Koufax and Drysdale, 126) to name a few. The next best Astros team was the 1981 edition (124).

When I gave the poll last year only 38% of respondents believed that Strom was a top 1% pitching coach. What do you think now?

Poll

How does Brent Strom compare to other pitching coaches

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    Top 1%
    (173 votes)
  • 15%
    Top 10%
    (34 votes)
  • 0%
    Top 25%
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Top 50%
    (4 votes)
213 votes total Vote Now