With the global pandemic altering baseball’s rules for 2020, the Mets had some extra room in their player pool heading into the “spring training” restart. To fill one of those spots, they snagged veteran reliever Hunter Strickland on a minor league deal. While he earned a ring with the Nationals in 2019, he struggled mightily in March, prompting his release. Now he’ll have a chance to rebound with a Mets team that’s thin in the bullpen, as usual.
Perhaps best known for his explosive—and very stupid—beef with Bryce Harper, Strickland was recently one of the more promising young relievers in baseball. His first three seasons in San Francisco were highly productive, as he posted a solid number of strikeouts, limited walks, and kept the ball in the yard. He perpetually appeared one step away from becoming a dominant closer to succeed Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla in the bay.
Instead, things went the opposite direction. His control slipped in a big way in 2017, though he was still effective. Then, when given his first chance to close in 2018, Strickland posted the lowest strikeout rate and highest FIP of his career. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Giants non-tendered him, and he went on to sign with the Mariners ahead of the 2019 season. Things went from bad to worse in Seattle, and while they got slightly better once the Nationals acquired him at the deadline, Strickland finished the season with a ghastly 5.55 ERA backed by a 136.5 DRA-. In other words, he was almost 40% worse than league average.
In short, Strickland’s career trajectory has been pointed down for most of the past three seasons. No role is harder to project than relief, though, so it’s very difficult to say how effective Strickland can be at this point. Is there some minor adjustment or small injury Strickland can overcome to return to previous heights? Or is he the latest in an infinitely long line of relievers who briefly flashed before fizzling out?
Whichever is the case, Strickland will likely get a chance to pitch real innings for the Mets this year. A shortened, compressed slate of games will put more pressure on a pitching staff that was short on depth to begin with. Hopefully Strickland’s role will be limited to low-leverage spot innings when the Mets need an arm—unless, of course, he rebounds to his previous form and gives Luis Rojas another potential late inning weapon.