In the moments between innings, as Royals pitcher Matt Strahm marches back to the dugout, he can evoke the image of a certain NBA superstar.
A mouthguard dangles from his lips. He hops over the baseline with aplomb. The confidence and swagger carries over to the dugout.
“That Steph Curry look,” teammate Danny Duffy says, recalling the Golden State Warriors star who has become famous for chewing on his mouthpiece during games.
For Strahm, a left-handed reliever, the mouthguard is not a piece of unnecessary flare. He began wearing it last season after the muscles in his neck kept tightening up after pitching appearances. The tip came from teammate and left-handed pitcher Mike Minor, who had seen his former teammates from Vanderbilt, including Boston’s David Price, use a mouthguard on the mound.
“I grind my teeth a lot,” Strahm says. “And so the theory behind it is that it takes tension off your neck by placing your jaw in the right position.”
This spring, Strahm bestowed the benefits of the mouthguard on teammate Kyle Zimmer, and a mini movement was formed. Zimmer, who was re-assigned to minor-league camp in early March, began wearing one during outings, too.
“I’m not sure how much it does,” Zimmer says. “But it’s definitely feeling like it’s keeping me sort of looser.”
In baseball circles, the science behind the mouthguard and its effectiveness is still a matter of some debate. What is less uncertain is Strahm’s talent when he is clenching his teeth on a small piece of rubber and standing 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
In 2016, Strahm made his major-league debut as a reliever in late July and ran roughshod over American League hitters for the rest of the season. He posted a 1.23 ERA in 21 appearances while dialing up his fastball to the mid 90s. He struck 12.3 batters per nine innings, which would have ranked seventh in the AL among qualified relievers. He did not allow a run in 15 1/3 innings in August, though a mild case of biceps tendinitis limited his use during a crucial stretch in September.
In the offseason, the Royals toyed with the idea of giving Strahm an opportunity as a starter. Instead, they will deploy him as a power arm in the back end of their bullpen. In the opening weeks of spring training, the returns have been promising. In his first 7 1/3 innings, Strahm struck out eight while not allowing a run.
“He’s looking great,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
The Royals believe Strahm still projects as a starting pitcher in the future. He has the arsenal. There is more value there, too. But after the offseason acquisitions of Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns and Travis Wood — and the return of starter Jason Vargas from Tommy John surgery — a more pressing short-term need exists in the bullpen.
If Strahm can replicate his performance from 2016 across a larger sample size, the Royals’ bullpen can start to make up for the loss of Wade Davis. Yet as spring training began, Strahm wasn’t satisfied with simply repeating his 2016. So he began a new season by adding another pitch: a slider.
All the way back to his days at Neosho County Community College, Strahm was a three-pitch pitcher, utilizing a fastball, curveball and changeup. After being drafted by the Royals in the 21st round of the 2012 draft, his repertoire did not change. But as the 2017 approached, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland recommended adding a slider, a harder breaking ball that would run in on right-handed hitters and away from lefties. Strahm bought into the plan.
“He just thought it would fit my arm angle well, give my fastball a little more deception,” Strahm said. “It’s another pitch off the same plane as my fastball. It just gives it another different look.”
Strahm said he plans to use all four pitches this year. His fastball averaged close to 94 mph last season, while his curveball sat just above 76 mph. The slider will check in somewhere in between — an offspeed pitch that could be easier to throw for strikes.
“The slider is going to help,” Yost said. “It’s going to be consistent. The curveball is a pitch that’s a little bit tougher to command.”
In recent years, both starter Duffy and reliever Kelvin Herrera have found increased success by adding a slider to their arsenal. For Duffy, the addition of a slider helped transform him into a frontline starting pitcher last season. Strahm is hoping to follow the lead — though he stopped short of drawing a direct connection to Duffy’s success with the pitch.
“I just look at my arm angle, and it’s more of a slider arm angle than it is 12-to-6 breaker,” he said.
For now, Strahm is a reliever. But that does not mean he couldn’t follow Duffy’s path back to the starting rotation. In his first run through the big leagues, he dominated out of the bullpen. The Royals hope his slider will help him take another step.
“I’ll have all four pitches,” Strahm said. “It’s just another pitch.”