SCOTTSDALE — There are 79 National League relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings since Hunter Strickland became a full-time big leaguer in 2015. When you sort them by ERA, you find the hard-throwing right-hander near the top. With a 2.75 ERA over his three full seasons, Strickland ranks ninth in the NL, ahead of All-Stars like Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel and San Diego’s Brad Hand, and budding Pirates star Felipe Rivero.
By most measures, Strickland has been a reliable performer for a Giants bullpen that’s been a disaster for long stretches of the past couple of seasons. And yet, you won’t find another pitcher on staff who has his name thrown into more fake trades on social media or talk radio. It’s not hard to connect the dots.
Just when it seemed fans had started to forget Strickland’s rough 2014 postseason, he threw a fastball at Bryce Harper’s hip and then exchanged blows in a fight that was one of the low points of a 98-loss season. Strickland knows what that did to his reputation.
“It’s tough to go out there and have people not like you and to have this perception about you that you’re this hothead, because honestly I don’t feel like that,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a hothead.”
In the clubhouse, Strickland is the opposite of the man most see on the mound. He is as soft-spoken and accessible as any Giant, but like most relievers, he has a switch. It just so happens that his occasionally goes to a more intense level, leading to a couple of high-profile confrontations with Harper and with the Royals in the 2014 postseason.
“Obviously between the lines we’re competitors, we’re going out there competing, and that’s our livelihood out there — that’s how we’re putting food on the table for our family, so we do take it personally,” Strickland said. “Granted I do make mistakes. You know, I’m human — I understand that, so I do regret putting my team in situations like last year.
“If I could go back and change certain things then I definitely would, because I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be a team player and the guy that everyone has confidence in and believes — whether it’s the fan base or my teammates — that when I’m going out there that I’m going to do it and play ball the right way and get the outs that I need to get.”
Strickland tried to move on quickly from the Harper fight, starting that afternoon, when he stood at his locker and waited for reporters to enter the clubhouse. The situation was prolonged by an unusually long appeals process, but on the field, Strickland had a short memory. In 47 appearances after the fight, he posted a 3.09 ERA.
Strickland enters this season as the favorite to be Bruce Bochy’s go-to pitcher in the seventh inning, but he knows he has some things to clean up. Asked what his spring goal is, he immediately pointed to the need to find better weapons against left-handed hitters. They had a .876 OPS against him last season compared to a .587 OPS from right-handers. Strickland's goal is to get away from his fastball at times, as lefties often have an easy time picking it up out of his hand.
“You always need something soft to keep them honest,” Bochy said. “Whether it’s a changeup or splitter, which he can throw, or a breaking ball that he can throw to both sides of the plate.”
Regardless, Strickland’s success against right-handers will keep him in the late-innings mix, and the 29-year-old is eager to prove his worth after a season that was overshadowed by one moment.
“You can’t change the past,” he said. “You can only move forward, and I know that I have a ways to go to earn the fan base’s trust, or certain people’s, things like that. I’ll do what it takes. You’ve got to to live with the consequences when you do something wrong, and I’m okay with that.”