On July 18, one of Baseball America's top-100 prospects took the mound against a relative unknown. Left-hander Danny Hultzen, selected second overall in the 2011 MLB draft, was making just his fifth start in Triple-A, and only his 18th as a professional. His rise has been meteoric, in that sense, and because of it, he's a pitching prospect that many know of. Hultzen would last six frames, striking out eight batters while scattering three hits and two walks for one run.
His opponent, a right-hander who has been around since 2009, and without any of the hype that surrounds the #2 overall selection from last summer's draft, outpitched Hultzen: eight innings, eight strikeouts, two free passes, two hits, and just the one run as well. That's Dan Straily, and while he's received some recognition for his efforts against Hultzen, this is the kind of thing he has been doing all season long.
Straily wasn't a top-100 prospect heading into 2012. In fact, he didn't within Oakland's top 30 according to Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein didn't rank him in his top 20, nor as his sleeper pick. This isn't to pick on either outlet -- especially Goldstein, who correctly identified current rotation member A.J. Griffin as a sleeper prospect -- but is being pointed out to you for a reason: so you can be properly prepared for how out of nowhere Straily's 2012 has been.
This 23-year-old, who was a non-prospect just months ago, is leading all of professional baseball in strikeouts in 2012. Not just the minors, but the majors, too. He has punched out 162 batters in 126 innings, good for 11.5 strikeouts per nine. Stephen Strasburg is whiffing 11.6 per nine right now, but has thrown roughly 20 fewer innings, and is well behind Straily in overall strikeouts. Zack Greinke led the majors in strikeouts per nine last year, but didn't even crack 11 per nine. That's not to say Straily will show up in the majors and become the new Tim Lincecum in the Bay Area, but it does show you how ridiculously high his whiff rates have been. Especially since, in 2011 at High-A, he struck out a respectable 8.6 per nine.
Straily was drafted in the 24th round in 2009 out of Marshall University. He has shown flashes of being a prospect in his results, but the lack of a real weapon in his arsenal kept him from ever getting much attention, despite striking out 66 batters in 59 innings in his debut campaign. He had the kinds of seasons that many young pitching prospects in the lower levels can have without ever tasting any kind of success in the high minors, never mind the majors. His fastball has both above-average command and velocity, and with that in tow, many hurlers can do a number on opposing lineups in the lower levels. More is needed in Double- and Triple-A, though.
Luckily for Straily, more came to him in 2012, by the time he reached Double-A. Goldstein describes Straily's change-up as "an absolute weapon; a plus pitch with good deception in his delivery and plenty of late break."* With an above-average fastball and a solid slider already in his arsenal, a plus change-up makes him a scary opponent on the mound, as nearly 500 batters faced in the minors this year can attest to.
*Just as a reminder of how unknown Straily was heading into 2012: the above linked article is the first and only Baseball Prospectus piece, by Goldstein or otherwise, to mention Straily on the site.
The combination of missed bats and control didn't stop with a promotion to Triple-A, as Straily has logged 41 innings in six starts, striking out 54, walking just 13, while allowing just 17 hits. That .188 batting average on balls in play won't last forever, but it doesn't have to: Straily's ERA is all of 1.10 in the Pacific Coast League, so things will be fine for him even when he isn't stranding 92 percent of his baserunners.
Straily is holding PCL opponents to a .125 batting average, opponents who, as a unit, are hitting .280/.347/.433 in 2012. There's not much more for him to learn in the minors, as he will need to face someone who actually has a change of causing some damage if he's to ever see the need for a lesson about pitching again. For that reason, Straily is someone who might be called up to the A's relatively soon.
With the trade deadline approaching, and the Athletics one of many teams who are in the playoff race but certainly not guaranteed a seat at the end, Straily represents an opportunity for Oakland to both sell and compete. Bartolo Colon is one of the pitchers they could move, as he's under contract for 2012 only. Any number of competitors could use an average starting pitching to help plug holes in the rotation over the season's last two months, and with Straily sitting in Triple-A, Oakland could cash in on that fact, without taking a step back in their own pursuit of postseason play.
You can't guarantee how Straily will do once he comes up, if he comes up, but given the way he's handled two promotions against stronger competition already this year, there's a very good chance -- much better than there was this time last year -- that we'll all know who Dan Straily is soon enough.