By Andrew Pentis / Special to MLB.com | August 1, 2012 6:00 AM ET
In the first outing of his second pro season, A's farmhand Dan Straily was, by his own admission, a below-average pitcher with below-average pitches. There wasn't much worth writing home to Oregon about until that April 10, 2010, start for Oakland's then-Class A affiliate, Kane County.
"All of a sudden, I get in the game with two strikes and my catcher, Max Stassi, puts down a slider. So I grab a slider, and I throw it. It doesn't make it to home plate, but the guy swings at it -- strike three," Straily recalled. "The next guy, I have him two strikes and Stassi puts down a slider again, so I throw it again. This one makes it to home plate -- it bounced on the back of home plate -- and the guy swings at it for strike three.
"My first year in the pros, I threw it in Spring Training, I think, only one time. I didn't really realize it was a good pitch."
So don't be surprised to learn that, two years later, not even Straily saw this coming: With that slider among five offerings, the 23-year-old (and onetime 24th-round draftee) leads the Minors (and Majors) in strikeouts: 175 in 138 1/3 innings.
"I've definitely been a late bloomer," said Straily (5-2, 1.36 ERA), who has only improved since his June 17 promotion to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League. "It's taken me a while to find what kind of pitcher I was and what pitches I throw and what they do. Obviously, well worth the wait."
MiLB.com asked Straily to describe and rank each of the five he is employing. (He politely declined to share his grades on a scout's traditional 20-80 scale, texting in classic Straily-ese, "I'm not one at all to really sound that way.") Here he is, in his own humble words.
Pitch one: Four-seam fastball
Origin: I throw the four-seam primarily. I'm pretty sure that is what everyone's first pitch is, just the natural order of things. That's how I learned to throw the baseball.
Purpose: Everything I throw is based off my fastball. I pitch off my fastball. It's the first thing guys are going to see in games.
Grip: Standard four-seamer. It goes pretty straight.
Speed: 90-92 mph. It can get harder when I need it, but as a starter, I don't reach back every pitch.
Rank: This is my best pitch, above Major League average.
Pitch two: Two-seam fastball
Origin: It's something I thought I knew how to throw and, once I got into the pros, realized I had no clue how to throw. I had always thrown it, but it didn't really do anything. To throw a two-seamer a little slower than my four-seamer and have it be straight didn't make much sense. The last two months, I have really been working on it to get it to do what it is supposed to do. It's been Don Schulze and Scott Emerson who have helped me with how to get out front with it. That's always the biggest thing.
Purpose: I throw 'em in games, but it's usually not a ton of 'em. My catcher tells me when to throw it. He realizes it's not a plus pitch for me. A lot of times, we'll get inside to righties with it because it does have a slight arm-side run. It's not a straight fastball, so it'll miss a barrel or just get in there a little more.
Grip: Between the horseshoes, traditional two-seamer.
Speed: 89-91 mph.
Rank: This is my fifth-best pitch. I've developed it slowly. It's not something I have to rush. I don't have a ton of movement right now. I'm sure at some point it will come, but right now it's just enough.
Pitch three: Curveball
Origin: It's been pretty much the same since pitching at Thurston High School in Oregon.
Purpose: It's not a go-to pitch for me. It's a get-me-over pitch. I would be willing to say that I have zero swing-and-misses on it this year. I use it to get ahead of hitters. It really is just a random pitch, to give the hitter something else to think about in the back of his mind. I throw five to seven times a game.
Grip: Like a two-seamer, but I come over the top of the seam.
Speed: 72-75 mph.
Rank: This is my fourth-best pitch. It's right below Major League average. We're starting to focus on improving it more.
Pitch four: Slider
Origin: It was a pitch that I learned pretty much as I was walking out the door at Marshall. Our last series of the year, I worked on it with one of my teammates and my pitching coach. The teammate actually was Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell's son, Shane. He was working with me on it, and the pitch was kind of like a big cutter. I have a different arm slot, different everything now, but I still use the same grip that he showed me that day. Nowadays, I don't throw it between starts. I will throw one or two on flat-ground sessions, but I won't throw it off the mound. I just basically pull it out on gameday. I have heard of a lot of guys -- stories of arms breaking down throwing hard sliders. It's not that I feel like it's so good I don't need to work on it. There are days when it's on, days when it's not. It's basically just a fastball with a slightly different grip on the ball.
Purpose: It's my swing-and-miss pitch.
Grip: Pretty traditional, while my middle finger is at the top of the horseshoe.
Speed: 82-86, 87 mph.
Rank: This is my third-best pitch.
Pitch five: Changeup
Origin: It's turned into my best off-speed pitch over this last year. It came out of nowhere. The development of it since I've gotten into pro ball -- I have probably used 10 different grips. Confidence has been the biggest difference: throwing it because I wanted to, not because I had to. Last year, at Stockton, I had to throw 15 changeups a game, so I would make sure to get to 15 and then shut it down. This year, it's been completely the opposite. Some games, when it's on, I'll throw 15 to 20. Some games, when it's just average or I don't need it so much or I'm facing more right-handers, I'll throw seven or eight. Obviously, the development continues everyday.
Purpose: It's got movement so that I can start it down the middle and it will fall into the right-hander's batter's box.
Grip: When I hold it in my hand, it's hard not to look at it and see a two-seamer with my middle finger and ring finger, but a circle-change with my thumb and my index finger. It's really just kind of unique. Each time I show it to a teammate, they're kind of like, "Really? That's how you hold it?" Because it kind of looks like a splitter when I throw it, but nothing about the way I hold it looks like a splitter. It's a variation of my college grip. Gil Patterson, the A's pitching coordinator, just took it and spread my fingers out -- I used to throw it with my fingers together -- and on top of the baseball instead of down between the seams like the two-seamer. So he raised it so my two fingers are hitting two spots on the seams instead of just being on leather. It's a funny grip and it's not always easy to get to, especially when I start finding the baseball when I start my windup -- I'm not a big believer in shaking off the catcher and, a lot of times, I am holding a pitch, and they call for something else, I get to that pitch on the way.
Speed: My changeup is supposed to be hard, sometimes it's 85-87 mph. Some days, it's 80-84. But Don Schulze and I had a great exchange earlier this year at Midland:
"Am I throwing too hard today?"
"Are the hitters hitting it?"
"No, but am I throwing it too hard?"
"Let me repeat myself: Are the hitters hitting it? The hitters will let you know if it's hard enough or if it's too slow."
So it's basically in the 80s. Let's go with that.
Rank: This is my second-best pitch, considering how many looks I have gotten from hitters. A couple of guys, just jokingly around the bases, have told me to stop throwing it. No one has ever told me to stop throwing my fastball.
Andrew Pentis is a contributor to MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at AndrewMiLB.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.