Pedro Strop, Satchel Paige, and Being on Baseball’s Bleeding Edge

Pedro Strop is a really fun player. He’s the only relief pitcher in baseball who runs out walk-off home runs like the third member of The Bushwackers. He reacts to putting a cheeseburger in Jorge Soler’s Chinese food container like it was Chris Rock’s closer from Bring the Pain. And he celebrates a strikeout like he only found out two seconds ago that the Allies won World War II.

To borrow a phrase from a friend, Strop is a prime number in a world of multiples. His personality is unique enough to make me wonder there was a comp in baseball history for the kind of fun player he is.

(Incidentally, I think it’s safe to say I’m an official Baseball Prospectus writer now that I’ve observed an athlete’s joy and thought “Let’s quantify it!” And I will measure it in units of Anti-McCanns.)

Here’s one of the highest compliments I can give: the more I thought about it, the more I got the sense that Pedro Strop has a bit of Satchel Paige in him. His variety of deliveries to throw off a hitter’s timing certainly call to mind Paige’s “hesitation pitch.” And while Strop doesn’t have Satchel’s otherworldly skill and sense of self-promotion, when it comes to baseball joie de vivre, he can be every bit the showman and dynamic force of energy that Paige was.

And just as importantly, Strop is also similar to Paige by being a modern-day example of how the baseball culture reacts to players who express their individuality.

Quite often, it seems the game’s default response to its eccentrics is one of anger. Indeed, one of the best things about Strop’s sense of flair and self expression is that it pisses off the right people. And as you might expect, when I say “the right people,” that’s just another way of saying “Sean Rodriguez.”

One of the most notable moments of this season came on May 4 when a Strop quick pitch led to a Rodriguez swing and miss. Rodriguez responded by glaring out at the mound in a seething rage as if Pedro was a sports drink promising to replenish his electrolytes.

It wasn’t just that Strop had beaten him in that moment. Rodriguez was mad that Strop had done it in a way that violated baseball convention. And for a game that celebrates conformity to hazy notions of “respect” and “unwritten rules,” this could not stand.

It was also not the first time Strop’s deliveries had caused hellfire and consternation. Back when he was with the Orioles in 2012, a Strop quick pitch against the Red Sox led to a confrontation that resulted in the ejections of Adrian Gonzalez and Bobby Valentine. And because Strop’s pitch had caused caused Valentine’s removal from the game, the Boston Baseball Writers voted him the 2012 Red Sox MVP.

This battle between the eccentric and the collective hivemind has been going on in baseball for decades. Satchel Paige’s hesitation pitch famously caused similar disdain among the baseball establishment when he finally was welcomed to the big leagues in 1948. According to Paige biographer Larry Tye, Satchel sent Casey Stengel into full on old-man-yells-at-cloud mode, ranting to his writers about the “blankety-blank hesitation pitch” and calling it “the toughest pitch in baseball to hit.” (Tye, 213)

The scorn for Paige’s idiosyncrasies went all the way to the top of organized baseball. During Satchel’s rookie year, American League President Will Harridge took a break from his mission to bankrupt George Bailey’s Building and Loan and, seeing that the hesitation pitch was setting a dangerous precedent of making baseball fun, ruled that it would be illegal with runners on base and would result in a balk.

Strop has similarly run afoul of baseball’s ruling class, with Brian Gorman once declaring his quick pitch a violation and ruling it a ball in a game during 2012. In this way, Strop is just following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Paige.  His unique delivery doesn’t just upset his opponents; it riles up the entire baseball establishment—represented by Gorman and Harridge. And it shows that despite the passage of several decades of progress, when push comes to shove, baseball still rules against thinking differently.

There’s no better evidence for how baseball’s culture frowns upon individual expression than this: Pedro Strop has put up some outstanding numbers in his career. He’s amassed 1.1 WARP out of the bullpen in each of the past two seasons with WHIPs of 1.07 and 1.00. He possesses a sizzling fastball and one of the most hellacious sliders in the game. And as one of the better bullpen arms in all of baseball, what’s the first thing Google autofills when you search for his name?

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 2.50.48 PM

Sigh. Despite Strop performing at an elite level, there’s not another player in the game whose essence gets distilled by the internet into a single article of clothing when you search for their name. Not even “Bartolo Colon pants.”

When a player like Strop does anything to break with baseball conformity, the game’s culture ensures that his expression of individuality becomes the only thing he is known for. Because he violates tradition by wearing his hat slightly to the left, Strop isn’t known as the Cubs’ essential 8th inning pitcher charged with neutralizing the game’s best hitters in crucial late inning situations. Instead, he’s Pedro Strop—the muse of thousands of Twitter eggs typing “Fix your damn hat.”

Here again, he follows the path once trod by Satchel Paige: a highly skilled non-conformist who baseball culture also tried to reduce to a gimmick. In Paige’s case, the gimmick was his age.

When Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians as a 42 year old, Sporting News publisher J.G. Taylor Spink called the move “a quest for publicity,” adding “To sign a hurler at Paige’s age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits.” (Tye, 207)

At that point, the only thing keeping Spink from inventing the hashtag so he could add “#RespectTheGame” was that he was 59 years old.

So how did this “quest for publicity” perform that year? 2.48 ERA. 2.78 FIP. 165 ERA+. And the Indians won the World Series.

It’s often said that organized baseball will only put up with eccentrics as long as they perform on the field. But it should also be added that putting up superior numbers is the only way for a player to step out of the caricatured image that baseball’s culture creates for the eccentric and make fans pay attention to that player’s ability. Today, Satchel Paige isn’t just an old man who pitched forever. He’s a baseball legend, the symbol of the Negro Leagues, and a hero of Cleveland’s last title winner.

And if Pedro Strop one day gets a hat that says “World Champion,” he can wear it at whatever angle he wants.

*Data sourced in this article can be found in Larry Tye, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (New York: Random House, 2009)

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.

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4 comments on “Pedro Strop, Satchel Paige, and Being on Baseball’s Bleeding Edge”

PolitiJim (@politiJim)

Thanks so much. I knew nothing about Satchel Paige except the name…

Ken Schultz

I highly recommend the Larry Tye bio referenced above–especially for the story about Satchel going to the Dominican Republic to pitch for Rafael Trujillo’s team. Fascinating stuff.

Matt Golding

Outstanding article. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Read it twice. Actually LOL’ed.

Ken Schultz

Thank you, Matt! I appreciate hearing that.

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