The A's No. 2 prospect put together an impressive resume this past season, going 9-7 with a 2.78 ERA between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. His 190 strikeouts led all Minor League hurlers, and his 1.00 WHIP ranked fifth among those in full-season leagues. The 24-year-old right-hander was named MiLB.com's Breakout Prospect of the Year for his efforts.
But perhaps the greatest reward came on Aug. 3 when he made his Major League debut for Oakland. Straily, who touts a mid-90s fastball along with a curveball, a slider and a changeup, went 2-1 with a 3.89 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings over seven starts for the American League West-champion A's.
Now with his name on the team's 40-man roster, a lot would seem different for the 2009 24th-round pick out of Marshall this offseason. But that would only be half of the story as Straily was set to marry his fiancée of two years, Amanda Miller, in his native Oregon last Saturday.
Beforehand however, the hard-throwing righty took some time out of his busy personal schedule to talk to MiLB.com about his breakout season, his first taste of the Major Leagues and a certain bet he made with fellow A's hurler and good friend A.J. Griffin.
MiLB.com: You obviously impressed and even surprised a lot of people with your breakout season this year? But what was your mentality entering the season?
Straily: I was just hoping that I wouldn't go back to High A at some point. That's it really. I was going to Double-A to start the year, and I really just wanted to stick there for the entire season.
MiLB.com: Was that out of fear of returning to the hitter-happy California League?
Straily: No, it's just one of those things where each year, you hope to move up a level. There were no expectations at all. Just show up, and let things go how they will. You learn pretty quickly that things get out of control if you're not focused on the next pitch, next batter, next inning. Just show up, do your job and let the pieces fall how they will. That's how I've always looked at it.
MiLB.com: Still as you got going and became really dominant, was there any point where you sat back and just thought "whoa" about your success?
Straily: Yeah, it's funny. It was kind of a joke. After my 15-strikeout game [on May 18], I was put in kangaroo court by the rest of the guys, just for striking out more in one game than anyone else had up to that point. We were all sitting around, talking about it and they were all saying, "You know you're probably the next going up, right?" And I didn't think that'd be true because we had a lot of older guys than me there. I was prepared to be there the whole year. I realized it could be pretty nasty that way, and I knew the learning curve was going to be pretty steep. But as I went along, I knew that if I stood the course, nothing was impossible.
MiLB.com: You got that callup in the middle of June. Given what you thought would happen, what was that process like?
Straily: I was all excited from a baseball standpoint. But to be honest with you, one of the biggest parts I was excited about was not having to ride any more buses. They have more plane trips in Triple-A, and I was pretty happy about that. What you don't think about though is sure, you aren't riding 15 hours through the night on a bus, but you are waking up at 4:30 to ride to the airport. It's kind of six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. You learn to ride and sleep on the bus during those long trips. It's just a different world, and like everything else in the Minors, it's a stepping stone to the next thing.
Still Triple-A, it's really similar to Double-A in some respects. You're still pitching and working on the same stuff, but at the same time, you're facing a lot of older, more experienced players up there. It's really a whole other level. The No. 3 hitter on your last team is now a No. 6 or No. 7. So you have to work way back up to the competition in that sense. Also each team was a playoff contending team and was playing like it. In other leagues, the year becomes lopsided as it goes along with the best players getting called up and stuff. But in Triple-A, you have guys who have been there a while and are more experienced with the environment and more competitive in it.
MiLB.com: And yet, your numbers were actually better in Sacramento than they were in Midland. What was that experience like?
Straily: I didn't realize just how good I was doing for awhile there. I knew my ERA was pretty low, but I never really check the numbers too much because they can get in your head. I was just having fun, you know, and I knew I was doing well. Then I finally looked and saw an under-1.00 ERA and that batters were hitting only like .110 off me. I mean, those are Zito-man stats right there. It was a lot of fun.
It's just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. Whatever your craft is, to excel at what you're doing is such a great feeling. I was working on my stuff but was just blessed that it was all coming together for me. I know a lot of people said I was doing well because I was pitching in Sacramento, but I pitched on the road too and was doing just as well there.
MiLB.com: You've mentioned a few times you were "working on your stuff." What in particular were you focusing on?
Straily: Just the development of the changeup really. It's something the A's have been telling me to work on since day one. It's like anything else in baseball. You're working on everything, and the development is the big part in the Minors. I was coming into the ballpark, working on fastball command, that kind of stuff. But it's all boring baseball stuff.
The big part was getting lefties out with the changeup outside. It's been my goal for a long time, and the way to do it is going out there and doing it -- throwing it to righties, throwing it to lefties. There was a really cool moment actually where one day I got a call from my pitching coordinator [Gil Patterson] saying, "I want you to throw the changeup to Albert Pujols." I know he was just making a point, but it was one of those moments when I realized I didn't who care was batting, I wanted to use the best pitch for the situation. Just one of those lessons I learned and something I need to continue to use as I go along here.
MiLB.com: You kind of touched on it there, but describe the moment you found out you'd be promoted to the Majors.
Straily: I was pretty excited. I was building up to it, and obviously I was having a great year up to that point. Some people were writing and saying that I'd get the next call, but you can't get excited about it. That's when you're putting too much pressure on yourself. Still I had no idea what happens when they call you up to the Majors. I was in the stands charting pitches, and my fiancée was there that homestand, so I was able to tell it to her face. I walked right up to her and said, "We're going to the big leagues." We were speechless and couldn't believe this was happening.
Then I had to go pack all my bags, put them in the car, drive down to Oakland, all that stuff you don't think about ... but happily doing all of it, of course. It was just so much fun. The end of the tunnel, my tunnel, was walking into the Coliseum for the first time as a player. It was just the light at the end of the tunnel, getting the opportunity to reach the top level of what we do. It's all any ballplayer can ask for. I had accomplished everything to get to a spot every baseball player, child, boy, grown man wants to be. When you think about playing baseball, you don't think about the Minors necessarily. You're thinking about the Majors. So it's nice when honor and hard work pays off. Now I'm just trying to make sure I stay there.
MiLB.com: That must have been awesome to have your fiancée share the experience.
Straily: Yeah, we pick a homestand a year and fly her down to see it. It just happened to be that homestand when I found out. It was very cool. We were very lucky too with the timing.
MiLB.com: What was it like to finally step on the mound as a Major Leaguer?
Straily: It was weird because I got there obviously before I was supposed to pitch, meaning I wasn't allowed on the field. Sure, you're out there for batting practice, stretching, shagging flies, that kind of thing. But come gametime, you can't go out there unless you're pitching. Once it was my time, it was a lot of fun. I was walking out there and soon as I hit the top step, I felt it. People were chanting for me already, and it was surreal. I was kind of asking myself, "Am I in the right spot here?"
The crazy thing is everyone says everything's the same between the lines and it really is. I wasn't really nervous, and I felt pretty comfortable and confident. I was a little worried though because I don't think I hit one spot in my bullpen session before the game. All I threw were balls. And it's Friday night -- firework night in Oakland -- so the place is packed. I was just wowed and had so much adrenaline.
But I threw the first pitch, and it was strike one. Right then, it's like the weight of the world was taken off my shoulders. And sure, you go through all the horror stories of first starts, but I was remembering what people say about the umpires up there, that a strike's a strike and a ball's a ball. It's a little intimidating, but you have to remember it's the exact same game and treat it like that. For all intents and purposes, I was able to do that.
MiLB.com: What a time to join the A's as well, given the final division push during the latter portions of the year. What was it like playing on that team?
Straily: Oh, it was a blast. Everything was just filled with excitement, energy and youth. Everyone liked to talk about how the team was very much one of youth, but even I felt like a teenager in that clubhouse. Even though I got just a taste, I know it's where I want to be. I spent a month-and-a-half with it, and for the most part, you understand second-half callups, September callups, those kinds of things. They kind of show you, "Here's what you're working for."
But to get back to the question, to be part of that team was so much fun. The chemistry in clubhouse was awesome. In some places, some guys just don't along so much, they kind of stay to themselves or there are some tense situations. There in Oakland, everyone went about their business and took care of their thing, which made it easier on everyone else.
MiLB.com: Now with the Majors well within your sights, does your offseason program change at all?
Straily: It's nice, actually. The last couple of years I've been working at Dick's Sporting Goods, just trying to make some extra money in the offseason while I could. Now that I don't have to do that, I'm focused on what I need to do and not worrying about having to sell shoes for eight hours a day. It makes everything easier. You see where you want to be. Now you need to go back and do the same things that got you in that position. With this opportunity, I need to make sure I give it everything I've got, and I'm doing everything on my end to make sure that happens.
MiLB.com: Jumping back a little bit, everyone has a story about how they got into baseball or chose the sport in the first place. What's yours?
Straily: Well, I used to live down in southern California, and my grandfather and dad used to take me to Dodger games until I was like 2. Obviously, I don't remember that, but baseball was part of who I was growing up. I always followed the Dodgers when I was younger. I had a Dodger blue baseball glove that had Dodgers instead of Rawlings written in the middle. Just little things like that. Actually, I played for a team called the Orioles one year. So I had this orange shirt and bright blue glove. I had zero swag whatsoever.
It's really funny though because I never wanted to play another sport. Sure, I played some football and I did wrestling for one year -- I was terrible at that. Then I played baseball as a junior in high school and wanted to go to college for it. As much I wanted to play in college [Western Oregon University], I wanted to get some money for it so I changed schools and went to West Virginia [and Marshall University]. I was able to figure some things out there, but it's pretty amazing how much things took off from there.
MiLB.com:Did you have a player you wanted to emulate every time you went on the field?
Straily: Actually, I was always a catcher growing up, so my mom told me I kind of looked like Mike Piazza back there. Even though I was watching him, I never really had a favorite player. Once we moved up the Northwest [to Oregon], you don't get Dodger games up there. But still, I didn't care who was playing. Whether it was TBS, WGN or whatever, if a game was on nationally, I'd try to catch it. But there was never a player who I had to watch. We actually had a batting cage in the backyard growing up, and I would be out there a lot. But I was terrible when I was a kid. I just loved the game.
MiLB.com: There was talk during the season about you and A.J. Griffin having a bet about who would strike out more batters this season. (The two struck out 154 and 156 in the A's Minor League system in 2011.) Care to elaborate?
Straily: Yeah that happened, and it's kind of a long story. A.J. and I, we're pretty good friends. He's actually coming up here to be in my wedding. We were driving from Spring Training to Midland to start the year. Twelve hours in the car together, you can imagine the conversations that came up. Anyways, he tied for our Pitcher of the Year last year, but he was going on, saying, "You might beat me in ERA. You might beat me in wins. You might beat me in average. But you're not going to me at strikeouts." And I told him, "I think that's the only thing I can beat you at." We didn't get to really test it out, but I'm pretty sure I would have beat him anyways.
Someone actually called me last week and was saying I finished top 10 in the Texas League in strikeouts, despite only being there for a few months. I was just like, "What? How could that be?" It just goes to show though how much fun the year was. The thing with A.J. was just a joke between friends that got blown up a little bit. That's fine obviously, but it wasn't at all supposed to be a cocky comment.
MiLB.com: That's understandable. You two make any predictions for next season yet?
Straily: [Laughs] Nah, that's something for week five of Spring Training, when you've been out shagging flyballs in the outfield for 18 hours and you're completely bored. All you have to talk about is, "Dude, I'm going to beat you in this, this and this."