Chris Stratton goes slightly unnoticed amongst the group of San Francisco Giants former first-round selections at big-league camp. There are nine to be exact, including a National League MVP, a two-time Cy Young winner, and a recent postseason legend. Then there is the organization's No. 1-ranked prospect and a perfect-game thrower. It's easy to be overlooked.
But the former Mississippi State Bulldog was thrilled to have received his first non-roster invite to Spring Training, and is enjoying the simple nature of co-existing amongst talented and wise teammates.
"It's unreal, to be honest with you," he said. "It's been a long journey trying to get here. Just being around these guys, they've been more than welcoming. I know I'm not up here yet but they've made me feel like I'm part of the team."
Like a lot of newcomers, Stratton was drawn to the intensity and wisdom of a southeast native like himself — Jake Peavy.
"I think [Jake] Peavy is the guy I talk to most," Stratton said. "Cy Young winner, 13 years, he's had a lot of experience.
"Little things," Stratton said when asked about what drew him to Peavy." We're in a group doing some kind of fundamental and he speaks out and says, 'Guys make sure you do this.' He's been through the fire and the flames and understands how it works and how little things really matter."
Drafted 13 years after Peavy, Stratton has fallen a bit in the prospect ranks, mostly due to a lackluster 2014 season split between San Jose and Richmond. Minor league hitters haven't had a problem making contact off Stratton, and his opposing batting average has risen each year since 2012, reaching a high of .278 in 2014. And once Stratton reached Richmond, he averaged 11.3 hits and 4.7 seven walks per nine innings over five starts.
But Stratton is looking at the positives from last season, and trusting in the faith the front office has put in him.
"I personally didn't think I had that great of a year, but then talking with some of the front office guys, they said, 'We're happy with what you're doing there,'" he said. "I had no idea I was going to get moved up to Double-A so that was kind of a surprise to me. Just them having some faith in me. It always feels good."
Giants Vice President and Assistant General Manager Bobby Evans was one of those front office members handing him high praise. He was quick to recall a 2012 incident in Salem-Keizer when Stratton was struck in the head with a line drive, and because of it, Evans says considering the setback, Stratton has progressed just as they had hoped.
"We noted that but we didn't read too much into it," Evans said of the injury. "We've seen him get stronger and stronger and he looks even better this spring. The kid that we drafted has come back to us from whatever that injury took away."
The transition from Advanced-A ball to Double-A has been notoriously difficult for players, especially Giants pitching prospects. Stratton says he's no exception.
"I've talked to other people and they say that's the biggest jump they've had to make," he said. "You've got veteran guys who have been in Double-A for a while. You face 30-year-olds.
"I think I learned the most once I got to Double-A. You have to learn real quick, like where you're locating your pitches. The hitters will let you know what you're doing. The zone got a little smaller, and it wasn't significantly smaller but just enough that you don't get that little bit off the plate that you usually do. You have to go after hitters and force contact instead of trying to strike people out."
Stratton says the potentially shrinking strike zone could change the way he and others think about pitching. In short? Remember how important all four quadrants of the strike zone are.
Stratton sits at 6'3" and attacks hitters with both a four and two-seam fastball, changeup, slider, and curveball. Having once not featured the two-seamer, Stratton used to rely heavily on elevating his four-seam. Since developing the second fastball, his focus has shifted.
"For the past four years, I've been focusing on getting the ball down," he said. "I've just been focusing on getting it down so much and then I get here and I'm talking to Peavy and [Buster] Posey and they tell me 'don't forget about up in the zone'."
Stratton will likely begin the 2015 season back in Richmond, but should see time in Sacramento before season's end.
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