PITTSBURGH — Hunter Stratton had basically given up on the idea of ever pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 26-year-old right-hander was spending his third straight season at Triple-A Indianapolis. He was never really considered a prospect by anyone inside or outside the Pirates’ organization.
Stratton was what was known as an “organizational player,” in baseball’s player development language. It’s a nice way of saying a guy was just filling out a roster.
“Honestly, I didn’t believe it was going to happen,” Stratton said of getting promoted.
Until it did.
The Pirates selected Stratton’s contract from Indy prior to Monday night’s 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. A fresh arm was needed in an overworked bullpen, so Stratton got called up.
“You dream of it your whole life and now that it’s finally true you just can’t believe it,” Stratton said before the game.
Stratton did not get into Monday night’s game as manager Derek Shelton went with his three best relievers to close out the win for rookie starter Luis Ortiz. Carmen Mlodzinski pitched a scoreless seventh, Colin Holdermen had three-up, three-down eighth and David Bednar worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 32nd save.
A month ago, Stratton’s mindset was just to finish the season on a good note at Indianapolis. Had he not been placed on the 40-man roster, Stratton would have been eligible for minor-league free agency at the end of the season.
“So, I was just trying to fight for free agency, really,” Stratton said. “Just go out swinging.”
An odd thing happened, though. Once Stratton quit thinking about ever making it to the major leagues with the Pirates, he started putting himself in a position to get a promotion.
Stratton allowed only one unearned run in 13.1 innings over 12 relief appearances since Aug. 1. He held opponents to a .070 batting average in that stretch and had a 0.60 WHIP.
“I think in August, I fixed my mental side of it and my attack play,” Stratton said. “I’m going to stick right there and stay on the attack. Try to push them all down.”
General manager Ben Cherington and Shelton noticed.
“I think it speaks to his determination and his willingness to continue to grind and try different things and do different things,” Shelton said. “I can imagine spending 2.5 years in Triple-A, you feel like maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. But if you continue to perform, you’re going to put yourself in a position to be in the big leagues, and that’s where he’s at.”
The Pirates drafted Stratton in the 16th round in 2017 from Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn.
That is not exactly a profile of a player on the fast track to the big leagues. However, Stratton kept hanging around and finally got his promotion, which sends a strong signal to every player in the Pirates’ farm system that you don’t necessarily have to be on Baseball America’s top 30 prospects list to make it to the bigs.
“This is an organizational win,” Shelton said. “This is not only an organizational win, because of the fact the organization has stuck with a guy and developed a guy, but this is also a win for Stratt because of the fact that he did stay with it. So, I do think that is important for us organizationally to be able to reward when guys have done that.”
It also makes for a heartwarming story, though Stratton had a practical reason for continuing his career when he looked like he was at a dead end.
“I still got an associate’s degree, I haven’t gone back to school yet,” Stratton said. “Dreadin’ it.”
That should give Stratton plenty of motivation to stay in the major leagues.