When his collegiate baseball career began in the spring of 2014, no one seemed to want to give Michael Strem a chance to hit.
It started with his own team. He had arrived in Chestnut Hill hoping to find a steady role as a two-way player, having both pitched and played the infield in high school. He took fielding drills and some batting practice with the position players in the fall and early spring, but spent the majority of his first few months in the bullpen for Boston College.
When he did get a shot to step to the plate, his opponents didn’t let him swing. Teams had no reason to pitch around the blonde, 5-foot-10 kid, who had ‘RHP’ and ‘Fr’ listed next to his name on the roster sheet. But early on, that’s just what happened. In his first plate appearance on Feb. 22, 2014, Strem came in to pinch-hit with two outs in the top of the ninth, his team up 8-0. He saw four-straight balls.
In his next plate appearance five days later, he came in again to pinch-hit, this time in the annual exhibition against the Boston Red Sox. Four more consecutive balls.
“It was weird, my first four plate appearances were all walks, and they were all on four pitches,” Strem said. “I was just like, ‘God, am I ever going to get to swing?’”
He didn’t pick up his first official at-bat for about a month, when he got another pinch-hitting opportunity in the ninth—this time with BC down 8-0 against Wake Forest. Three more balls passed him, but so did the first strike. When the second one came, he took his first career swing, and blasted a shot down the left-field line for his first career hit.
Appropriately enough, it was also his first double—one of many more to come for BC’s ‘Doubles Machine.’
If there’s one thing Mike Gambino seems to love to see in a recruit—besides the positive character aspects exemplified by former player Peter “Sonny” Nictakis and embodied by each new recipient of his No. 8 jersey—it’s flexibility. He has filled the field in the past with high school shortstops, tinkering to bring out new strengths in players he often admires for their athleticism.
Strem falls right in line with that crowd. He had never stepped foot in the outfield before college, occupying the infield with his big bat. During his senior season at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., the native hit .417 with 22 RBIs (and 13 doubles) in 33 games. That was also the year he picked up pitching for his high school team. And he was pretty good at that, too.
He went 11-1 in 14 games with a 1.30 ERA and a strikeout/walk ratio hovering near five. That wasn’t the special part, though. On May 15, 2013, Strem came out feeling good in the first round of the Central Coast Section Division I playoffs. Really, really good.
“Everybody knew it was going on, but nobody wanted to say anything,” said his father, Mark, who was present that day. “Michael is one of those guys who is pretty low-key, that he was excited on the inside … extremely proud, but not over the top.”
It made sense for Strem to pursue this type of dual role on a collegiate level. It isn’t easy—practicing and dedicating all your effort to one aspect of the game is hard enough, let alone trying to fine-tune both major parts at the same time.
But it can be done successfully. Wake Forest’s Will Craig, who won the ACC Player of the Year Award in 2016, hit .379 while picking up nine saves out of the ’pen. Donovan Casey, a RHP/RF, has shown that two-way players can have success at BC, hitting .273 with a 1.17 ERA in an injury-shortened season last year.
That role just wasn’t in the cards for Strem. Before putting him out in the green part of the field, Gambino tried him on the mound four different times. It wasn’t pretty.
Strem went two innings against Santa Clara University during his first appearance in mid-February, giving up four hits but just one run. In his next three outings in early March, he surrendered four runs and six hits in just 1 1/3 innings. On April 1, he made his first start in the outfield, where Gambino had sent him to try out for just one day during BP. It was where he belonged, even if he had never once played a game there.
“I’ve been hitting my whole life, and pitching was kind of new-ish,” Strem said. “[Pitching] was fun. But I’d much rather hit, that’s for sure.”
His main problem on the mound hadn’t been a lack of control, exactly—he gave up just one walk in his outings, and according to Gambino, probably would have settled into a more consistent pitching role had he not proven himself as a such commodity in the field. But some part of Strem, even before he’d started hitting, before he became known as the guy who could find an outfield gap with outstanding ease, already had a connection to two-baggers.
Of the 13 hits that Strem allowed, six went for doubles. He just can’t avoid them.
Strem started playing ball around the age of 3. Like a lot of kids, he was influenced by his father, who never played much himself—Mark Strem’s sport was tennis. But he still taught his son the game, playing catch in the street and giving him extra balls to hit in the backyard.
The younger Strem, having succeeded at the early levels of Little League and Pony Ball, joined a couple travel teams as he grew up. This was one of his favorite parts of baseball growing up. Not just the baseball at that level, but the travel itself. He played for two summer teams for a combined decade, where he got the chance to make quicker trips to Los Angeles and San Diego, but also longer ones to Arizona, Chicago, and Cooperstown, N.Y.
His family often made the treks with him as he boarded the airplanes and learned from an early age how to pass time on road trips—time in the future he would spend competing with fellow baseball and men’s hockey players in Clash of Clans.
“He was very fortunate that both my wife and I like baseball, as does his sister,” Mark said. “So we went as a family everywhere, which was a great thing. They weren’t exactly exotic places, but we were there together as a family, which was the best part of it.”
His most important flight didn’t come until a little later, when he was a high schooler in contact with two college coaches: Gambino and his pitching coach at the time, Scott Friedholm. The West Coast kid had never heard of “Boston College.” All he knew was that it sounded a lot colder than the 65-degree climate he was used to.
He and Mark made the trip out, though. The “great family atmosphere,” as he called it, revealed itself in quick fashion as he toured the campus, met with the coaches, and hung out with some of the players. It didn’t take long for Strem to make up his mind. He committed to BC about a week later.
That didn’t mean the end of his travelling clubs. For the past two summers, he has played for the St. Cloud Rox, a collegiate summer team in the Northwoods League. Based in the Upper Midwestern United States, it’s the biggest and most-attended collegiate summer league, and its top alumni includes Curtis Granderson, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer.
St. Cloud’s head coach, Augie Rodriguez, didn’t start by seeking out Strem. He was merely checking up with college teams, trying to fill out his roster for the summer. He ended up connecting with BC’s then-associate head coach Jim Foster, who gave him Strem’s name. Rodriguez got him to commit just a little after Christmas, at the start of 2015.
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a manager,” Rodriguez said.
Like BC, St. Cloud signed Strem as a pitcher, hoping that a space would open up for him to enter the lineup. Rodriguez warmed him up a few times, where he got a sneak peek at the life on Strem’s fastball, but eventually the spot for the field opened up. Strem filled it the only way he knows how, hitting a solid .262 and leading the team in walks in year one. Though he didn’t take as many bases on balls this past summer, he added seven points onto his average and nine more RBI in 38 fewer plate appearances.
Maybe most significantly, he helped the Rox reach the playoffs two-straight years. Two days after getting a game-winning hit in the 10th, St. Cloud trailed by three runs in the final frame of an elimination game. Strem was the first up, and started the inning off with a single, which led to a game-prolonging rally. St. Cloud’s pitching fell apart two innings later, but no one could deny the game signified Strem’s ability to hit when it counted.
“The clutch hits he got down the stretch, there were just so many games,” Rodriguez said. “When he would round the bases, when he hit a home run or when he got a double, the way he looked into the dugout just created family.”
And yes, he also hit doubles in Minnesota: 11 in year one, and 12 in year two.
“He’s still a ‘Doubles Machine,’ ain’t he?” Rodriguez said, laughing. (He brought up the nickname first in the conversation.) “He had so many doubles at Boston College, and he continued to hit doubles here at St. Cloud.”
I guess I just have the right swing for doubles, or whatever. I don't know. Michael Strem
No one is exactly sure when Strem was first dubbed with the nickname. The general consensus is that it started catching on sometime around the end of his freshman year or very early on in his sophomore season. The first official record on Twitter came from former Heights sports editor Connor Mellas, but he—and a couple other members of the team—say Zanna Ollove, the team’s sports information director, was the first to start it up.
“Even as a freshmen, Michael had a knack for hitting doubles and it was something the coaching staff talked about,” Ollove said in an email. “I wanted to convey that to our fans. I guess the nickname—and hashtag—just stuck.”
@BCBirdBall doubles machine
— Connor Mellas (@ConnorMellas) February 14, 2015
He hasn’t given anyone a reason to stop using it. After that first two-base hit his freshman year, he hit 12 more, making it 13 doubles in 26 games where he had at least one at-bat. If you take out the NCAA requirement for players to appear in 75 percent of their team’s games to qualify for the hitting leaderboards, Strem would have placed first in the country in doubles per game. Had he played in each of the team’s 55 games that year and hit doubles at the same rate, he would have finished with 27.5 doubles. Round up to a clean 28, and that’s more than anyone in the country that year. Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 MLB Draft, tied for first with 27. But that took Swanson 72 games.
That’s another thing about Strem: his durability. Once his performance convinced Gambino he needed to be a regular piece in the lineup, he hasn’t left. Strem was one of just three players to start every game last season, and one of just two the year before.
“I love it,” Strem said. “Your body’s tired, but especially on ACC weekends, you have so much adrenaline … all the pain and soreness just kinda goes away.”
It has also helped him climb Birdball’s record books. He cracked the top-10 in career doubles before the end of last season, sitting sixth with 47. He should have no trouble getting to at least second—with two doubles in the opening weekend against Bethune-Cookman, he needs just four more after that to tie Jason Delaney and former teammate Joe Cronin for second. First place might be more of a reach—Drew Locke bashed a nice 69 from 2002-05—but it’s hardly out of the question.
“There was one point I think he had more doubles than singles,” Gambino said. (Of his 22 hits freshman year, 13 were two-baggers, and he had more doubles than singles for the first three weeks of 2015, too.) “It felt like every time he got up, everything he hit was in the gap.”
How exactly does Strem bash the doubles, anyway? His summer coach has one idea.
“Just a beautiful inside-out swing, he goes with the pitch,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s outside, he goes with it, he doesn’t try to pull everything.”
And his spring coach another.
“Hit ’em where they ain’t,” Gambino said. “He’s a good hitter … he’s just one of those guys who has a really good feel for the barrel. And he hits the ball in the middle of the field a lot … guys make their living between those two gaps.”
And Strem himself?
“I guess I just have the right swing for hitting doubles, or whatever. I don’t know,” he said, genuinely modest. “Just swing hard and hope you hit it into a gap.”
Strem has always been a winner. His school teams and travel teams were always successful, and he was always a big part of the reason why. A high school senior with that type of background might pause at the sight of their future team going 12-40, as BC baseball did in 2013. Not Strem, who knew full-well that he was joining a team undergoing more than a facelift.
“One of the things that Michael liked [about BC] was the idea of building a program, and being a part of that building process,” Mark said. “It’s worked out for him.”
Since Strem joined the team, BC has improved by at least five wins each season, culminating in a 35-22 year in which the Eagles earned a trip to the NCAA tournament and reached a Super Regional, BC’s best finish since 1967. He and his teammates have a hundred great different memories from that spring and early summer, but none greater for him than watching the tournament selection show with his teammates. The Eagles were the very last team to be named on the show, a moment that could not have been scripted with more Hollywood-level drama.
Birdball faces new challenges this year. Besides the couple seniors that graduated, the team lost its top-two starters and catcher. This season, sophomore Gian Martellini and freshman Aaron Soucy will settle in behind the plate where Nick Sciortino once squatted. But replacing Justin Dunn and King—both aces, who helped BC’s staff be one of the more dominant rotations in the ACC—is a bigger task. Sophomore Jacob Stevens, the third member of last year’s trio, should hold his own in the Friday night role, but the two weekend days could be rockier territory on the mound.
In other words, for BC to repeat its tournament run, it will look for its position players to pick up some slack.
The defense is covered. The duo of Adams and Jake Palomaki up the middle is one of the surest in the ACC, while Gambino acknowledged the outfield may be one of the strongest he has assembled in a while. Freshman Dante Baldelli, who (for once) is actually a natural outfielder, will likely man center more and more as he gets comfortable at the plate. He will be flanked on either side by Strem—who Gambino approached before the season, and had no issue moving over if needed—and Casey, two position players with arms strong enough to pitch and an underrated amount of speed.
That just leaves the bats. Hitting, overall, was probably the Eagles’ biggest weakness last season. The team finished third-to-last in the ACC in nearly every offensive category besides home runs (dead last) and stolen bases (third overall). It wasn’t a slugging team—it was a squad that manufactured just enough runs to win, going 12-3 overall and 7-3 in the ACC in one-run games, both conference-bests.
This year’s lineup hasn’t changed too much. Palomaki will still lead off, Adams will still float around the top, and Strem and Casey will once again serve as the heart. Though he obviously never put up the numbers to get Chris Shaw-esque attention, Strem has proven his spot there. He hit .296 in 2015 and a team-leading .301 in 2016. He had 28 RBI in 2015 and 32 in 2016, while scoring 30 runs both years. Besides walks, which dipped slightly, the only statistic where Strem really dropped in was doubles. But unlike Adams, who at times has slumped, and Casey, who has missed games for injury, Strem has been as steady as can be, entering 86 percent of games in the past two years with an average of at least .290, and never letting that mark dip below .270 after February.
“Mike is just consistent, I don’t even know how to explain it [any better],” Rodriguez said.
It’s that consistency, game after game, that almost makes Strem overlooked. He doesn’t have the flashy power numbers of Shaw, or the heater of Dunn. He has his doubles, but other than that he just shows up and does everything well.
“People since the beginning of sports, people follow people who succeed the most, who do everything right,” Hoggarth said. “He’s one of those people that you want to surround yourself around, because he’ll make you better … you know if you’re around him, you’re going to be alright.”
Both of Strem’s recent coaches believe he’ll have a chance to play professional baseball, be it on the mound or at the plate—Gambino says he would feel comfortable putting him just about anywhere except catcher. Strem hasn’t quite gotten that far yet.
There’s still the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla. next week, where he’ll have the chance to grab dinner with Hoggarth, who lives in the Sunshine State. There’s still “unfinished business” with Miami, who will makes its first trip to Shea Field since 2013 at the perfect time. And there’s another set of playoffs to make, the now-annual goal for Birdball since it proved it could play with the big boys.
Strem was exactly the type of foundation that BC baseball needed to build on and get to that point. Now it’ll need him more than ever to lead the way back. Fortunately for his team, he’s probably already halfway to home.
Featured Image by Kristen Saleski / Heights Staff
Images by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor and John Quackenbos / BC Athletics