Kevin Gausman, Kyle Zimmer, Mark Appel, Andrew Heaney, Michael Wacha, Chris Stratton. The list of college pitchers chosen before Marcus Stroman went 22nd overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, and the fellow draftees who he will inevitably be compared to for years to come.
Stroman’s size is the obvious thing separating himself, but it’s his polished pitching mentality and approach that’s making him a rarity.
Stroman’s size is well documented, standing at 5’9, much shorter than his fellow 2012 draftees, with all of them standing 6’2 or taller. Going into the draft he was regarded as the player who could possibly be on an MLB franchise first due to his ability as a relief pitcher, but along with that ability came questions if he could stick in the rotation.
He slipped in the draft slightly (ranked 10th by mlb.com and Baseball America pre-draft) and started out his career as a reliever. He pitched in 15 games out of the pen between short season A ball in Vancouver and AA New Hampshire, putting up some decent numbers, but the small sample size and the 50 game suspension he received before the year was over didn’t gain him any notoriety.
A pitcher with the rare size of Stroman already had question marks, and the 50 game suspension didn’t help.
He responded by putting up a fantastic season at AA New Hampshire, going 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 10.40 K/9, 2.18 BB/9, 1.128 WHIP. The only real struggle he faced was with the long ball, as evidence by his pedestrian 1.05 HR/9, but outside of that he was dominant, and starting gaining recognition as a legit starting pitching prospect.
He still had his doubters questioning if he could be a successful starter, citing he’d be far more effective out of the pen, but as Jays fans have seen, he’s proven those doubters wrong.
His size and ability to overcome challenges on his march to majors makes sets him apart from his fellow draftees and many other young pitchers trying to get to the MLB, but it’s what he’s done at the major league level this season that truly sets him apart.
His numbers as a starter are ridiculous: 6-2, 2.12 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 8.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.94 K/BB. As a prospect, his stuff was undeniable. Mid 90’s heater, wipeout slider, plus cutter, but what we’ve been witnessing is advanced approach to pitching that’s well beyond his years.
His repertoire is deep and diverse, with an ability to throw both his cutter and two-seam to both sides of the plate. Two different breaking balls, both of which are devastating strikeout weapons, offer hitters something else to think about, and he mixes in a developing change.
Since he developed his two-seam, he throws all six of his pitches to both righties and lefties throughout the entirety of the game, with exception to his changeup, which he primarily throws to lefties.
His in game adjustments are clear. He rebounds from walks, keeps the ball down when he needs to, attacks hitters, doesn’t compound problems, and stays cool under pressure. This is something that Drew Hutchison is struggling to do. The in game adjustments he fails to make with both his repertoire and composure has been clear, and struggles have followed. That sort of thing is common in young pitchers, which makes Stroman’s ability to avoid that so far very encouraging.
His start-to-start adjustments are terrific. This is evidenced by the recent addition of his aformetioned two-seam fastball, which Brooks Baseball describes as a sinker, but nonetheless, it’s effective. He added it on July 19th in his scoreless start in Texas, and threw it 5.61% of the time compared to 39.25% four-seam use, and it’s increased every start. It went up to 18.56% on the 24th, and 26.96% on the 29th, which was more than his 20.00% four-seam use. He’s allowed only one run since he started throwing it.
The ability to pick up a pitch mid-season and throw it effectively with confidence is a great sign, especially from a 23-year-old rookie. The two-seam has the ability to induce groundballs, and he’s been using it as a front door weapon to lefties, offering another dynamic pitch to his already varied mix of pitches.
This advanced feel for pitching is most likely a main reason why he made it to the majors at the age of 23, and it’s definitely part of the reason why he’s been able to transition to the majors with ease, which some of his counterparts haven’t been able to accomplish. Gausman and Heaney have struggled with the jump to the majors, Appel has been all over the place, Stratton is still in AA, and Zimmer hasn’t pitched this year due to injuries. The only other arm with major league success is Wacha.
Wacha, as a 22-year-old, had quite the start to his career. He pitched in pressure packed games and dominated, especially in the playoffs, which is of course highly admirable in a young pitcher. Stroman, as a year older, has been better a starting pitcher during the regular season, but it’s difficult to compare the two until Stroman gets some playoff experience because of Wacha’s success on that stage.
An example of a pitcher who will have to develop this feel for pitching is the Jays own Aaron Sanchez. Stuff is clearly electric, but his pitch repertoire, ability to stay ahead, mixing speeds and locations, and his aptitude to make adjustments will define make him a successful big league starting pitcher.
Something else Stroman has been able to do that suggests he’s well beyond his years, is his ability to step up in big situations. Baseball Reference’s Leverage Index separates situations into high, medium and low leverage. Simply put, high leverage situations are times in a game where the chances of the outcome being affected are high, such as bases loaded, two out in a one run ball game. Low leverage is the opposite, and medium is somewhere in the middle. I find the equation confusing and it would be worthless for me to try and explain, so click the link if you’d like details.
In low leverage situations he’s put up an opposing .248/.303/.372/.675 with an 18.9% strikeout rate and a 6.1 walk rate through 132 PA’s. In medium leverage that improves to .233/.286/.319/.605 with a 20.6% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate through 126 PA’s. High leverage he surrenders a .200/.200/.375/.575 with a 40% strikeout rate and a 0% walk rate through 40 PA’s.
Sure, the high leverage category has a much smaller sample size and could bloat with two or three hits, but the K% spike is great to see. It shows he can bare down and use his electric stuff when he needs a big strikeout.
Something else young pitchers often struggle with – getting through the lineup multiple times. Hasn’t been a problem for Stroman thus far.
Whether you believe in clutch players or not, this is phenomenal.
Leadoff hitters a problem? Not for Marcus.
His Baseball Reference splits page is good news after good news. Of course these all look great because he’s having tremendous success and they could inflate with a bad start or two, but seeing a rookie, who’s had questions about him since he’s was drafted, being successful in areas that young arms often have a hard time with very encouraging.
His physical characteristics are unquestionably rare in a pitcher, but it’s how he’s attacking hitters, inducing contact when he needs to, going for strikeouts when he needs to, mixing pitches, mixing speeds, keeping guys off balance, throwing any pitch in any count, throwing a multitude of fastballs to both sides of the plate, and making crucial adjustments that sets him apart from fellow young starters trying to crack the MLB.
There will always be questions about his durability and if he can throw 200 innings year after year, but every other question about him he’s dismantled and proved doubters wrong. Who knows if he’s going to break down or if hitters are going to catch up to him, just enjoy what he’s doing right now.
Blending youthful exuberance and confidence, nasty stuff, and an advanced feel for pitching, were watching something special in Marcus Stroman. Let’s hope we see him throw in October for years to come.