2018 was a season to forget for Marcus Stroman, but a closer look into the year that was paints a completely different story on the struggles of the team’s former Opening Day starter.
Would you call me crazy if I told you that Marcus Stroman wasn’t that bad last year?
I mean, let’s think about this logically. Why should you think otherwise?
This is my first article here at Jays Journal, and there’s a big chance that you don’t really know who I am, nor had any idea that I even exist. Then, next thing you know, I barge into your lives – uninvited – and my name is slapped in bold (I think it’ll be in bold, but then again, this is my first go-round) onto your computer or smartphone screen with the hope of absolving Marcus Stroman of his 2018 season.
Yup, I’m talking about the season in which he boasted a not-so-impressive 4-9 record with a 5.54 ERA. Of the 140 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings, Stroman’s ERA comes in at a rather disappointing eighth worst in baseball.
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So that’s the bad.
But here’s the thing with baseball statistics.
A lot of the most commonly used stats that show up on the back of a baseball card – ERA, win/loss records, saves, RBIs, batting average – are some of the worst stats in terms of evaluating the big picture and analyzing what exactly the player did on the field.
In other words, they suck.
Back in 2006, Gustavo Chacin (the dude with the cologne) had a 9-4 record, but a FIP well over 6.00. Joe Carter‘s high home run and RBI totals overshadowed the fact that his OBP was consistently around .300 because he was just not a very good hitter, and in fact his WAR would suggest he shouldn’t have even been in the lineup as often as he was. Russell Martin‘s ability to frame runs (7.3 runs saved in 2018, which ranks him 17th among 117 eligible catchers as per baseball prospectus) and ability to get on base gave reason to keep Martin’s bat in the lineup despite his inability to hit a beach ball.
But specifically in Chacin’s case, and to get back to pitching, the Jays bats came alive to make the Venezuelan lefty look better than he actually was, depending on how much you value pitcher wins of course. The story of the 2018 Blue Jays was quite different, and as much as they didn’t help Stroman out with the bats, they failed to show up where it really mattered for a pitcher like Stroman – the defensive side of the ball.
Now, like I said, I can’t stand the age-old baseball stats that literally fail to paint the whole picture of what happens on the diamond – pitching stats that pit everything on the pitcher when there are seven other dudes wearing the same exact jersey standing around behind him for an entire game.
When you hear commentators say the pitcher looked better than his stat line, well, that is exactly what I’m getting into.
So, let’s try to understand why Stroman looked so good in 2017, but failed to come remotely close to the same bravado the following year.
To begin, let’s throw ERA out the window and find a rate statistic that takes as much noise out of ERA as possible. By noise, I mean focusing more on what the pitcher can actually control and less on everything that balloons his ERA – from poor defence, to him standing on the edge of the dugout watching another pitcher trying to dig him out of his own self-created hole.
Fielding independent performance (FIP) looks purely at what a pitcher can control, being walks, strikeouts and home runs, taking everything else out of the hands of his defence. Think of it this way, a good ERA is a good FIP and a FIP of around 3.8-3.90 is considered above average, while a FIP of 4.20 was considered average – as per Fangraphs. In 2018, Stroman’s FIP was 3.91, closing in the above-average range.
Now, while it may be weird for many to imagine anything to be above average from Stroman’s 2018 campaign, let’s dive in a little bit deeper.
As a predominantly sinker-slider pitcher, Marcus Stroman can be classified as a ground ball specialist as evident by his 62.1% ground ball rate last season – ranking him first among all pitchers with at least 100 innings under their belt. Ironically enough, Clayton Richard is second on the list. With a high ground ball rate, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. In the Blue Jays’ case, that put a lot of pressure on one of the worst defenses in baseball.
We’re also going to establish once and for all that errors and fielding percentage are dumb.
Fielding percentage doesn’t consider a fielder’s range, while defining what is and isn’t and error is a very subjective way of view the game of baseball. That being said, defensive runs saved (dRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) are two advanced statistics that aim to quantify the effects of fielders compared to the league average player (0). Above average suggests a player has saved his team a positive ‘x’ amount of runs, below averages, well you can put two and two together.
As a team, the 2018 Blue Jays ranked 29th in both dRS (-100) and UZR (-47.6).
Enter BABIP, a stat that that looks at the batting average of all balls hit in play, separating the performance of the pitcher from the defense, and of course, the twist of fate known as luck. A .326 BABIP against is a number that ranked Stroman in the top-10 that no pitcher wants to be a part of.
Bad luck, poor defense, and a lot of balls in plays can lead to some really ugly box score numbers that plagued Stroman’s 2018 season, and made the majority of the Blue Jays fan base turn their back on a 27 year old pitcher who isn’t set to enter free agency until after the 2020 season.
But see, this is the beauty of numbers.
For the most part, everything in baseball can be explained today and by no means am I here to say that Stroman pitched like an ace or a solid top of the rotation arm. However, to assume he was as bad as the conception of his 2018 season is blatantly untrue.
At the end of the day Stroman is going to be what he’s always been. A pitcher who consistently keeps the ball down, forcing a high ground ball rate, and as every other ground ball pitcher, he will post high home run-to-fly ball ratios, which shouldn’t really scare anyone off. Ground ball specialists try to keep the ball down, but once the two-seamer flattens out or the slider hangs over the plate, it gets hit hard, and of the small chunk of fly balls that ground ball pitchers allow, many of them will end up in the bleachers.
Sinker-slider guys are a dying breed in today’s MLB with the resurgence of the four-seam fastball and a greater emphasis on spin rate. You don’t really see many Mike Sorokas or Zach Brittons walking around anymore, but with a good defense, especially in the infield, there is very little reason to believe Stroman cannot revert back to his 2017 form and become a very viable starting pitcher in baseball.
With Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Brandon Drury, and Devon Travis (UZR of – 8.5 runs below average in 2018) very much in the 2019 infield picture, it will be difficult for Stroman to silence his doubters. However, knowing Stroman the way most Blue Jays fans do, we should know that a challenge is something that the Stro-Show doesn’t shy away from.