TORONTO — When Marcus Stroman takes the mound at Rogers Centre on opening day — and, make no mistake, he’s the guy — it’ll be the beginning of a lot of things. A fresh Toronto Blue Jays season, for starters. A new, more demanding era for MLB pitchers that will likely include a pitch clock and restrictions on mound visits. And it’ll be the first of 32 or so opportunities Stroman will have in 2018 — health willing — to pursue an awfully ambitious goal he’s set for himself.
“I want to become one of the top two, three, four, five pitchers in the game. I want to be the best,” Stroman said Saturday, as he took part in Blue Jays Winter Fest. “And I think I will be one of the top, best pitchers in the game within the next few years. One hundred percent. There’s not a single doubt in my head.”
The prerequisites for being elite, for being among the class Stroman’s referring to, are far from clear. There’s no unequivocal test one can pass. No agreed-upon statistical parameters. Whether you think a pitcher is among the best in the game or not is purely subjective — it’s all up to you.
There are people in this world — some even employed to talk about sports on television — who will argue against the greatness of LeBron James, perhaps the most impressive athlete of his generation. There are baseball hall-of-fame voters who, when they filed their ballots this December, did not place a check mark next to the names Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, two slam-dunk cases. As humans, we’ll never fully agree on anything. There’s just too many of us. And the haters, they tend to hate.
So, look, some will disagree. But there are a lot of reasons to think Stroman isn’t just striving to be a top pitcher in baseball this season — he’s already there. Two of the people who watch him the closest, Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin and manager John Gibbons, certainly think so.
“I feel like he already is, to be honest,” Martin said, when asked how close he thinks Stroman is to being an elite pitcher in the game. “The ceiling for that guy is super high.”
“Yeah, I think he is already,” Gibbons agreed. “He has that ability. He has that desire.”
And the numbers are in his favour. One of only 15 pitchers to throw north of 200 innings last season, Stroman posted a 3.09 ERA (fourth-best among qualified AL starters), 3.4 wins above replacement (eighth-best) and a 62 per cent groundball rate, second only to Dallas Keuchel among major-league starters.
That willingness to pitch to contact and trust the defence behind him helps explain why his strikeout rate (he’s put up a 7.3 K/9 over the last two seasons) doesn’t jump off the page, and his FIP (3.90) and xFIP (3.58) aren’t quite as impressive as his ERA. If Stroman wasn’t pitching in front of capable defenders, his numbers would likely not be as strong. But he is, so they are. And it’s hard to fault a guy for being doggedly efficient, averaging only 3.76 pitches per plate appearance and 15.6 pitches per inning, the fifth-lowest rates in the AL.
If there’s a legitimate criticism to cite against Stroman’s game, it’s that his walk rate has trended upwards every season since his major-league debut, hitting 7.4 percent in 2017. A walk isn’t the most damaging result for a pitcher, but it is a free trip to first base for a hitter. It’s what happens next that matters. Pitch often enough with men on base, and you’re bound to get burned by some bad home run luck.
But a pitcher like Stroman, who throws a sinker nearly 60 per cent of the time, can limit that danger by working consistently down in the zone. While throwing more than 400 innings over the last two seasons, Stroman’s kept his HR/9 below one, right in line with two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.
That’s why, for all the baserunners he allows, a very low amount score. Stroman left more than 78 per cent of his baserunners stranded in 2017, the seventh-highest rate among AL starters. That may also be why Stroman says he wants to strike more batters out in 2018. Allow fewer balls in play and baserunners have less chance of scoring.
“A couple things. Just being better. Striking guys out more when I need it,” Stroman said when asked what he’d like to improve on in 2018. “Just a few little things. I feel really good with where I’m at. I know that I still have room to grow. I know that my potential hasn’t been reached yet. And I know that I’m just starting to tap into it.”
Of course, Stroman’s going to have his rough starts — all pitchers do. But what separates the best pitchers in the game is their ability to bounce back, and to not let one rough outing become two. That’s exactly what Stroman did in 2017, allowing two earned runs or less in 23 of his 33 starts, and three or less in 26.
After giving up 11 hits and six runs against the Red Sox in April, he came back and pitched a complete game victory against the Angels in his next start. After getting tagged for seven runs by Texas in June, he followed up with a 7.2 inning shutout against Baltimore. After five earned against Tampa in August — one earned against the Red Sox five days later.
“I think it’s just his mentality. He’s the kind of guy who wants to be great. And that’s the key. You have to want it. And I don’t think everybody does,” Martin said. “He has that fire, that hunger. He’s just an ultimate competitor. He keeps his body in shape. He always strives to be better, always wants to get better. That’s the kind of attitude that the great ones have.”
It’s also hard to be one of the game’s best pitchers if you aren’t, you know, pitching. And with the ever-increasing demands of today’s game, the sheer speed and pace it’s played at, pitchers get hurt a lot. And Stroman is no exception. He’ll pick up all kinds of knocks throughout the season. His body will feel a lot different in September than it did in March. But as it stands today, he hasn’t missed a start in over two years. And in 2017, he had plenty of reason to take a breather if he wanted it.
He was forced from a game in early July with blister issues, an especially troubling development for a pitcher like Stroman, who applies significant friction to the ball to create the sharp, downward movement that makes his primary pitch, a two-seamer, effective. But he was back on the mound later that week, spinning seven innings of one-run ball against the Houston Astros, a team that eventually won the World Series.
Then, two months later, he came out of a game in Baltimore after taking a 108-mph comebacker off his pitching arm. You have no idea how much that hurts. But Stroman didn’t miss a start. Even in September, with Stroman banged up and the Blue Jays’ season done and dusted, he made a team-high six starts, posting an ERA below three over 30.1 innings at the end of a long, demanding year that started with him winning MVP at the World Baseball Classic.
This is why, when people want to be critical of Stroman, they target accessories to his play — his attitude, his demeanour, his cockiness, his use of social media, his disputes with umpires and opponents over his constantly changing delivery. (By the way, there’s more varied deliveries to come: “I’ve got a lot more tricks in store — a lot more,” Stroman said. “Guys are going to get upset with me — for sure.”)
That’s because it’s really hard to take legitimate issue with his performance. When it comes to what he does on the mound — what actually impacts wins and losses — he’s already among the best pitchers in the game.
“I think he’s turning into one of the better pitchers in baseball — you can’t deny that,” Gibbons said. “Regardless of what you think about his antics or whatever people complain about. We’re counting on him. He’s a guy you lean on. And all I’ve ever known since he’s been here is in big games, he shows up. That’s all I know. And that’s all I care about.”