Tuesday afternoon in Buffalo Marcus Stroman did something he hadn’t done in nearly a month. He did what his organization had told him to do, he did what most scouts who see him pitch think he should be doing and, most importantly, he did what he believes he was born to do. He started a ballgame.
This is the way it’s supposed to be. Marcus Stroman is a starter. Not a reliever, not a closer, not a longman—a starter. Ever since he reached double-A, the Toronto Blue Jays have asked Stroman to run through an extensive checklist designed to turn him into a rotation arm, a series of assignments he’s aced every step of the way. He focused on refining a changeup; he studied pitch selection and learned how to set hitters up; he worked on being more economical, attacking with his fastball or cutter when he was ahead instead of trying to backdoor a slider as he liked to do when he was in college trying to make batters look silly.
He’s done it all and he’s done it well, producing tremendous minor league numbers that stand in evidence of his effort. (3.30 ERA and 10.40 K/9 in 2013 at double-A; 1.69 ERA and 12.15 K/9 in 2014 at triple-A)
So when Stroman’s first big league call-up came earlier this month to pitch out of the bullpen it was a curious decision. Relievers pitch very differently from starters, relying on just two or three pitches instead of the five that Stroman was used to featuring. The 23-year-old looked out of sorts pitching in relief, unsure how to attack hitters without the use all of his weapons. “I didn’t know what pitches to go to,” Stroman said. “I was pitching like a starter out of the bullpen.”
Stroman was eventually returned to triple-A to get stretched out as a starter again, but it remains ambiguous why the Blue Jays would have disrupted his development in the first place. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was on Brady and Walker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Tuesday morning and said Toronto’s late-game woes forced the team’s hand.
“We clearly had a major need in the bullpen. We’d continuously blown saves,” Anthopoulos said. “The other thing is it’s always preferable, if you can, to break a guy in out of the bullpen.”
The logic behind that second bit, according to Anthopoulos, is that when you have a young pitcher begin his major league career pitching in relief you can better control his usage, inserting him in ideal situations and removing him quickly if he’s having a rough outing.
Which is fine. But what Anthopoulos preached on Tuesday certainly hasn’t been the practice of his franchise over the last five seasons. Since 2009 almost all Blue Jays pitching prospects considered future rotation members have begun their major league careers with a start, not in the bullpen. That includes Mark Rzepczynski, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez, Zach Stewart, Drew Hutchison and Sean Nolin.
Now, considering that group’s cumulative success as major league starters, maybe the Blue Jays are right to change strategy. And maybe it isn’t fair to dig too deeply into what amounts to nothing more than positive spin from an unfailingly optimistic general manager on a morning radio show. But it’s still hard to justify how the Blue Jays have handled Stroman. This is one of the best prospects in baseball (Baseball Prospectus ranks Stroman 27th; MLB.com has him 49th; Baseball America says 55th) and the closest thing the Blue Jays have to a major league ready impact rotation arm in their system. His makeup is off the charts and anyone who’s met him knows he’s not the kind of guy who rattles easily. Setting his progress back a month just for the sake of some relief innings and the wetting of feet seems unnecessary.
Back in Buffalo, Stroman’s five-inning, five-hit, three-run line Tuesday night looks unimpressive. But the box score rarely tells the story. He was hurt just once during his afternoon, on a 2-0 pitch that bled over the plate up in the zone and was launched over the wall in left-centre. Stroman said after the game he didn’t even feel it was a bad pitch—it just got tagged.
Otherwise, Stroman was his usual effective self, attacking the zone and throwing first pitch strikes to 14 of the 20 batters he faced, striking out a quarter of them. Working on a strict 70-pitch limit, he used just 18 to get through the first three innings and left after the fifth having thrown just 64. If you know Stroman, you know he definitely felt he could’ve come back out for the sixth. He was probably thinking complete game.
Stroman said after his outing that he felt he was up in the zone too often, which is something he’d like to avoid, considering his height. You’ve heard the narrative before. Short pitcher; no downward plane; pitches up become fly balls; fly balls hit hard become home runs. But if Stroman’s going to be successful in the majors, he’ll have to pitch up in the zone at some point. There’s no way around it. He has to operate low predominantly, but if he exclusively throws pitches in the bottom half, hitters can key on what he’s throwing. They’ll know what’s coming.
Using the upper half on occasion is advice Pedro Martinez gave Stroman when he was 22 and in his first season of starting at double-A New Hampshire. Martinez was working with Boston’s double-A affiliate in Portland and saw the worst outing of Stroman’s career, a one-inning, seven-run disaster in his third-ever professional start.
Stroman was embarrassed when he found out Martinez had seen it because he grew up idolizing the undersized Expos and Red Sox star. But when Stroman worked up the nerve to introduce himself the next day and ask for an autograph, Martinez told him he thought Stroman’s stuff looked great, it was just getting hit. Martinez told Stroman he had to pitch inside more often to get batters off the plate and to work the occasional pitch in the upper half of the zone to change their eye level. They talked for 30 minutes and as soon as the conversation ended Stroman sprinted to the clubhouse and wrote down everything Martinez had told him. He still looks at those notes before every start.
There’s a key word in that sentence: start. It’s what Stroman should be doing. He can’t return from the minors (unless there’s an injury) until May 29, which just so happens to be the next time the Blue Jays need a fifth starter following this Saturday’s game against Oakland, which is expected to be given to Liam Hendriks. Unless Hendriks is otherworldly against the Athletics, there will be plenty of reasons to give Stroman that start. This is what he's meant to do.
Read Arden Zwelling's in-depth profile of Marcus Stroman and his journey from Long Island, N.Y. to the majors in the current issue of Sportsnet Magazine.