CLEARWATER, Fla. — At this time last year, Marcus Stroman was scheduled to start on opening day for the Blue Jays, kicking off his first full season in the majors before family and friends in his home state of New York.
He didn’t make that start. Drew Hutchison did, throwing six innings of one-run ball in a 6-1 Toronto Blue Jays victory, as Stroman recovered from ACL surgery thousands of miles away. Their careers have gone in very different directions since.
Stroman is now Toronto’s ace, completely over the knee injury that derailed his 2015 season and once again scheduled to start on opening day. Hutchison is now fighting to make the team, competing for the lone opening in Toronto’s rotation after an incredibly erratic 2015.
And it’s with that in mind that both men took the ball Tuesday afternoon in Clearwater for their team’s Grapefruit League opener, a 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Stroman used his two innings to test some new methods he hopes to utilize on the mound this season. Hutchison used his two to prove that he belongs there at all.
We’ll start with Stroman. After his improbable comeback last year, the 24-year-old spent his off-season working out with the same Duke University physical therapists who helped him return to competition less than six months after surgery. The goal was to build the endurance and durability to withstand a 200-inning workload, and after facing his first batters of the year, Stroman says all the time in the gym is paying off.
“My body felt unreal. My knee felt great,” Stroman said. “My body’s in good position to go out there every fifth day. Now I can just get my work in.”
In all, Stroman threw 33 pitches, 23 of them for strikes, flashing all six of his pitches with his fastball sitting at 93 m.p.h. and touching 94 at times. He struck out his first batter on three pitches and then retired the next four as he cruised through the Phillies’ batting order.
But he ran into trouble with two out in the second inning. After former Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia looped a soft single into centre field, Cesar Hernandez sent a dribbler down the third base line which Stroman fielded and threw well past first base, allowing Arencibia to move to third on the error. Hernandez then stole second before Carlos Ruiz lined the only well-struck ball of the afternoon off Stroman into centre to score both runners.
“I wanted to face a little adversity today; get guys on, have to pitch like I did with guys on the corners, being able to work from the stretch, working on my tempo,” Stroman said. “I pretty much got to all of my pitches. I’m still working on some but I had a pretty good feel for them all. It was a pretty good mix that me and [catcher Josh] Thole got going. It felt great.”
Stroman said his two-seamer was especially effective on Tuesday, but that he had trouble locating his off-speed pitches down in the zone when he got ahead in counts. He’ll focus on that in his next bullpen.
His primary focus so far this spring has been tempo on the mound and fluctuating the amount of time he holds the ball with runners on in order to hinder base stealers. He varied his delivery at times during Tuesday afternoon’s game, utilizing a few different leg strides and even sneaking in what looked like a quick pitch to one of his nine batters.
It wasn’t quite a Johnny Cueto tribute performance, but it was certainly a different look for Stroman, who’s generally pitched with the same delivery throughout his brief major league career. After the game, the right-hander was reluctant to elaborate too much on just what he’s experimenting with.
“I’m working on some things. I don’t want to…” Stroman said, before trailing off with a coy grin. “Let’s just say I’m working on some things.”
Just like the Stroman before him, Hutchison retired the first five batters he faced before being tested. He gave up a two-out home run to Arencibia (“Maybe they’re trying to help him make the team,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons quipped) and hit his next batter on the foot, before getting out of the inning with a fly ball. In all, he threw 31 pitches, working through his fastball, change-up and slider as he ramps back up for the season.
“For me, it’s just about commanding the ball. I felt like I did that petty well today with all three of the pitches. I had a good change-up and slider today,” Hutchison said. “Even with the guy I hit, I thought I made some good pitches there, too. It just happened to catch his foot. I executed those pitches the way I wanted to and I was able to come back and mix in some slide steps.”
Hutchison’s fastball sat in the 92-93 m.p.h. range on the afternoon, and his change-up came out of the hand at 86. In his next outing he’ll get to start the game instead of coming out of the bullpen, which will allow him to work on the starter’s routine he’s used to.
“After the first one, you can kind of reset everything and do what you normally do to prepare. You get to start and go through your normal progressions,” Hutchison said. “You just go out there and pitch. For me everything starts off the fastball and you go from there. Today I was able to be pretty crisp so I was able to go to the off-speed right away and I thought it was positive.”
Hutchison’s 2015 was a struggle, as he finished with a 5.47 ERA in 28 starts before being moved to the bullpen and left off the Blue Jays’ post-season roster. He was terrific whenever he pitched at Rogers Centre, with a 2.91 ERA in 15 starts there. But his numbers ballooned bizarrely on the road, where he managed a 9.83 ERA in 13 starts.
Working against Hutchison this spring is the fact he has options, which means he could start the season in the rotation at triple-A Buffalo if he doesn’t claim the fifth starter’s spot, which at this point seems to be Aaron Sanchez’s to lose. Jesse Chavez will also factor heavily into the competition, as will veteran Gavin Floyd. But Tuesday was a positive step for the 25-year-old Hutchison in his quest to remain in the conversation.
“I really thought Hutch was dotting it pretty good down and away, which is something that he wants to do,” Gibbons said. “There’s never a lack of motivation with him. He’s a great competitor and he’s off to good start.”