‘Stro Show’ lives up to the hype in ace-like 2017 season

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)

NEW YORK – Over the course of a season that started with an arbitration hearing and ended with a four-inning start Saturday that pushed him past the 200-mark for a second straight year, there was rarely a dull moment for Marcus Stroman.

The championship run with the United States at the World Baseball Classic, in which he was named MVP. A complete-game gem celebration in Anaheim that left some Angels players cross. A pinch-hit double in St. Louis during extra innings to help win a game. Shoulder tightness that truncated a May start at Yankee Stadium. A home run during an interleague game in Atlanta. The sudden emergence of blister issues in New York at the beginning of July. A fifth-inning ejection during a career-high six-walk start against Oakland. The second-inning line drive from Mark Trumbo that hit him on the forearm and forced him from an outing in Baltimore. Several exchanges, from exasperated to heated, with umpires over the hitch in his delivery. Thirteen wins personally and 19 for his team in 33 starts.

In many ways, the Stro Show lived up to the hype.

More importantly for the Toronto Blue Jays is that the 26-year-old right-hander performed like a staff ace in 2017, with a 3.09 earned-run average over 201 innings pitched, allowing 201 hits and 62 walks with 164 strikeouts.

"He’s been our top guy this year," manager John Gibbons summed up succinctly before Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the New York Yankees in the team’s penultimate game of 2017.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Stroman also provided a pillar of stability in a rotation decimated by injuries to Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and the since-traded Francisco Liriano, along with the struggles of Marco Estrada.

In the process, he became only the seventh Blue Jays pitcher to throw consecutive 200-inning seasons over the past 20 years. That will play as he heads into his second of arbitration eligibility, after his ask of $3.4 million beat the team’s offer of $3.1 million this spring.

"It was a goal of mine when I got into the league," Stroman said of breaking the 200-inning plateau. "I know how hard it is and how rare it’s becoming because of how baseball’s going. Seeing guys like (Mark) Buehrle do it year after year is extremely inspiring. The fact that everyone when I got into the big leagues said I was too short to be a starting pitcher – it shifted from that to he’s not a good enough durable pitcher and won’t be able to last – I’m strong.

"I can throw another 100 innings if I really wanted to. That’s something extremely important to me and that I’ll pride myself on going forward."

Stroman’s growth is one reason why the Blue Jays believe they can bounce back next year, particularly if Sanchez can resolve his blister issues and regain his ERA-champion form from a year ago. And given their youth, it’s not unreasonable to think there may still be some upside for both.

In Stroman’s case, his numbers are very similar to last season with one notable jump in the number of runners he stranded, from 68.6 to 78.1 per cent. That in turn helped him shove his ERA down from 4.37 to 3.06.

"It was a combination of multiple things," he said of his improvement with runners on. "Slowing the game down played into that, being able to take a step off the mound, get my breath, readjust and attack the hitter. Last year, things got out of my way and I would want to go faster. Essentially I was losing quality of pitches by wanting to work faster. (Troy Tulowitzki) helped me with that a ton in the pre-season, and I think it’s helped tremendously."

Also playing a big role were the 34 double plays he induced behind him, often the product of a sinker that generated a ground ball about 73 per cent of the time it was put in play. Stroman threw the two-seamer 56 per cent of the time, with his slider second in usage at 22 per cent.

His change-up usage remained steady at just under six per cent, although intriguingly he used it more often over the final six weeks of the season, throwing it 20 per cent of the time during an Aug. 28 start against the Red Sox.

Via Brooks Baseball

Like the delivery hitch this year, it could turn into a new wrinkle he adds for 2018.

"My change-up’s going to be a weapon next year for sure. I’m starting to get a really good feel for it," said Stroman, who found a comfort level with the offering a couple months ago. "I’m starting to be able to peel 10, 12, 14 miles per hour off the ball speed. I’ve seen how it’s playing now and it’s definitely going to be a weapon next year and I’m excited for it. …

"I think that’s the separator that will bring me to the next level if I can develop that plus change-up for sure."

Added Russell Martin: "It’s a pitch that can keep hitters off-balance a little bit and he doesn’t have to be as precise with his fastball. It gives a little bit of room for error and he’s got the devastating slider and the plus sinker. You mix a really good third pitch in there, it’s going to be good for him."

Stroman threw seven change-ups in his 78 pitches Saturday, giving up a 484-foot thunderbolt of a home run to Aaron Judge – "One of the most impressive home runs I’ve seen, it was incredible," marvelled Martin – and an RBI single to Starlin Castro in the fourth inning before his day was done.

The inning earlier, after inducing a groundout to shortstop by Brett Gardner that ended the third and gave him 200 innings, Stroman asked first baseman Justin Smoak for the ball on his way to the dugout, one last memento from an eventful season.

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