Blue Jays’ Stroman riding sinker to new heights

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – There were the text messages, numbering over 100, waiting for him when he returned to his locker Monday night. There were the interview requests from nearly a dozen reporters, who hounded him all of Tuesday afternoon. There was the US television spot on MLB Network’s irreverent daily talk show, Intentional Talk, his first appearance on the program and likely not his last.

Yes, it’s safe to say the ever-gregarious Marcus Stroman’s popularity is trending even stronger than normal these days, which will happen to a guy when he spins a nine-inning gem like the 23-year-old did the other night, disposing of the Chicago Cubs in ruthlessly efficient fashion, facing just two batters over the minimum and needing only 93 pitches to do it. The start earned Stroman a game score of 89, the highest by a Blue Jay in 2014 and the 18th highest across the majors this season.

It was just the latest in a string of exceptional starts by the right-hander, who’s making a strong case as the Toronto Blue Jays’ best pitcher. And not just that—over the last 14 days, which covers his three most recent starts, Stroman’s been one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball, earning 0.9 wins above replacement. For a little perspective: Clayton Kershaw, undisputedly the most dominant pitcher on the planet, has a WAR of 0.8 over the same three-start span, which has seen the Dodgers lefty allow just two earned runs and strike out 26 over 24 innings. Stroman’s somehow managed to be better than that, and his 2.9 WAR on the season is now second to only Masahiro Tanaka’s 3.1 among rookie starters.

“Yeah, it’s pretty surreal,” Stroman said Tuesday, as he ran the gauntlet of press members who wanted to talk to him while his teammates took batting practice. “It’s been special. It’s been fun. I’m just learning so much up here. I’m starting to really learn how to pitch.”

What Stroman means by that is he’s evolving. Instead of trying to blow fastballs past hitters and make them look silly with his elite curveball—tactics that worked well for him in the minors but get exploited in the majors—he’s looking to locate his pitches more precisely, using the bottom half of the strike zone and the edges to induce weak contact and ground balls. So far it’s been a tremendous success—his seven percent hard hit rate is the lowest in the game since the all-star break, according to ESPN’s Mark Simon. And much of that is due to the addition of a two-seam fastball, which Stroman has only been throwing for a month and a half.

He discovered the two-seam grip by accident while he was mindlessly playing around with a baseball on his couch, trying out different feels. He’d tried the pitch in the past but never felt comfortable with it in his hand, a factor that is extremely important to him. But what he discovered was that when he torques the ball in his palm, holding his index and middle fingers almost diagonally across the seams, the pitch feels natural.

“I grip all my pitches pretty funny anyway. They’re all really unique to how I pitch and unique to my hand,” Stroman says. “So my two-seamer grip is pretty weird—it’s almost like a slider. But it just feels comfortable in my hand and the action on it is really good. It gives me something I can throw with conviction in the zone and I know that if I throw it down I’m gonna get a groundball the majority of the time.”


He first started using it in a seven-inning shutout against the Rangers on July 19 — leaving Shin-Soo Choo shaking his head at a called third strike with one of the first two-seamers he ever threw in a live game — and since then Stroman has relied on the sinker more than any other pitch in his arsenal, throwing it 30 percent of the time to left-handers and 27 percent of the time to right-handers. In that ten-start span his ground ball percentage has surged (15 of his 27 outs against the Cubs came via the groundball) and he has allowed just one home run.

In fact, no first-year pitcher with more than 100 innings has given up fewer than Stroman’s five home runs this season. That’s an important stat for a pitcher who many scouts thought would be susceptible to the long ball, considering the lack of downward plane on his offerings and the homer-happy ballpark he’d be pitching his home games in.

“Everyone used to say, oh, he’s going to give up too many homers. He can’t pitch. He’s too homer-prone,” Stroman says. “But baseball’s all about adjustments. I had to adapt and I did.”

He’s still working on his changeup as well, the pitch the Blue Jays originally thought would unlock much of his potential if he could harness it. He says it’s currently his most challenging pitch, but if he can bring it along it would give him a six-pitch arsenal—along with the four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, curveball and slider—that can keep batters off balance all night. Currently he throws the changeup almost exclusively to left-handers and always early in the count, trying to catch hitters off balance when they’re looking for the fastball. It all goes back to Stroman’s shift in approach, away from his ram-my-fastball-down-your-throat mentality that worked so well for him in the minors.

“Yeah, that doesn’t play up here,” Stroman says with a knowing grin. “It might the first time through the lineup. But once you turn the lineup over and you’re trying to throw it by guys—they just start launching it.”

He’s developing and maturing at an extremely quick rate, and people around the game are taking notice. His manager, John Gibbons, raves about him. His catcher, Dioner Navarro, loves calling his games, and knows his strengths so well that Stroman will sometimes go entire outings without shaking off a pitch, a rarity for him through his young career.

His biggest fan in the majors, former Cy Young winner and current Detroit Tigers ace David Price, was so taken by Stroman’s talent that he contacted the Blue Jays starter on Twitter and gave him his cell phone number so they could text throughout the season.

And then there’s Mark Buehrle. After the Blue Jays’ 9-2 win over the Cubs Tuesday night, Buehrle was holding court with the media to discuss his seven-inning, two-run outing. Someone asked him to talk about the young pitchers on the team, specifically rookies Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris, who had pitched the final two innings of Buehrle’s start. Stroman, fresh from a shower with one towel around his waist and another around his shoulders, overheard the question as he was walking by and stopped to listen in to what Buehrle had to say, standing at the back of the scrum with a wide grin, trying to throw the 15-year veteran off his question-answering game.

“And then there’s Marcus Stroman,” Buehrle said when he caught the young starter’s eye. “With the two months he has in the big leagues, he’s like a veteran already.”

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