The Yankees have more work to do, and acquiring another starting pitcher is at the top of the list. Several are available, including Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays. He grew up a Yankees fan, though that’s irrelevant to anything. He’s said he’d be a good fit with the Yankees, and the Yanks have spoken with the Jays about him.
So, let’s not waste any more time–let’s get right into who Stroman is as a pitcher with an in-depth profile to determine if he’s a fit for the Yanks.
Stroman is a 5-foot-7, 28-year-old right-handed pitcher from Medford, New York. He was originally drafted in the 18th round of the 2009 Amateur Draft but opted instead to attend Duke. In 2012, Stroman was selected with the 22nd pick. Stroman made his Major League debut 3 days after his 23rd birthday and has been in the bigs ever since.
He owns a 3.80 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 765.2 innings pitched in his career. In his career, he’s won a Gold Glove in 2017, which was also the only season in which he’s placed in the Top 10 of the AL Cy Young voting. He has twice pitched in the postseason with Toronto, reaching the ALCS both times. He’s spent his entire career in the AL East.
Stroman, who was ranked FanGraphs’ 56th best prospect, threw 130 innings as a rookie in 2014 and only 27 in 2015 (more on that in a moment). After that, he went on to throw 200 innings in both 2016 (204 IP) and 2017 (201 IP). He really struggled in 2018, pitching to a 5.54 ERA in 100 innings. This year, he’s having perhaps the best season of his career and is on track to throw over 200 innings once more.
Stroman’s inconsistent career is on full display from even a cursory look at his data. Check this out:
As is immediately clear, Stroman has had a bit of an odd career–bookended by frustrating campaigns, the Jays’ righty had a truly dominating 2017. It’s also pretty clear that this year is a return to form for Stroman in terms of performance.
I want to point out that I purposefully chose to highlight Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR for Stroman in the above table because it is calculated in such a way that means it is more reflective of what actually happened rather than what should have happened. Why did I do that? Well, FanGraphs’ WAR is better for the latter, and check out this discrepancy, with fWAR in parentheses:
- 2014: 1.9 (3.4)
- 2015: 1.3 (0.4)
- 2016: 1.4 (3.4)
- 2017: 5.3 (3.2)
- 2018: 0.2 (1.4)
- 2019: 2.5 (2.0)
That’s a pretty clear-cut difference right there, and I do think that it’s worth delving a little deeper into exactly why this might be the case–and what it might say about Stroman.
Stroman is a bit of an odd pitcher in the current velocity and strikeout-obsessed big leagues, because he really doesn’t miss all that many bats. He’s never even really approached 9 K/9 (his closest year was 2017, when he reached 7.34), with a career 7.21 K/9 figure. He does limit walks, as he’s usually a percentage point or so below league average. While this certainly isn’t bad by any stretch, it’s also not really what we expect from a frontline starter in today’s MLB.
So without serious strikeout numbers, how has Stroman found success? Well, it’s pretty clear: Stroman is a master of inducing ground balls and limiting home runs. 60 pitchers have thrown at least 700 innings since 2014. Here are the top 5 among that group, sorted by GB%:
- Dallas Keuchel: 60.0%
- Marcus Stroman: 59.7%
- Sonny Gray: 53.3%
- Carlos Martinez: 53.5%
- Charlie Morton: 53.2%
And here are the FB% among that same group, ranked by those inducing the fewest fly balls:
- Dallas Keuchel: 21.3%
- Marcus Stroman: 22.1%
- Charlie Morton: 25.9%
- Kyle Gibson: 27.1%
- Mike Leake: 27.4%
On ground balls, Stroman and Keuchel are essentially equal, and then there’s a sizable gap (about 9% or so) between then and the 3rd highest, Sonny Gray. There’s also a tiny gap between Stroman and Keuchel and gap of more than 10% to the next closest in GB%. That’s a big difference. It really is. There’s no denying it. Stroman has an elite skill here, and he’s done it over a long time. Check it out compared to league average:
Even with a slight decline from 2018-19, it’s pretty clear that Stroman is able to keep the ball on the ground in a way that is unique. That’s a real skill, and it is a valuable one. Here’s the FB%:
Finally, and as a result of the constant ground balls, Stroman is able to keep the ball in the yard. Of those same 60 pitchers who’ve thrown 700 innings since 2014, Stroman ranks 8th by HR/9 (0.82). His 13% HR/FB rate isn’t quite as appealing, but hey, he keeps the ball on the ground so much that it doesn’t even matter. Again, it’s clear in graph form what an elite skill this is:
Interesting to see his numbers adjust with the league, isn’t it? A good lesson here. We’ve seen his HR/9 jump this year, but it’s not concerning when compared to the league. Analytics!
To close the loop here, this explains the discrepancy between his bWAR/fWAR. Here’s why: Check out his year-by-year ERA with his FIP in parentheses:
- 2014: 3.65 (2.84) in 130.2 IP
- 2015: 1.67 (3.54) in 27.0 IP
- 2016: 4.37 (3.71) in 204.0 IP
- 2017: 3.09 (3.90) in 201.0 IP
- 2018: 5.54 (3.91) in 102.1 IP
- 2019: 3.04 (3.71) in 100.2 IP
fWAR is very dependent on FIP, and FIP loves pitchers who beat the ball into the ground, miss bats, and limit HR. It means their results “should” be good based on their contact profile, and while Stroman’s actual performance hasn’t quite matched up, there’s clearly the profile of a pitcher who has and is capable of serious success. Keeping the ball on the ground is a great trait (and an impressive one in the launch angle era) and it’s the second-best skill a pitcher can have behind making batters swing-and-miss. Stroman’s got it.
Stroman relies heavily on his sinker, cutter, and slider, occasionally mixing in a changeup and four-seam fastball. He once also threw a curveball, but he’s all but abandoned that in recent years. Here’s his usage chart, via Brooks Baseball:
Pretty interesting stuff. His sinker usage is down this year, which is also true of his GB%, and his slider usage is up. Huh. For what it’s worth, his slider is more effective this year (35% whiffs-per-swing rate) compared to last (32% whiffs-per-swing rate), which could help explain this, and batters are only hitting .178 off the pitch this year. Go with what works, obviously, and the slider is working.
To that end, it’s interesting to see Stroman all but abandon the four-seam. It makes sense as to why. Check out the BA against his pitches:
The fastball is getting hit hard this year, with batters are hitting .500 off it. It makes sense to cut it back significantly, which Stroman has done, and it’s encouraging to see him find success with this effort. A pitcher who can make adjustments successfully is the type of pitcher you want, and his usage/performance rates show that Stroman has significantly changed his look over his career.
Stroman sits around 93 mph on his FB and sinker, around 86 mph on his change (a solid difference of about 7-8 mph), around 85 on his slider, and 91 on his cutter. Pretty good variance (though his velocity has slightly declined over the years) in terms of pitch speed. Here it is in graph form, for the visually-inclined:
Slight declines across the board, but overall fairly steady throughout his career. Stroman’s not really losing any stuff, as you’d expect for a 28-year-old. He relies on his slider and changeup for swings-and-misses and his sinker as a high-contact, beat-it-into-the-ground option. No surprises there. Again, in graph form, tracking whiffs-per-swing:
Finally, let’s take a look at his contact profile. Surprisingly, for a sinkerballer, Stroman induces a lot of weak contact. His 2019 soft contact percentage (22%) is significantly better than league average (17%) as has been true for his entire career.
He is inducing less hard contact (34%) than the average pitcher (38%), though the relationship here isn’t quite as clear over his career. He’s closer to league average in this department. Regardless, for a pitcher with heavy ground ball rates and minuscule fly-ball rates, hard-hit balls aren’t as dangerous. It’s the Zack Britton approach: throw strikes and let the opponent beat the ball into the ground.
All told, this is a solid profile. His stuff has stayed fairly consistent in terms of velocity and whiffs-per-swing (though he’s ever-so-slightly trending in the wrong direction) and his contact profile is strong.
Stroman injured his ACL in 2014, requiring surgery. He missed much of 2015 as a result, though he returned in late 2015 and pitched in the playoffs for Toronto. He hasn’t appeared to suffer any negative consequences from this injury, though, so it’s not worth worrying about at this point.
Stroman has also repeatedly struggled with blisters on his throwing hand, which has forced him to miss starts in the past. That’s going to happen. Whatever.
Finally, and much more worthy of concern, is his shoulder. Last year, Stroman went on the then-DL with “shoulder fatigue” that caused him to make a minor league rehab stint and miss some MLB time. And just on Saturday, Stroman exited his game against Kansas City with a “cramp” in his shoulder. Hopefully, it’s not that serious and is precautionary by Toronto, who surely want to keep their top trade chip healthy. Still, this is something worth monitoring.
What’s He Going to Cost?
This is the most difficult part of these profiles for me, because I’ve really internalized the old “Your Trade Proposal Sucks” motto. It’s true. If you or I knew this stuff, we’d be working in a front office. That said, you gotta think that Toronto would start by asking for Clint Frazier.
A few weeks ago, I would have said that Frazier is a bit too much to give up here, but you know what? I’m not so sure anymore. The Yanks’ refusal to bring him to London (I don’t care about their defense explanation) and the general vibe they’re sending out with Clint recently lead me to believe that they value him less than I do. Not to mention, they’ve said that Frazier won’t move for a rental…and Stroman is not a rental. He’d be in New York next year, too.
The more I think about this, the more it seems like any potential matchup with Toronto is going to require Frazier. Here are a few reasons why:
- Inter-Divisional Trade: Yes, Toronto and New York have traded recently, and while there’s no evidence that Toronto will charge a premium (if he’s even a premium), they very well might. This is their best pitcher, after all.
- Marcus Stroman is Good, Actually: It should be clear by now that Stroman is good. He’s also under team control through 2020, and he comes at only a $7.1m salary. He’s affordable and about 10% better than league average (111 ERA+) in 700+ innings in his career. That’s valuable for a lot of reasons. Most of all, because…
- …New York Is Desperate: This weekend’s Luis Severino news (are the Yankees the Mets now?) just goes to demonstrate how desperate the Yanks really are for another pitcher. At this point, you can’t really bank on Severino returning, no matter what they say. The Yanks will need another pitcher capable of front-line work, and while Stroman isn’t Severino, he might be the closet the Yanks can get.
So, yeah. A 28-year-old with a history of success, under team control, and in the midst of one of his best career years is going to cost something. Just accept that now. That may very well be Clint Frazier. Time Will Tell.
Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?
Yes, yes, and yes, as Jonny covered here. He absolutely does. Stroman has struggled in Yankee Stadium in his career (2-5, 6.37 ERA in 41 IP), but here’s the thing: he’s been facing the Yankees in all of those starts. While the Yanks haven’t exactly set the world on fire against him (.230/.306/.376/.682), he has faced some tough power hitting lineups in Yankee Stadium. On the Yankees, he’d be facing Not The Yankees. That matters.
That said, I think it’s pretty clear that a smart, energetic pitcher with elite ground-ball skills and a propensity to limit HR is a natural fit for the Yanks. Not to mention, he is a high-spin guy, and the Yankees are also known for loving high spin rates. Seems like a good enough fit.
But more importantly, the Yankees need a pitcher, and Stroman is a good one. In fact, he might be the best one available this year–and yes, he is not Max Scherzer, but who is? He is a good pitcher, and the Yankees are a serious contender for the World Series. Fans cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I think it’s pretty clear that Marcus Stroman would better position the Yankees to win the World Series this year and next. That is the point, isn’t it?