It was a cool Wednesday evening in late March of 2017 when more than 50,000 people descended upon Dodger Stadium to watch the United States take on Puerto Rico in the championship game of the 4th World Baseball Classic. The young stars on the field that night included Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton and future MVP Christian Yelich – but there was no doubt of who really stole the show that night, Marcus Stroman. A captivating mix of superb command-pitching and passionate displays of competitiveness pushed Stroman into the national spotlight and up fantasy baseball draft boards.
Managers who invested in Stroman in 2017 were rewarded for their enthusiasm with a strong season – 201.0 IP, 13-9, 20 QS, 3.09 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 164 Ks – and Stroman finished in the top eight of AL Cy Young voting. Maybe this wasn’t exactly fantasy dominance, but if you needed a rock-solid third starter in a head-to-head league that year there were few options better than Stroman. In his 33 starts, he gave up 3 or fewer runs in 26. For context, in his 32 starts that year AL Cy Young runner-up Chris Sale gave up 3 or fewer runs in 24 games and had 23 QS to Stroman’s 20.
Even at his best, there are some limits to Stroman’s value as a fantasy asset. He has never been a big strikeout guy and 2017 was no exception – 7.34 K/9 and a 19.7 strikeout rate. Given the high rate of contact batters make against Stroman, and his lack of a true put-away pitch his batted ball numbers raise some questions. The average exit velocity on balls put in play against Stroman for his career is 89.1 MPH, significantly higher than the MLB average of 87.4 MPH. This no doubt has contributed to the .263 career batting average against Stroman, also above the MLB average of .251.
Last season we saw the perfect storm that can occur when a pitch-to-contact philosophy fails a pitcher. Stroman was dreadful by pretty much any measure – 4-9 record, 5.54 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and only 77 strikeouts in 102 IP. His barrel percentage increased from 5.1 to 6.3 percent. With numbers like that it’s not really a surprise that Stroman checked in at #71 on the Fantasy Assembly pre-season consensus ranks. On top of the lackluster on-field performance, Stroman dealt with shoulder inflammation during the pre-season and “shoulder fatigue” during the season which cost him a month’s worth of starts.
What does all this mean in relation to Stroman’s unbelievable start to 2019? Can we trust a 2.20 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP? No, absolutely not – we can say with near absolute certainty that Stroman is not going to finish with numbers that good. Starts like his last outing against the Angels will take care of that. But, can Stroman get back to something resembling his 2017 form?
There are some interesting aspects to Stroman’s first seven starts that point to good things in the future, but there are also some annoying red flags that are making it much more difficult to whole-heartedly recommend him. His K/9 is up from 6.77 in 2018 to 8.56 this season. Unfortunately, his BB/9 is up as well from 3.17 to 3.51 this season. More concerning might be that Stroman is throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (46.2 percent) than at any point in his career.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. The negative way, of course, being that Stroman can’t possibly continue to pitch effectively if he can’t throw strikes. That he got really lucky during his first handful of starts, and his last start against the Angels is closer to what we can expect for the rest of the season. I would tend to agree that Stroman can’t continue to have success if he can’t locate his pitches, but it does not seem to be luck that has been carrying him through so far. His BABIP is sitting at .284 which is lower than his career .307, but not excessively low. The same goes for his strand-rate of 71.4 percent this season compared to his career mark of 70.7. These numbers suggest that regression is coming, but we are already assuming that.
The positive way to spin Stroman’s increase in strikeouts and walks is that he is trying to be finer with his pitches. Rather than just challenging hitters to make contact Stroman could be working more on the fringes of the strike zone. Not having watched all of his starts I can’t say this is any more than a theory based on a selective interpretation of some numbers, but it is a strategy that would make sense for a pitcher who does not have overwhelming velocity or movement on his pitches.
Stroman is throwing pitches outside the zone more than at any point in his career, but batters are also chasing those pitches at the highest rate (26.4 percent) since 2016. They are also making contact with the pitches they are chasing at the lowest rate (45.4) in Stroman’s career.
One additional thing to consider is that Stroman, like many other pitchers, has changed his pitch mix to more heavily feature his slider. For the first time in his career, Stroman is using his slider (38.3 percent) more than his sinker (35.5 percent). This could be contributing to his control issues and his increased strikeouts.
I think we would all like to see an entire season of Stroman throwing with the confidence he did in the World Baseball Classic, but I wouldn’t count on it. But, so far, he looks closer to the steady fantasy option of 2017 Marcus Stroman than the disappointing 2018 version of himself. We should get a clearer picture over his next few starts. If you have already invested, I would hold on and enjoy the ride unless you have a great waiver opportunity. If you haven’t invested yet I would move Stroman to the top of your watch list and get ready to pounce.