After questionable results in back-to-back outings, people are starting to worry about Marcus Stroman. In his last start, he allowed more walks than strikeouts for only the second time in his career. In the game prior, he gave up 11 hits. Then, if you look a few more games back, you’ll see that he gave up 13 hits, the highest total of his career. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that three of Stroman’s last four starts have been the three worst of his career. It hasn’t been good.
As is the case with many worrying incidents, there have been two main contributors: a wealth of expectations and a lack of results. Let’s look at the series of events.
Second Half 2014: Marcus Stroman puts up a 3.38 ERA and 2.43 FIP over 77.1 IP.
March 2015: Marcus Stroman tears his ACL on a freak play.
April 2015: Marcus Stroman assures us that he’s going to be back by September, months ahead of schedule, all while finishing his undergraduate degree.
September 2015: Marcus Stroman returns as he assured and puts up a 1.67 ERA and 3.54 FIP over 27.0 IP.
October 2015: Marcus Stroman pitches so well that he’s picked over David Price to start Game 5 of the ALCS.
For all intents and purposes, in 2015, Marcus Stroman was this Earth’s version of Superman. Now, through two months of 2016: Marcus Stroman has a staff-worst ERA of 4.82. The worrying is entirely understandable.
However, and as the title of this post indicates, despite how understandable it may be, we need not worry about Marcus Stroman. For starters, take a look at Stroman’s peripheral statistics: In 2015, he had 6.00 K/9, 2.00 BB/9, and 0.67 HR/9. In 2016 he has 6.16 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, and 0.67 HR/9. So his walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate are almost identical to last season, when he was anointed an ace
In fact, the only outcome that has gotten worse is Stroman’s hits allowed. The league average for hits allowed per nine inning is roughly 8.7; Stroman is at 9.2. Hits allowed is an odd statistics. On one hand, there’s clearly a prominent performance component to it: good pitchers tend to give up fewer hits, while bad pitchers tend to give up more hits. On the other hand, hits allowed, unlike walks or strikeouts, is an incredibly luck dependent statistic. That’s why many defense independent pitching statistics (DIPS) like FIP ignore hits entirely. They’re too tough to predict.
With that said, while the theory behind DIPS is strong, it isn’t perfect. As such, we must recognize some of what hits allowed and earned run average are telling us: hitters are obliterating Marcus Stroman. However, there’s a difference between a hittable pitcher and a pitcher who’s getting hit.
Since 2006, among pitchers with at least 1250 innings pitched, there is only one who has allowed more than 10 hits per nine innings: Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey is perhaps the perfect example of a hittable pitcher. His raw velocity isn’t bad, nor is his pitch selection poor, but his pitch movement is unremarkable, and his commands leaves much to be desired. He gets hit because there’s nothing special about his stuff.
Marcus Stroman on the other hand has good velocity, a formidable pitch selection, historically potent command, and nearly league topping pitch movement. Unlike Pelfrey, Stroman has the tools to success. But Stroman has become a pitcher who, like Pelfrey and so many others, pitches to contact. That means that regardless of his velocity, movement, pitch selection, and command, he’s still living on the margins of batted balls. They’re not always going to go in to fielder’s gloves.
And what’s the problem with that? Well, pitching to contact can lead to a lot of poor results over a small sample size (See Stroman, Marcus in 2016). It can also lead to a lot of good results over a small sample size (See Stroman, Marcus in 2015). Yet, over a larger sample size, you’re likely to find results that fall somewhere in between (See Stroman, Marcus in his career).
For Stroman this season, not only is his pitching to contact leading to, what I would argue are, disproportionately poor results, but it is being amplified by some incredibly poor luck. Notably, Stroman has stranded just 63.6% of batters, which is 8.6% below the league average of 72.2%. Therefore he’s letting more batters on base than expected, and stranding fewer. As you can imagine, that’s not a perfect formula for a good ERA.
Fortunately, there’s little about Marcus Stroman’s current profile that should lead one to believe that he can’t at least achieve an ERA slightly better than the 3.74 mark that PECOTA projects for him over the rest of the season. Now, that may not exactly be encouraging for those who slapped the ace tag on Stroman last season. But, because he’s so efficient, that 3.74 ERA is going to be coupled with a lot of innings. In a rotation that includes four other league average or better pitchers, that’s perfectly fine.
Then, on top of Stroman’s current profile, there’s always the potential for plenty more. We already know he’s got the stuff, and the drive, and that he just has to apply it. Perhaps, as our own Gideon Turk wrote yesterday, he can get back to using his four seam fastball up in the zone to generate more strikeouts. Alternatively, he’s got a slider and a curveball that are (unfortunately) similar to each other, but standout pitches on their own.
Last season, Marcus Stroman started throwing more sinkers and pitching to contact because he wanted to throw more innings; he wanted efficiency. This season, he continued to throw more sinkers and pitch to contact because it worked so well for him last season. But, that doesn’t mean that Marcus Stroman has to be a pitch to contact guy forever. In his short career, he’s already made one major development, and he’s always tinkering with something new.
So, you can worry about Marcus Stroman if you’d like, but you don’t need to. He has been unlucky, but regression alone should make him serviceable. Then, on top of that, he has superb stuff, and an unmatched pitching curiosity. He’ll be perfectly fine.
Lead Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports