Marcus Stroman’s struggles have drawn a considerable amount of attention from Jays fans. We’ve discussed the similarity of his breaking balls, suggested a change in approach, and already proposed that he will probably be fine. His last start against the Orioles may have been his worst of the season, leading to a suggestion that he be sent to the minors to get right.
It would be very strange indeed for the Jays to send their Opening Day starter to the minors for the second season in a row. That sending him down would potentially be swapping him for Drew Hutchison (2015’s Opening Day starter) might restore some kind of karmic balance to the universe. While this might be something that could help the Jays and Stroman, there are a few reasons that should give us some pause.
First, courtesy of BP Toronto’s Matt Gwin:
@AndrewStoeten The problem is that the alternatives aren’t quite so perfect. If I was the Jays, I’d just broach the subject with him.
— Matt Gwin (@Matt_Gwin) June 19, 2016
This is, to me, the biggest sticking point. The most popular proposal, as mentioned above, is to swap Stroman for Hutchison. Hutchison, for those who don’t remember, was bad last year. He finished with a 5.57 ERA in 30 games. Marcus Stroman needed the worst outing of his season to get up to 5.23, still a third of a run less than Hutchison last season.
This is an overly simplistic read on the situation, however. Stroman’s recent outings have given the greatest cause for concern, and Hutchison has been fantastic this season in the minors, with a 4-3 record and a 2.87 ERA. For those (like me) who look at Stroman’s strikeout numbers as a concern, Hutchison notching 33 strikeouts in his last four starts might make him more enticing.
When we take a step back, we can see some ways our perception is being influenced. As mentioned, Stroman has struggled of late, and Hutchison has thrived, which might lead one to wonder if Hutchison could be better. He might be, but it’s more likely he isn’t. To conclude this, we have to look past this season in AAA, at Hutchison’s entirely body of work. He’s had 72 major league starts and almost 400 innings over roughly two-and-a-half seasons, and has compiled an total ERA of 4.89. That’s a good chunk of major league service time that suggests he’s a bad starting pitcher.
But maybe that’s changed. Hutchison could have made mechanical adjustments in his stint in AAA, something that would lead him to improved results at the major league level. But we have no way of really knowing how much of that is sustainable, and how much of that is him facing inferior talent, without him coming up. Given what we know of Hutchison, is it worth screwing around with Stroman- an ace-level talent, from what we’ve seen so far- to find out?
It’s an old story by now, but it’s worth repeating: Stroman came back from a catastrophic leg injury last season. He wasn’t just fine, he was great. Hutchison had a lost season, only getting mop-up duty and spot starts in September. At that point, it was Hutchison we were all tired of, and Stroman was the great hope, the unknown that represented a higher ceiling of performance for a rotation that needed help. It’s strange to think of how that’s changed, but also helpful: remembering that can give us some perspective on where we are now. Has enough changed for us to think Hutchison is a better option? Should we think Hutchison is a better option, given what we know about both pitchers?
This isn’t to say Stroman is completely fine. He probably does need to make some adjustments, as we reviewed previously. But he could also benefit from some easier matchups.
Since his return last season, Stroman has started 14 times vs AL East opponents and 5 vs the rest of the league.
— James G (@james_in_to) June 19, 2016
So far this season, Stroman has had fifteen starts. He has seen the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox three times each, and four of his last six starts have been against those two teams. Stroman has, predictably, struggled against these elite offenses, notching ERAs of 7.78 and 9.92 respectively against those teams. So, for Stroman, familiarity breeds contempt. His last four quality starts were against teams that hadn’t seen him so far this year: the Phillies, Twins, Giants, and Dodgers.
It’s a fact of life in the AL East that you will face elite lineups, so we can’t simply wave away Stroman being really bad against two teams the Jays are contending with for the divisional crown. But Stroman facing the Sox in back-to-back starts- and the Orioles twice in three starts recently- is more than a little bad luck. With the Jays coming out of the division-heavy part of their schedule, Stroman will face some teams that haven’t seen him, which can help him get back on track.
Another part of the problem is Stroman’s performance relative to the expectations of him coming into the season. He was the Jays’ ace, the opening day starter, a visible social media presence, and someone who’d defied expectations all through his career up to that point. He tore his ACL, and was supposed to miss last season- until he didn’t. And then he pitched his way into the playoff rotation, and got the start in the pivotal fifth game of the ALCS over David Price (who’d been used in relief in game 4). Coming in to this season, it was easy to dream on him, and plant him firmly into the “ace/stopper/#1 starter” box. He hadn’t been stopped so far, why would that change now?
In the optimism of spring, maybe we forgot just how inexperienced Stroman was. He’s yet to pitch a full season in the big leagues, which seems crazy, given how long he’s been a part of the identity of the team. But he is still young, and young pitchers usually struggle. As teams see his electric stuff again, get to know how he approaches at-bats, it becomes a game of adjustments. Even a pitcher as obviously talented as Stroman was probably going to have some hurdles to clear. As he faces teams again, he’ll hopefully make those adjustments that will help him have success. It’s unclear how sending him to AAA will help him with those kind of adjustments. He has nothing to prove, no new pitch to work on. At this point, he needs to succeed or fail at the major league level, and he’s good enough that the Jays should keep him around.
The Jays’ bats coming to life recently and the rest of the rotation being solid has made Stroman’s struggles easier to live with. They certainly shouldn’t keep running him out there if every new team that faces him barrels him up too. But knowing what we know of Stroman’s talent, the options to replace him, and the circumstances surrounding his struggles, we can see that leaving him in the rotation is the best choice.
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