Marcus Stroman has all the looks of an ace in the making. The 23-year-old Toronto Blue Jays righthander has won seven of his first nine big-league decisions and has a 3.03 ERA and a 2.97 FIP. Remove six-and-a-third relief innings from the equation and his ERA is 2.12.
Drafted 22nd overall in 2012 out of Duke Universiry, Stroman thrives on power and diversity. His radar readings regularly reach 95 and his repertoire includes two- and four-seam fastballs, a cutter, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. The rookie has allowed just one run over his last 21 innings. His ability to keep hitters off balance is a big reason why.
“I have a really good mix right now,” acknowledged Stroman earlier this week. “They can’t sit on any one pitch and over the course of a game I’m using all of them.”
The Red Sox found that out recently, as the righty dominated them in back-to-back outings. Among those impressed with his repertoire was Brock Holt, who was 16 for his last 34 coming into his first meeting with Stroman.
“When I faced him in Toronto, he struck me out three times,” said Holt. “He’s got good stuff. He’s fearless and can throw everything for strikes. He’s got a good sharp slider-curveball, whatever it is. He can back-foot it to lefties, go underneath your hands. He throws a little cutter and a good two-seam he can run back. He’s got a changeup. I mean, he’s got pretty much everything.”
Stroman has always had a wide array of offerings, although usage and effectiveness have varied. For the most part, last year’s four-pitch mix has become a six-pitch mix. He said he’s thrown more two-seamers recently, and that his cutter has become “a huge weapon.”
In May of last year, Stroman told he was “throwing a slider-cutter… anywhere from 85 to 88 [mph].’ He elaborated that he used to throw both, but that they had evolved into the same pitch. Now it’s back to two.
“Last year I was kind of in between, trying to refine a little bit,” explained Stroman. “Now I’m throwing all three spinning pitches: slider, cutter, curveball. I just kind of figured out grips, and how I wanted to use each one in certain counts. And I really harnessed the ability to throw them exactly how I wanted. I made the cutter really small. I made the slider the bigger harder one, and then I have the even bigger one with more of a slurve break. My curve is anywhere ftom 81-84, my slider is anywhere from 86-89, and my cutter is 89-92. Mostly I figured out a way to have them all not mesh into one another.”
Pitching coach Pete Walker feels separation is key. He also sees Stroman’s ability to command all three pitches as unique.
“He has the knack to spin a baseball as good as anybody,” said Walker. “It’s unusual to be able to throw three different breaking balls, and he’s throwing them all for strikes at the major league level. The biggest concern when you’re throwing three different breaking balls – even sometimes when you’re throwing two different breaking balls – is that you end up throwing that in-between pitch. We’re trying to keep them so they don’t all meld together. He’s really concentrating on the velocities of those pitches, making sure he has a good feel for each one.”
Despite his diverse repertoire, some speculated Stroman’s big-league role would be as a power reliever. His 5-foot-9 frame played into that thinking, with Tom “Flash” Gordon comps dotting his prospect reports. It’s becoming clear he has a bright future in the Blue Jays’ rotation. Walker agrees he profiles best as a starter.
“He’s got a pretty wide arsenal at his disposal, and that doesn’t always play out of the bullpen” said Walker. “We tried to consolidate a little bit [in his relief outings] and that didn’t work as well. As a starter, he has more flexibility to use all of his pitches and incorporate them at different times. They’re sharp when he needs them to be sharp. He’s throwing the ball really well right now.”
This year’s trade deadline was, to state the obvious, memorable. Meanwhile, Curt Flood, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith remain mostly forgotten. The biggest of this week’s deals wouldn’t have been consummated in the days before free agency.
A quick primer for those not up on their history: In 1969, Flood challenged the reserve clause after being traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies. He ultimately lost in court. In 1975, an arbitrator ruled in McNally-Messersmith vs. Major League Baseball that any player will become a free agent after playing one year without a contract. In 1976, an agreement was signed allowing players to become free agents after six years.
Jim Kaat was there when it happened. On Friday I had a chance to ask the MLB Network analyst for his thoughts on the monumental decision. Fittingly, we were at Fenway Park for a game between the Red Sox and Yankees.
“We were always led to believe that the owners knew what they were doing,” said Kaat, who won 283 games between 1959-1983. “They felt they’d never lose that arbitration case, and when it happened it was a pleasant surprise to us. As players, what we thought was, ‘Wow, we’re going to get to play where we want.’ The owners were no longer going to be able to say, ‘You’re going to have to take what we’re offering you, because you can’t go anywhere else.’
“I was a little too far past my prime in 1976 to really take advantage of it. I came along about 10 years too early. Had it happened in 1966, I’d have been a $15 million a year guy. My last three years leading up to free agency would have been 17-11, 18-11 and 25-13, with ERAs under 3.00 and lots of innings.”
Kaat made clear he wasn’t complaining – he said he’s happy with how his life has gone – but you couldn’t blame him if he did. His 1966 salary was $38,000 and in 1967, following his 25-win season, it was $54,000.
I asked Kaat how Flood’s attempt to become a free agent was viewed by players at the time.
“We were afraid for him,” responded Kaat. “It was a bold move, because none of the rest of us dared to do it. That’s why I think Curt belongs in the Hall of Fame for what he did. I remember when Marvin [Miller] took over. Joe Torre had had a battle with Paul Richards in Atlanta. I’d had a contract squabble with Calvin Griffith, which I did almost every year. [The Player’s Union] didn’t push us, but they suggested, ‘Would you be willing to play a year without a contract?’ to see what would happen. We didn’t dare to do it.
“[McNally-Messersmith] opened the floodgates. Marvin had told us, ‘The owners can’t trust themselves.’ They were the ones who were going to make free agency expensive. George [Steinbrenner] started spending a lot of money. [Ted] Turner. Ray Kroc. All of a sudden, prices started going up because ethe owners were in bidding wars with themselves. It wasn’t like the players were saying, ‘We’re not playing unless we get X amount.’ It was the owners themselves that jacked up the prices.”
Bob Costas was in town to call the game with Kaat, so it was only natural that I had him weigh in as well. Few are as well-versed in baseball history, nor as eloquent. Given his fine oratorical skills, his thoughts are expressed here without interruption.
Costas: “At the time, because of the way everything always was, it seemed like, ‘Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.’ But as we can see in retrospect, it was a just decision. Baseball has flourished since then. Free agency, in one form or another, exists in every sport. They have figured out mechanisms that still recognize the uniqueness of sports as a business – trades, the necessity of some kind of continuity of rosters. They’ve sort of reached a midpoint between players’ rights and the uniqueness of teams who are simultaneously competitors and partners.
‘What’s happened now, I think, is that because of players’ contracts and other freedoms they have – free agency, vetoes of trades, that sort of thing – it actually makes all of these roster-building maneuvers more interesting. Trades are made – and fans are now hip to this – not just on player value, but on contracts. John Lackey is a good pickup for the Cardinals not just because he might help them this year, but because next year his contract is so uniquely team friendly. The back end of his contract calls for him to make the minimum after making a gazillion dollars. On the other hand, the Red Sox get Joe Kelly. They’re out of it this year, but over the next three or four years you’d probably rather have Joe Kelly than John Lackey. There are a whole series of considerations that go into these things now that didn’t use to be a part of it.
“The players understand that almost all of them who have any kind of big league career will make a lot of money. And they know there are tradeoffs. Teams have certain rights they’re going exercise when they still have a player under control. Perhaps they’ll deal him before they lose control of the player. That’s part of what goes into a system that enriches them. At the same time, I think it’s really good to see that, as Joe Torre once said, ‘You have to remember, it’s a business but the game has a heartbeat.’ Joe Kelly is going to make a lot of money if he doesn’t get hurt – he’s a very good young pitcher going to a team that’s only down temporarily – but he teared up when they told him about the trade. He was very emotional, because that’s been his organization his whole career. He said the Cardinals are like a family. Jonny Gomes understands it’s a business, but he said he scooped up some Fenway dirt, he’s got his ring, and he’s going to keep his Red Sox jersey.
“As the generations have gone by, both fans and players have reconciled that you can have baseball as a business, yet it still has a place in your heart. It’s just interesting in a different way than it used to be interesting.
“So few players – forget about active players; even former players –showed up at Curt Flood’s funeral. That was kind of dispiriting. Generally speaking, athletes in every sport don’t know as much about the history of their game as they should. I think more know about Curt Flood than know about the Messersmith-McNally decision. They should all know something about it. If it wasn’t for them… I guess it would have happened eventually, just like if it hadn’t been Jackie Robinson, somebody would have broken the color barrier. On the other hand, somebody had to be first, and these guys were at the vanguard.”
“Curt Flood and Marvin Miller forever changed the landscape of the game,” McCarthy told me. “I think Miller should be in the Hall of Fame, and while I don’t know he should be in as a player, Flood probably should be as well. there should be a way. It was such a dynamic era and it shows up in every single offseason, and in every move that’s made during the season. I’m a big believer that if you forever change the face of the game, you should be in the Hall of Fame. It’s documentary of the story of baseball.”
Capuano, a former player rep, agrees. When I asked him if Miller and Flood belong in the Hall of Fame, his response was “Absolutely. The ultimate impact they had on the game is as big as anything. Being a young player and going to Union meetings, I learned a lot about Flood and Andy Messersmith. And hey, it wasn’t always like this. We haven’t always been able to choose our own destiny. If you get enough time, now you can earn that right, which is a fabulous thing. I think players know who Flood was, and realize these aren’t just natural rights; they’re things that were fought for.”
Headley’s introduction to Flood’s story came as a young player in San Diego. He recalls getting called up and seeing a question written on a board in the training room: “How many people know who Curt Flood is?”
Headley’s knowledge has progressed exponentially since that time. A free agent after this season, he previously served as the player rep in San Diego. I asked him for a brief description of his duties in that role, and when a player typically begins dicussing free agency with his agent.
“It’s basically about passing along concerns and issues that come up with guys on your team,” explained Headley. “There’s a meeting every offseason they ask you to go to. There are conference calls here and there to discuss things that are going on with the game, and how we can improve it for the players and baseball in general. When bargaining comes around, sometimes there are a few more meetings and a few more calls. But most of the time it’s just being the eyes and the ears for the clubhouse.
“Within a couple years of free agency, you start to do some research to see which players are coming out in your class, which teams will potentially be players, what the market looks like. That way, if extension talks come up, you’re informed and know what’s out in front of you. I’d say it was probably two years ago we first talked about free agency.”
Badenhop will also be a free agent following the season. He agreed that a lot of players realize what has been fought for, saying “Curt Flood stuck his neck out for something that is right, and it changed so many baseball player’s lives.” He added that he’s thankful there has been labor peace for a number of years. Not too surprisingly, he also had thoughts on the trade process.
“With the rules that are in place, somebody with talent can’t pick where they’re employed,” said Badenhop. “A top engineer coming out of MIT can choose where he wants to work. Maybe he wants to be on the West Coast. A top draft pick in baseball can’t do that, at least not right away.
“The husband of one of my wife’s best friends is the CEO of a hospital. They might bounce around a little bit too, and might not have much say so in the matter. Finally, when it happened to them, they realized how our life is. I’ve been traded four times and haven’t had any say so.”
Tim Leiper was a teammate of John Smoltz when the future Hall-of-Famer was traded from Detroit to Atlanta in August of 1987. At the time, the 20-year-old Smoltz had a record of 4-10 and a 5.86 ERA for Double-A Glens Falls. Leiper – now the first base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays – hit .318 that season.
The player Smoltz was traded for, Doyle Alexander, went 9-0. 1.53 down the stretch, helping the Tigers win the American League East by two games over Toronto. Two years later he retired. We all know what Smolz went on to do.
I asked Leiper for his recollections of the nearly-three-decades-old deal.
“What I remember about the day is how sad it was,” Leiper told me. “I was in Detroit that morning for a doctor’s appointment and then flew back to Glen Falls. It was a really emotional time. He was from Lansing [Michigan] and I always heard about Waverly High School. We’d played together for a couple of years, and I knew it was his dream to play for the Tigers. When you’re young and your boyhood dream team trades you away, it’s not the best of times.”
Smoltz had been a 22nd-round pick two years earlier, and he walked more batters than he struck out in 1987. Did Leiper realize how talented his teammate was?
“You knew,” said Leiper. “In terms of wins and losses he probably wasn’t that great for us, but the stuff was great. It was just different. There was also the way he carried himself. He was such a great athlete and great competitor. There was no way you could predict the career he had, but you knew he was going to be good.”
The game has changed a lot since Leiper and Smoltz were in the minors. Listening to Leiper explain it, you’d think they played together much earlier than the late 1980s.
“We had no coaching,” said Leiper. “When we went up to Double-A, all we had was a manager. We had no pitching coach, just one roving pitching coach throughout the organization. That was Ralph Treul. Guys threw their own bullpens and there was really nobody there to monitor them. We kind of organized things ourselves.”
Another of Leiper’s teammates became a cult hero for doing things his own way. Jim Walewander, who played in 141 games for the Tigers in 1987-88, was associated with punk rock and the band The Dead Milkmen.
“What I remember about Walewander is us being on a road trip one time and someone breaking into his apartment,” said Leiper. “He lived with a guy named Joe Millis, who was one of our infielders, and they stole all of Joe’s clothes and left Walewander’s stuff there. This was in Lakeland, Florida. The guys who broke in actually left some of their own clothes in Walewander’s room. Wales probably bought all of his stuff at the Salvation Army.
“Wales used to put foil on his window to block out the sunlight. But while everyone remembers him as being the big Dead Milkmen guy, and there were more stories about him being crazy, the guy played really hard every single day. When he got his opportunity in the big leagues, he made the most of it.”
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