Marcus Stroman: “I’m Still Learning”

It seems impossible, but when it comes to pitching, Marcus Stroman is just a baby, man. “I’m still fairly new to pitching — I just started really pitching my junior year in college,” Stroman pointed out when we talked before a game against the Giants. He was a junior at Duke University in 2012.

Even if you count the first two years pitching at Duke, it’s only six years. Six years might seem like a long time. Six years ago, I decided to take a leap into writing about baseball for a living. Six years is not a long time, at least not to me. I’m still trying to figure out how to arrange my words in the right order, so it’s no surprise that the pitcher is “starting to learn sequences” better now.

And so, as good as the righty starter has been — top 20 by any overall per-inning measure — his latest work, and words, put into focus how he might get better.

At the forefront is Stroman’s sinker. The story of that pitch mirrors the story of his career. “I never had a sinker, for the first 23 years of my life,” said the 25-year-old. But one day, over the All-Star break, he found a grip he liked while at home. It’s a weird grip, but not one that Stroman wants to show off any more. Not for now, at least.

It’s a superlative sinker. Jeff Sullivan once pointed out that it was Roy Halladay’s sinker, but that was after Stroman had only thrown it for three months. Since? It’s added more depth. Now only one righty sinker has more sink, and given Stroman’s extra tick of velocity and better outcomes, you could call the Blue Jay’s pitch the best in its class.

The Sinkers With the Most Drop
Pitcher Velocity X Move Y Move GB% swSTR
Charlie Morton 92.1 -6.5 1.7 59.4% 5.3%
Marcus Stroman 93.1 -6.2 2.0 70.9% 4.4%
Shane Greene 92.2 -9.6 2.4 44.6% 2.4%
Tim Hudson 88.0 -7.5 2.5 60.4% 3.4%
Jered Weaver 82.8 -4.3 2.6 38.0% 3.7%
Zachary Davies 88.5 -10.9 2.9 54.3% 3.9%
Mike Leake 89.5 -8.3 3.2 54.2% 3.3%
Williams Perez 89.5 -10.7 3.4 55.1% 2.9%
Jeff Samardzija 95.9 -10.2 3.9 61.9% 7.5%
Taylor Jungmann 92.1 -10.1 4.0 66.7% 5.4%
2015-2016, right-handed starters, minimum 200 sinkers or two-seamers thrown.

Then again, Charlie Morton said he tried to revamp his delivery to be more like Roy Halladay’s, and now Marcus Stroman has Charlie Morton’s sinker, so all things still come back to the Doc.

“Its unreal, man,” Stroman said about comparisons to Halladay. “Unreal. Coming from someone who was a four-seam/breaking-ball guy for the first 23 years of my life, it’s unreal. I couldn’t make it to the sixth inning, because my pitch count would be at 110, with foul outs, 12 punchies, a couple walks, homers, that was the type of pitcher I was. Finding the sinker revolutionized my game and now I can go deeper into the game.”

Mission accomplished on that last point. Since he added the sinker in its current form, only two pitchers in baseball have averaged more than the 7.2 innings per start that Stroman has: Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta.

Establishing the sinker changed his game, but his injury last year — the torn ACL he suffered during a spring-training bunt drill — delayed his maturation. A full offseason was a big deal. “We worked so hard to get back,” Stroman said of his team of trainers at Duke University, “but I got a lot stronger even over the offseason.”

Bodies are a big deal for any pitcher, but maybe even more for one that comes from such stock as Earl Stroman. “I don’t even think about mechanics. In the offseason, all I do to prepare for the year is to focus on my body. I don’t worry about anything pitching wise, I just focus on my body feels good, I feel strong, limber, flexible. And by doing so, everything gets figured out in my delivery.”

This offseason, the hips were a big deal. “My hips got a lot stronger,” says Stroman — which helped him refine his delivery. “If you look back at 2014 and 2015, you’ll see that I peel off, I kind of spin and walk away from the ball. If you look at it now, it’s more streamlined and straight to the plate.”

You can watch his delivery in 2014 here, and in 2016 here, but I thought maybe a look at his release point would do a good job of summing up the changes. Notice that he’s got a bigger… trunk and lower half, and that his glove is tucked in tighter. The first speaks to his conditioning, the second to the relative openness of his front half.

StromanRelease
Stroman, upon release in 2014 (left) and 2016 (right).

Those small changes also resulted in a release point that has been slightly higher this year, and that, in turn, has lead to more depth this year. “The curveball is bigger, yeah,” he admitted. Only five starters have added more curveball drop this year compared to last year.

The Curves That Have Added The Most Drop This Year
Pitcher Velocity 2016 Drop 2015 Drop Difference Count
Adam Morgan 76.4 -7.4 -4.6 -2.9 32
Vincent Velasquez 79.5 -7.0 -4.4 -2.6 138
Trevor Bauer 77.0 -10.7 -8.4 -2.4 80
Cody Anderson 79.1 -6.8 -4.6 -2.3 31
Robbie Erlin 71.6 -10.8 -8.5 -2.3 36
Marcus Stroman 81.3 -2.8 -0.7 -2.2 95
Justin Verlander 76.8 -6.4 -4.3 -2.1 118
Steven Wright 67.8 -1.7 0.4 -2.1 76
Chris Rusin 80.9 -2.0 0.0 -2.0 43
Tyler Thornburg 78.5 -10.4 -8.4 -2.0 73
2015 to 2016 change, starters, minimum 40 curves thrown.

Of course, the systems have a hard time classifying his breaking balls. He said he throws the slider about twice as often as the curve, and that the curve is still a bigger pitch with more drop than his slider, which doesn’t really match the results you get from any of the three publicly available pitch-type algorithms.

That’s okay: breaking balls give systems fits, in general. But one of Stroman’s newest tricks — the cutter he’s throwing more this year — only threatens to make it even harder to classify his mix. It should also make it harder on batters, provided he can keep it separate from his other breaking balls, which has been a struggle for Shane Greene and Zack Greinke in the past. “My pitching coach came over and said you want to make sure those are different pitches,” Stroman said of the cutter. “There’s a distinct difference between those two pitches. Different grip, different movement.”

So far so good. For one, his breaking ball mix looks to have more distinct groupings than the one Greene has shown, so maybe Stroman was right when he affirmed as much to his pitching coach. The Blue Jay has also thrown the cutter more in his last two three games then he has since mid-2014, and more than ever according to the pitcher. He’s been rewarded with three great starts in a row, and the best whiff rate of his career on the pitch and his second-most used weapon against lefties.

“If you look now, I’m really started to mix in the four-seam now, the cutter,” he said of his last outings. “I’m starting to learn how to use my pitches. That’s why, in the last few starts, I’ve had some more punchouts, because I’m starting to learn sequences.”

There’s a decent amount to be gained by adding pitches and improving sequencing. In 2014 and 2015, Stroman hovered around league average in terms of throwing his pitches in a sequence that has had proven results. Jon Roegele wrote about “tunnels” within which pitches look the same before breaking in different directions, and Stroman threw 15.6% of his pitches in those tunnels in 2015, and 16.4% last year. Jon Lester, who throws many of the same pitches as Stroman from the left side, is a perennial top-ten guy with 19-20% in those tunnels in any given year. Pitches gain as much as 25-33% more effectiveness in those tunnels, when judged by swinging-strike rate.

What’s left after adding more four-seamers and cutters? The changeup, which is his worst pitch right now. And he knows it. With a velocity differential of only around 7 mph off his fastball — “Need to get it to 10,” he says — the change has relied on movement to find its way to about average results.

“It’s my worst pitch and it’s my favorite pitch,” Stroman said of the change. “If I had that pitch going, I’d be unhittable,” he laughs. “I’m always screwing with it. It’s not my pitch, it’s hard pitch for me, given my size, my arm slot, the way my body moves. I’m good at spinning things, got a good feel for spin.”

Given the learning that the righty has done in his four short years as a full-time starter on the bump, you have to feel good about the next four years. Once he learns how to use all three breaking balls, the two fastballs, and maybe even the change, and then learns “when I can go here, when I can go there,” he’ll be even nastier than the ace he’s already been.

But even if he’s intuitive, don’t think that’s it’s all easy for Marcus Stroman. “It’s not easy, man,” he laughed as he finished frantically dressing in order to go take some swings in the cage.

We hoped you liked reading Marcus Stroman: “I’m Still Learning” by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Damaso
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Damaso

It’s hilarious considering the diametrically opposed body types but the stuff and approach comparisons with halladay is uncanny.

That being said I do think Marcus got a bit cocky to start this year and thought he could get away with pitching to contact more than anyone else in baseball…..but to his credit he’s already made the 2-strike adjustment to going for more swinging misses.

Like you’ve said more eloquently – kid is still learning.

All in all, the first 32 starts of his career have been pretty exciting..

32gs, 6.4ip/gs, 19.9k%/5.9bb%/57.4gb%, 79era-/77fip-/84xfip-, 4.6fwar/5.0rwar

Makes for an interesting comp with another young Jays draftee currently at a similar point in his career:

31gs, 6.3ip/gs, 28.2k%/5.1bb%/48.7gb%, 83era-/77fip-/72xfip-, 4.7fwar/3.9rwar

To bad he was traded.