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Can Marcus Stroman win the AL Cy Young?

The young righty needs to make some adjustments if he wants to be a part of the upper echelon of baseball’s best.

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Happy new year, everyone. Baseball is back, and it’s that time of the year when every single baseball player feels he’s better than he’s ever been, fitter than ever, and of course poised for his best season yet. That’s the exciting and hopeful nature of spring training, and why shouldn’t it be?

Of course, the offseason allows everyone to rest, reflect on the year they’ve had and recuperate from injuries. It’s that time where all teams and players are equal in the standings. Some established stars arrive hoping to have another season where they can cement their place as one of the best in the game, some veterans come in thinking about their looming free agency and how much they can cash in with a successful season, and of course some players on the waiver wire hope to impress a club and make it on the Opening Day roster. It’s hope that keeps us all going, and tells us that our very best is yet to come.

It’s also the time of the year where all professional and amateur pundits start making predictions. Predictions in sports — particularly baseball — are as exciting as they are useless, but that doesn’t detract us from making them, whether it’s for an article or just a bet among friends.

It was with this interest I read a column by Zachary D. Rymer at Bleacher Report , which contained his 2017 picks for major awards. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are the most obvious and boring predictions for AL MVP and NL Cy Young, respectively, but the interesting pick for me was Marcus Stroman winning the AL Cy Young. What made me sit up and think about this prediction more than any other prediction is because firstly, Stroman is a member of my beloved Blue Jays and secondly, I secretly hoped and thought that he might end up winning the award in 2016. However, with the 2016 season in the rear view mirror, we all know how that turned out for Marcus Stroman:

So I started thinking, what must Stroman accomplish to have a year that would put him in the conversation for the AL Cy Young? Despite his promise and #HDMH attitude, a 4.37 ERA is nothing to write home about.

For any pitcher to have hopes of winning a Cy Young, both luck and skills must play out for the whole year. Generally, the short list of candidates includes pitchers who have thrown 200+ innings with a relatively low ERA. (With that said, ERA alone doesn’t make a Cy Young winner; case in point being Stroman’s teammate Aaron Sanchez, who won the ERA title in 2017 and was nowhere near the conversation for Cy Young as he threw just 192 innings.) Let’s look at some of the AL Cy Young winners from the past five years and see how they fared in certain statistical categories.

AL Cy Young winners, 2012-16

Year Pitcher Innings K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
Year Pitcher Innings K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
2012 David Price 211.0 24.5% 7.1% .285 81.10% 2.56 3.05 5.0
2013 Max Scherzer 214.1 28.7% 6.7% .259 74.40% 2.90 2.74 6.1
2014 Corey Kluber 235.2 28.3% 5.4% .316 78.60% 2.44 2.35 7.4
2015 Dallas Keuchel 232.0 23.7% 5.6% .269 79.40% 2.48 2.91 5.9
2016 Rick Porcello 223.0 21.2% 3.6% .269 74.30% 3.15 3.40 5.2
Data via FanGraphs

Notwithstanding some of the controversies regarding the merits of some winners, it gives us a good starting point as to where a pitcher should end up in some of these categories to be considered the best in the American League. Having said that, let’s look at Stroman’s numbers from 2016.

Stroman 2016

Year Pitcher Innings K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
Year Pitcher Innings K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
2016 Marcus Stroman 204.0 19.4% 6.3% .308 68.6% 4.37 3.71 3.6
Data via FanGraphs

These numbers are a far cry from a potential Cy Young winner, so let’s look at Stroman’s year in detail and break it down to see if he can improve on these numbers and end 2017 as a top-five AL pitcher.

Expectations were high for Marcus Stroman coming into 2016. After a solid rookie year in 2014 (ERA 3.65 and FIP 2.84) where he established himself as a top of the rotation starter, he missed all but four starts in September in 2015, in which he pitched to an ERA of 1.67 to lead the Toronto rotation into the playoffs.

2016, however, turned out to be a rude awakening for the young Blue Jay. He pitched to an ERA of 4.89 in the first half, and there was chatter among fans and pundits that a stint in Buffalo might do him some good. Toronto, however, continued to show confidence in the young righty, and to his credit, he somewhat turned it around in the second half, posting a 3.68 ERA. Here are his splits by half:

Stroman 2016 splits

Split Innings K% BB% K-BB% GB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP
Split Innings K% BB% K-BB% GB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP
1st Half 116.0 16.9% 6.7% 10.2% 59.9% .306 65.0% 4.89 3.88
2nd Half 88.0 22.7% 5.8% 17.0% 60.4% .312 74.0% 3.68 3.49
Data via FanGraphs

So, just looking at these numbers, Stroman did make certain adjustments and got significantly better results. He shaved more than a run off his ERA while lowering his FIP by 39 points. He also improved his strikeouts in the process, without giving up more walks. However, given his continued high GB rate, his BABIP remained high; in fact, his 2016 BABIP of .308 was much higher than the SP average and was easily the worst in Blue Jays rotation. Still, the overall package was a much better pitcher.

Let’s look at adjustments Stroman made that might explain a better second half:

Stroman pitch usage splits

Split Fastball % Slider % Cutter % Curveball % Changeup %
Split Fastball % Slider % Cutter % Curveball % Changeup %
1st Half 58.3% 13.5% 10.6% 10.5% 7.1%
2nd Half 56.5% 16.2% 14.7% 9.5% 3.1%
Data via FanGraphs

In the second half, he threw more sliders and cutters, and reduced his change up to a minimum. There’s a slight but not significant reduction in his fastball and curveball usage. Let’s look further at Pitch Type Value:

Stroman pitch type value

Split wFA wFT wFC wSL wCU wCH
Split wFA wFT wFC wSL wCU wCH
1st Half -2.3 3.8 -2.3 1.9 0.0 -4.0
2nd Half 2.3 -1.1 7.4 -1.5 0.6 -0.6
Data via FanGraphs

(Caveat: Pitch Type Value is not a predictive statistic; however, in this case we are using it for a descriptive goal, trying to analyze events that have already occurred.)

It seems that the increased used of the cutter in the second half led to better results for Stroman, while reducing the use of his changeup seems to have improved its effect as well. However, his two-seamers were noticeably worse off in the second half.

Now let’s backtrack and see Stroman’s Pitch usage in his successful 2014.

Stroman pitch usage 2014

Fastball % Slider % Cutter % Curveball % Changeup %
Fastball % Slider % Cutter % Curveball % Changeup %
54.8% 6.3% 15.8% 16.2% 6.9%
Data via FanGraphs

There seems to be a notable difference in Stroman when he throws more cutters and offspeed pitches. It’s been suggested by many that due to his height he lacks a vertical plane on his two seamers that might set them up nicely for the hitters. Looking at some more data from Baseball Savant:

This re-emphasizes our hypothesis that Stroman probably needs to cut down on his two-seamers. In 2016, he threw 1360 two-seamers, which were hit for a .311 average. His cutter, on the other hand, generated more strikeouts on half as many pitches; the same goes for his slider’s effectiveness.

To win the Cy Young, Stroman needs to sustain some of these adjustments. Given his ability to pitch like a workhorse, and barring any injury, Stroman should be good for his second 200-inning season. He has also shown the ability to control his walks and keep the ball in the park. However, as noble as his 9 every 5 (9 innings every 5th day) pursuit is, Stroman is the type of a pitcher who is probably better off using more offspeed pitches and reducing his two-seamers. This may cut into his ground balls, but if it means an increase in his strikeout rate, then it should be a happy trade off.