Marcus Stroman is one of my absolute favorite pitchers to watch in professional baseball. Which is interesting because usually my favorite pitchers throw 200 MPH and have breaking pitches that graphically shatter the knees of opposing hitters (something I imagine to be largely the case with anyone). Stroman doesn’t necessarily do that. Then again, he really doesn’t have to.
There’s definitely something to be said about a guy without overpowering stuff who can locate and get the results he craves, even without the sexy numbers coming in high volumes. It’s also worth noting that Stroman has had an extraordinarily interesting career to this point. While it feels like he’s been pitching out of Queens forever, this is only his first full season with the New York Mets. Weird, right? But just has been the case throughout his career prior to his 2019 arrival, he continues to evolve.
The early returns for Stroman in 2021 have been really strong, as he’s anchored a starting staff that has gone through it from a health perspective. His season, to date, features a 1.99 ERA (ninth among 69 qualifying starters), a 3.12 FIP (24th), a 1.99 BB/9 (ninth), a 1.03 WHIP (27th), and a 56.6 percent groundball rate (sixth). It’s a nice group of figures for a guy who ranks 57th among those starters in strikeouts (7.52 per nine) and sits in just the 16th percentile in HardHit% against (46.6)—although it is important to note that the skill set that Stroman does possess in the secondary stuff does lead him to fool his fair share of hitters; he’s a fixture on Pitching Ninja.
Marcus Stroman, Nasty 87mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/pkB5i4nUMJ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 11, 2021
He just doesn’t do it at as high a volume of some other arms we’d classify as elite. And, again, he doesn’t have to and the Mets don’t need him to.
The basis of my sweeping declaration of how interesting Stroman’s career has been lies purely in his usage and how it’s changed over the course of his career. Here’s his year-to-year Pitch%:
The four-seamer is virtually gone at this point. The sinker usage dipped in 2019, but it’s way back up now. The slider has remained relatively constant since its usage jumped in 2017-18. The cutter spiked in ‘19 and is now back to 2016 levels. It’s just an intense array of usage. So who’s to say that his pitch mix in 2021 will even last, let alone work?
The underlying figures and trends for Marcus Stroman are wildly interesting. Opposing hitters are swinging at a 53.2 percent rate. That’s the third-highest mark in the league, but it’s also Stroman’s personal highest by, like, seven percent. Conversely, his CSW% (25.9) ranks near the very bottom of that group of qualifying starters. Which is the lowest of his career. More swings, less whiffs, and a lot of hard contact on a .256 BABIP would seem to indicate that a regression is on the way for Stroman. But what if it doesn’t?
The thing with Stroman is that he has always been a very contact-oriented pitcher. Through his own evolution and tinkering with pitches, that’s never changed. So, really, a 77.2 percent contact rate, which puts him 22nd among those qualified starters, really isn’t that concerning. It’s actually the lowest of his career. And while his GB% is lower than some of his previous seasons, it’s still, uh, sixth among starters.
Yeah, hard contact is maybe, probably an issue. But Stroman’s pumping sinkers far more than any other pitch. He throws it over 45 percent of the time to a Whiff% of just 14.2. But it’s not designed to get strikeouts. He’s only posted a Whiff% over 15 with that pitch a single time. And it was 16.1 percent. Stroman also has spin working in his favor. He sits in just the 40th percentile in fastball velocity, averaging 92.7 on the sinker. But he’s in the 83rd in fastball spin. He’s increased that spin every single year. He’s at 2388 RPM on it this year. And he’s generating groundball contact with that pitch all over the zone:
So he’s obviously not going to garner high volume punchouts in deploying that pitch as often as he does. Meanwhile, the slider (24.1 percent) and the cutter (15.7), which serve as his second and third pitch based on usage, are going for whiff rates of 34.7 and 33.3 percent, respectively. Could he generate more whiffs with those two pitches, both of which he has a historical precedent for utilizing more often? Sure. Does he need to? With high spin and the fact that hitters are mashing that ball directly into the ground, probably not.
Pitch usage aside, Stroman’s command has also been better. He’s putting pitches where he wants to. His 1.99 BB/9 is the lowest of his career. The slider is a particular favorite of mine:
Yeah, that’ll play. The sinker’s clearly working the way he wants it to all over the zone. The slider pictured here looks just as it should against hitters of both handedness. Overall, though, his pitch locations look far more concentrated than they have in years past:
So to kind of shorten up the point here, what does Marcus Stroman need to do in order to stave off any kind of regression after this strong start? More than anything, it’s probably for the Mets to play competent defense behind him, given the heavy groundball rates. It was a challenge last year, but it hasn’t hurt Stroman specifically to this point that the Mets rank in the bottom half of the league in most defensive metrics to this point. Should he struggle with command or the defense just falls apart entirely, it’s possible he could turn to those other pitches. But the fact that he doesn’t have to, as is, speaks to how effective he is in knowing exactly what he’s trying to do up on the bump.
To take things one step further, we—and by “we” you know who I mean, because it isn’t “me”—spend so much time litigating Trevor Bauer and lauding him as a genius for the focus on spin rates and tinkering with usage and the like. But perhaps we spend a little more time focusing on someone like Marcus Stroman, who doesn’t have traditionally nasty or sexy stuff on the hill, but has utilized those ideas in such a way that he’s currently presenting as the best version of himself.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.