DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
by Quinn Sweetzir
On a team which has struggled with streaks of winning and losing, heating up and slumping, and an inability to stay out of the doctors office, few players - if any - have been as consistently solid for the Toronto Blue Jays this season as starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. In the season’s first couple months, Stroman has managed to record 62.2 innings of 3.30 ERA, which is very good overall. This is especially when you realize there are signs which suggest Marcus Stroman is underperforming somewhat to begin 2017.
I want to be clear that Marcus Stroman has been very good to start this season, however there are signs out there which suggest to me that he can end up being even better as the season progresses. His ERA is already down a full 1.07 runs from his 2016 total, so what makes me think he can be even better as the evolves into the the middle months? Well, there turns out to be more than you might expect at a glance.
The first of many ways Stroman has improved is in terms of total velocity, which has increased by a rather impressive margin to begin this season. In total, his average fastball velocity (which includes cutters, sinkers, and 4 seam fastballs) is up by 0.94 mph to early in 2017 compared to his 2016 average.
In addition, the young righties velocity increased as the season progressed into the summer months. It is also clear that his velocity is higher when you consider this:
As you can see, Stroman’s velocity is much higher than it was last season, and this could be a result of two possibilities. First, Stroman was still trying to regain full strength after he missed the vast majority of the 2015 season with a torn ACL and his velocity improved progressively as a result, or his velocity tends to increase in the early part of the season. Regardless of the cause however, the velocity increase has to be a good sign for the future of Stroman’s season, whether the velocity continues to increase into July as it did last year, or plateau’s at a level which is much higher than it was last season.
Oftentimes however, an increase in a pitchers velocity results in a significant decrease in that pitchers movement, however this has not been of concern for Stroman to start the season. In fact, the horizontal movement on all his pitches except his cutter has increased early in the season, without a significant change in Stroman’s vertical movement. This should indicate that his stuff has improved this season, and his results should improve with it.
Among the several impacts of an increase in velocity is there is often an increase strikeouts and whiffs from opposing hitters. In particular, Stroman’s fastballs have been whiffed on at a exceedingly high rate compared to his career numbers, as his whiff% is up 2.93%, 1.16%, and 4.28% for his 4 seam, sinker, and cutter respectively.
Although opponents are whiffing on Stroman’s fastballs at an increased rate this season, this increase is offset by a decrease on whiffs against Stroman’s changeup and curveball, and a stagnated whiff rate against his slider. Opposing hitters are whiffing 3.23% less of his changeups and 12.22% less on curveballs.
The decrease in whiff rates among Stroman changeups can be attributed to small sample size (he’s thrown just 17 CH’s in 2017), however the dramatic decrease in whiffs on curveballs is much more concerning. At first glance, Stroman’s curveball is being thrown at relatively the same velocity this season with similar movement to seasons past.
This leaves pitch location as a probable cause for Stroman’s struggles to get swings and misses with his curveball this season, and when you investigate his pitch locations, a disturbing trend becomes clear.
As you can see, the discrepancy between Stroman’s pitch location on curveballs between this season and his career numbers is massive. In seasons past, the Jays starter would pound the zone down and away as a put away strikeout pitch, however he’s instead trying to backdoor with the curveball at an increasingly high rate. A likely result of this is that opposing hitters take the curveball inside rather than swing at the curveball which starts in the zone, and breaks down and away.
Luckily, the fix to this problem is relatively simple; all it requires is a conscious effort by Stroman and whomever is catching him to make sure he uses curveball in ways which should generate more whiffs. If he can manage to do this, it could go a long way, towards improving his overall strikeout totals.
Perhaps surprising considering his good results, Stroman has had bad luck to start the season, particularly with batted balls. If you don’t believe me, consider that among the 15 qualified starters with the highest BABIP’s in baseball, only Stroman has an ERA below 3.75, and only two have ERA’s below 4.20 (Stroman and Martin Perez).
This relatively high BABIP becomes even more shocking when you consider Stroman’s career numbers. His career BABIP is .308, so this season's total of .341 appears to be a significant outlier.
But just to make sure, I decided to use a formula I developed to predict a player's BABIP based on batted ball types. The formula is as follows:
The constant variables are MLB batting averages for that batted ball type, and Stroman manages to achieve a predicted BABIP of .310, which seems rather reasonable considering his tendency to sink the ball and force grounders.
Obviously, the unproportionally high BABIP has resulted in additional baserunners and subsequently additionally runs allowed for Stroman to start the season. However these unsustainable baserunner totals are going to decrease as the season progresses, and we should expect improvement from Stroman over the course of the season as a result.
With the help of improved fastball velocity, better curveball location, and more sustainable batted ball luck, Marcus Stroman appears poised to improve on an already solid season. If everything comes together, I believe we could even be talking about Stroman as a Cy Young candidate by the end of the season. Just consider that the last few AL Cy Young Winners - Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel, and Rick Porcello - all came out of nowhere to win the award, and an improved performance from Stroman could put him in this company.
At the very least however, improvements from Stroman in these areas should lead to an even better finish to a season with a strong start from an individual standpoint, even if the Jays have struggled as a whole. A strong second half from Mr. HDMH himself could help propel the Blue Jays back into the playoff picture as well, and this seems readily possible considering the above factors.