Thursday, 29 August 2013

Starting Stroman?

Recent circumstances have led to a greater focus on the next wave of Toronto Blue Jays pitching. The fact that the 2013 Jays are pretty much a lost cause, the perhaps unsurprising news that Brandon Morrow's season is over, and Josh Johnson's placement on the DL with a forearm strain have led to speculation around which new faces we might see in the Blue Jays' rotation in September if not sooner, as well as what the rotation might look like in 2014.

Currently pitching in AAA are Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, familiar characters that haven't been seen in a while due to their recoveries from Tommy John surgery. By all accounts they're progressing well in their Minor League rehab assignments, though Kyle Drabek seems to be having much better results in the small sample. He's only walked 6 batters in 39 rehab innings, which isn't enough to say the control problems that have plagued him are a thing of the past, but is still nice to see.

Sean Nolin is another pitching prospect, recently promoted to AAA Buffalo, that could get another look by the Blue Jays before the end of the season. Fans probably best remember him for getting absolutely shelled in his Major League debut. In 1.1 innings pitched, he faced 11 batters giving up seven hits, walking one and striking out none. It was ugly. However, prior to his promotion to AAA, he lead AA by FIP at 2.69 and was striking out 26.8% of the batters he faced. So far the left hander he's only allowed 2 runs in his first two AAA starts, so it still appears that there's a lot there to like. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see him get another shot with the Jays this year.

The prospect I find most interesting, however, is 2012 first round pick Marcus Stroman. Not necessarily because I think he'll be the one to get the call, or that he'll be the best of the bunch, but because the consensus among people far more knowledgeable than I is that the stocky right hander could be an impact reliever in the Major Leagues tomorrow. In fact, most assessments of him tend to lean towards him ending up as a late innings reliever eventually, and there is a school of thought, admittedly mostly among disgruntled fans anxious for the Jays' once vaunted farm system to yield Major League dividends, that the Jays are just wasting time and risking injury while experimenting with Stroman as a starter.

For most, the biggest strike against him as a starter (no pun intended), is his size. He's listed at just 5'9" and 185 lbs which is definitely undersized for a starting pitcher. The prevailing wisdom (if you can necessarily call it that) is that little guys like Stroman have difficulty getting enough downward plane on their fastball to keep it from being hittable, and that they don't have the same endurance and durability as bigger bodied pitchers. The second point influences the first, because as pitchers fatigue they tend to have more difficulty staying on top of pitches and driving with the lower half which is, as mentioned, especially important for smaller guys.

For these reasons, you don't see a lot of starters Stroman's size. The most common comparisons I've seen are to Tom Gordon and Roy Oswalt, two undersized guys that were still able to be effective as starters. Tim Lincecum is another guy who is small for a starter but has had some tremendous success in the role. These guys are the exception rather than the rule though, and while some make a case that an institutional bias against small starters is as much to blame for their rarity as their perceived biological disadvantages, there's no disputing that they are few and far between. 

According to Matt Garrioch's pre-draft scouting report at Minor League Ball, Stroman's fastball can sit anywhere from 94-98 mph and his best breaking pitch is a "nasty hard slider". He also features a plus change up that should give him an effective weapon against left handed batters, and reportedly flashes a cutter from time to time. Garrioch is one of the evaluators who believe in Stroman's starting potential, saying that "while maybe not an ace, [he could be] a very solid #2 starter with potential to be lights out any day he takes the mound." Sounds like something for Jays fans to dream on to me. 

As a college pitcher with what Garrioch called "three MLB ready pitches", he was regarded as one of the 2012 draftees that would make it to the bigs the fastest. He might have even debuted already if not for the 50 game suspension he was slapped with for testing positive for a banned stimulant he claims (quite plausibly) was contained in an over the counter supplement.

So, if Stroman's proximity to the Major Leagues was such a strong selling point, what's he doing still toiling away in AA? Well, despite anxious fans' fervent desire to see somebody, anybody, graduate from the Jays' system and make an impact in the show, the organization isn't ready to cut bait on Stroman's starting potential, nor should they be. 

Stroman's personal motto (and name of his clothing line) is "height doesn't measure heart", and so far he's been on a mission to prove it. He's been extremely successful in the starting role thus far. In 100 AA innings he has a 3.47 ERA and a 3.42 FIP. He's struck out 27.2% of the batters he's faced (including a dominant 13 K performance) and walked just 6.2% for an impressive 4.37 K/BB ratio. 

After his first few AA starts it appeared as though the concerns about his size were being validated as be was giving up a ton of fly balls. However, since then his batted ball numbers have normalized quite a bit. He's at 30.9% fly balls and 42.5% ground balls which is acceptable if he can maintain those rates at the Major League level. 

His home run numbers aren't quite as encouraging as he's allowed at least one in 10 of his 19 (13 total) appearances for a 1.13 HR/9 rate. Given his high strikeout rate and low walk rate, he might be able to work around the home runs by limiting base runners and therefore runs allowed, but whether or not that ability translates to the bigs is what will likely determine whether his future is in the rotation or the pen. 

So with his reportedly Major League ready repertoire, great success in AA, and the obvious needs of the big club, will Stroman get a call this season? Well to be honest, I wouldn't be that surprised if we don't see Stroman until next year, and that's just fine with me. For starters, he's not on the 40-man roster, and while there are probably ways that they could add him, it makes it a little trickier for the organization than putting in a call to Hutchison, Drabek or Nolin. 

Also, I don't think they should bring him up unless he's going to start. There's not much debate that Stroman could already be effective as a reliever, so I don't know that there's much to gain by bringing him up in that role. Far more important will be finding out if he can consistently get big league hitters out when having to turn over the lineup two or three times. So, if they're not going to bring him up to join the rotation it makes more sense to allow him to continue developing in the starter's role in the Minors. After all, he did miss out on 50 games worth of innings since being drafted (some of which will also be made up for by his participation in the Arizona Fall League) and with all the concerns about small pitchers' endurance and durability, stretching him out and preparing him for a starter's workload should be the primary concern.

It's at times like these I'm glad that Alex Anthopoulos is willing to go against conventional wisdom regarding small starters and prevailing opinion about Stroman's eventual role in an attempt to extract the maximum value from an electric young arm. If it doesn't work out there will no doubt be some fans howling that they "knew it all along" (they didn't) or that AA wasted all this time in which Stroman could have been contributing in the bigs (he hasn't). Whatever the outcome may be, the experiment is worth it. I'll gamble on top-to-mid rotation starter potential every day, at least until Stroman proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can't hack it. A guy that gives you 200 quality innings a year is far more valuable than even the most lights out reliever, and should the experiment fail it's much easier to go from the rotation to the pen than vice versa. I think Blue Jays fans have seen in graphic detail how much good a strong relief corp is if the rotation isn't giving the team a chance to win every day. If Stroman has the potential to help in that regard they have to explore it. 

Besides, who doesn't love rooting for an underdog? 

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