By: Dan Grant
It’s happened all his life, probably. People telling him he’s too short to do this or do that. Especially, given his vocation, too short to to be a starting pitcher. But Marcus Stroman has shrugged it off, has most likely worked harder because of it, and has been driven since his first day as a member of the Blue Jays organization to prove that the traditional knock doesn’t apply to him.
The stereotypical criticism has been perpetuated during his big league career by many fans, who often get their ammunition from a guy they call ‘The Manalyst'(or at least who calls himself that; ironically enough, if he knew the Urban Dictionary definiton of the term, his bro-tastic head might explode), which is such a lazy and chauvinistic moniker that you have to take anything that comes out of his mouth with a Rock of Gibraltar-sized grain of salt.
For years, former Blue Jays catcher and current television analyst Gregg Zaun has publicly downplayed Marcus Stroman’s potential. He’s berated his lack of consistency, repeatedly stating that he’s too short to be an effective starting pitcher and though he walks it back at times, has generally acted as a mouthpiece for any and all of the foolish naysayers that think Toronto should either move on from their 26 year old starting pitcher, or convert him into a relief pitcher.
This is not only a stupid stance that’s based on hearsay and posturing, it’s borderline batshit crazy.
And yet, casual (and/or dumb!) fans hear this analysis and regurgitate it every single time Stroman struggles. It’s never because he didn’t have his best stuff that day, or made a couple bad pitches. It’s because of his height, or because of his ‘attitude’. It’s a bullshit double-standard that’s been trotted out time and again not just by the fans, but by Stroman’s own local media.
One of Zaun’s favourite tropes is to condescendingly act like he’s actually doing Stroman a favour, by suggesting he’s not lacking talent, but just miscast as a starter. He’s consistently compared him to another former starter who was slight of stature, Tom Gordon. He’s not the only who’s made this comparison, but he’s surely been the loudest. This comp is a weak one on its face, but its borne of the fact that there aren’t a whole hell of a lot of Major League starting pitchers who stand under 6’0 feet tall. Gordon was listed at 5’10; Stroman at just 5’8.
So I get it. Dumb as it is, I get why your mind would go there, particularly when Stroman struggles. It’s even led to an equally dumb retort: ‘Well Pedro Martinez was short, and he was great!’
We don’t even need to make the Pedro comparison, because it’s a waste of time. But even a cursory examination of the make-up and results of the other two shows that Marcus Stroman, at age 26 and entering just his second full season as a starting pitcher, is superior to anything that Tom Gordon ever was as a starting pitcher already, and he’s barely even begun his career.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Marcus Stroman was a first round draft pick out of Duke. He went 22nd overall in the 2012 draft, and reached the Major Leagues in May of 2014, spending just one full season in the minors, and dominating at every level.
Tom Gordon was a 6th round pick by the Kansas City Royals in 1986, 157th overall. He was a high school pitcher from Florida. He was named Baseball America’s top minor league pitcher in 1988, fanning 265 batters in 185 2/3 innings for Appleton, a KC minor league affiliate, and debuted with the big team that September.
Hey, not bad so far right? But here is where the similarities end, which is to say, pretty much immediately.
Stroman joined the Blue Jays in 2014, struggling through 6 relief appearances before making 20 starts. He finished the season with a tidy 3.65 ERA, paired with a 2.84 FIP that suggested he’d pitched even better than his results. He struck out 111 batters in 130.2 innings, a solid figure, and walked only 28. He lost nearly all of 2015 to a freak knee injury suffered during training camp, before returning in September and pitching effectively over four starts and making three further starts during the Blue Jays run to the ALCS versus Kansas City.
In 1989 Gordon joined Kansas City as a reliever but joined the rotation mid-season, making 16 starts, compiling a 17-9 record with a 3.64 ERA and an 8.4 K/9 that ranked him third in the Major Leagues. His 3.28 FIP backed up his very good results as legitimate. He also walked 86 batters in only 163 innings, a total that would have tied a full-season MLB worst mark in 2016.
In 1990 he was similarly effective as a full time starting pitcher — 32 starts, a 12-11 record, 3.73 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 8.1 K/9 over 195.1 innings pitched. However, his walks ballooned to 99 and his 1.49 WHIP ranked him 73rd of 75 qualified starting pitchers that season. Gordon’s control issues had him walking a fine line, even at age 22.
Gordon moved into a traditional swing-man role for the Royals from 1991-93, mainly due to those issues. He appeared in 133 games over three seasons, 39 of them starts. He never averaged less than 4.2 BB/9, while his strikeout totals began to droop. By the time he was moved back into the rotation in 1994, he was a shell of the talented youngster he’d been, at just age 26. In his final season as a Royal in 1995, he posted a 4.43 ERA with a 4.15 FIP, tossing 189 innings. His strikeout total fell to just 5.7 per 9 innings, while his walks held steady at 4.2, leading to a career worst (to that point) 1.55 WHIP, rating him 71st out of 75 qualified starters.
The Red Sox tried to salvage him as a starter in 1996, for some ungodly reason letting him throw 215.2 innings with a 5.59 ERA and 1.64 WHIP. He gave up a major league worst 134 earned runs that season.
Boston finally threw in the towel during the 1997 season. After Gordon struggled through 25 inconsistent starts, they converted him into a reliever, where he was able to dial up the strikeouts and tone down his walks. He became extremely effective, and had a great decade plus long run as a late inning stalwart. He became a three time All-Star out of the bullpen.
He never started another game.
Tom Gordon was a huge strikeout pitcher with erratic control that derailed his career as a starter. He was converted to relief not because he was short, but because he couldn’t stop walking people. Did his size play into that? It’s hard to say. The argument that his slight frame made it difficult for him to repeat his delivery 100+ times per start, due to endurance issues, is something to be considered for sure.
But it doesn’t ultimately matter, because that is not Marcus Stroman’s destiny. Tom Gordon’s strengths are not his strengths, and his problems are not his problems.
If you want to talk about body size, Stroman is shorter than Gordon — but he’s clearly stronger too. He’s listed at 180 lbs on Baseball Reference, meaning he’s got a more squat, powerful frame. And as anyone who watched the off-season conditioning feature produced about his return from that knee injury knows, Stroman is dedicated to keeping his body in top working order.
Stroman’s make-up bears very little resemblance to Gordon’s when you get beyond a cursory analysis. Yes, they’re small guys with big arms and a lot of different pitches. But while Gordon was always going for the whiff, Stroman pitches to contact; he led the Major Leagues in groundball rate last year, as 60.1% of balls put in play against him hit the turf. These stats weren’t kept until after Gordon was done as a starting pitcher, but even as a reliever, he posted a career groundball rate of 45.8%, and never more than 52.7% in a single season. Stroman was better than Gordon’s career best mark in his rookie year.
Stroman ‘struggled’ with walks last season, and posted a mark of 2.4 per 9 innings. That mark would easily have been the best of Gordon’s career, even when he was an All-Star reliever. He hasn’t struck out as many guys as Gordon, to be sure, but his career strikeout to walk ratio of 3.35 dwarfs Gordon’s 1.65 as a starting pitcher.
Stroman had problems in May and June of 2016, to be sure. He brought an ugly 4.89 ERA into the second half of last season, which may have coloured fans appreciation of him as a long-term asset for the Blue Jays, especially given the unrealistic expectations put onto him before the season began. After making significant adjustments to his pitch selection, and perhaps getting some help from an old teammate, Stroman was far more effective in the second half of the year.
Pre-All Star Break: 116 innings pitched, 4.89 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.71 xFIP, 83 strikeouts, 6.44 K/9, 2.56 BB/9,
Post-All Star Break: 88.0 innings pitched, 3.68 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 3.01 xFIP, 83 strikeouts, 8.49 K/9, 2.15 BB/9.
Imagine that. A young pitcher learned from his mistakes and improved.
The FIP and xFIP figures from the second half suggest that Stroman pitched a little bit better than his results, but maybe got a little bit unlucky with the long ball. For a guy who lives down in the zone like he does (and thus might get hurt when he tires and elevates his pitches), I don’t think this is necessarily predictive of better future results, but it does show that if Stroman figures out a way to limit those home runs, he’s likely to continue his upward career trajectory.
So why did he struggle in the first place? Stroman generated this absurd set of pitch comps during his rookie season, per Fangraphs. However, because he threw a slider, a cutter, a sinker AND a curveball, he felt that his pitches were too similar, and thus, losing their effectiveness. He simplified his pitch choices around the All-Star break, and what you see above were the results. His core as a dynamic, hard throwing groundball pitcher never changed — he just needed a tweak to his secondary offerings and a more consistent game plan.
Such tangible improvements, especially mid-season, were never a calling card of Tom Gordon’s career. He was an incredibly talented pitcher with a couple very real and obvious flaws.
Marcus Stroman is not Flash Gordon. He’s not Pedro Martinez either, and he doesn’t have to be. He’s Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays fans. Give him the chance to grow as such, and tell Gregg Zaun to pipe down.