Why Marcus Stroman deserves to be recognized as the Blue Jays’ ace

When the thought of home-grown, No. 1 pitchers come to mind in Toronto Blue Jays history, you’re left with very few options.

It’s slim picking, with only two obvious candidates, depending on who you ask.

Roy Halladay and Dave Stieb.

Both Halladay and Stieb were Blue Jays draft picks and followed similar paths in the majors, albeit in different eras. Stieb, a fifth-round pick, made his debut with the team in 1979 and would go on to pitch effectively for years — a stretch that saw him throw the first and only no-hitter in Blue Jays history. The run would last until 1992 before the Blue Jays would go on to win their first World Series. Stieb, who was released that season, was rewarded with a ring anyways.

Doc Halladay captured the hearts of a Blue Jays fan base even though it took him a few years to reach elite status. Despite his success on the mound, the Blue Jays never made the postseason with Halladay as their ace, failing to take advantage of his prime years. He would go on to provide the team with 48.2 WAR from 2001–2008, a stretch in which he won a Cy Young award in 2003. Along with Stieb, Halladay sits atop the Blue Jays all-time pitching leaders in strikeouts, WHIP and ERA, to name a few categories.

Unlike these two gems, the Blue Jays have seen several big name starters come and go over the years either through free agency or trade. Roger Clemens, David Wells*, Jimmy Key*, Jack Morris and Chris Carpenter*, to name a few, all had brief but at times exceptional stints with the organization. Since then, the Blue Jays have struggled to develop a dependable and consistent ace, despite seeing some talented pitchers graduate from the minors over the years.

*Wells, Carpenter and Key were Blue Jays draft picks and started their careers in Toronto.

That brings us to Marcus Stroman, the diminutive but confident young pitcher who was drafted 22nd overall out of Duke University in 2012. Prior to the draft, Stroman — who drew comparisons to longtime reliever and closer Tom Gordon — was considered one of the most polished pitchers in his class. Much like Gordon, many wondered if Stroman’s size (5-foot-7) would deter and eventually hamper his ability to start and log big innings.

In short, it hasn’t. Now pitching in his third year with the club (it would be his fourth but a season altering knee injury in 2015 limited him to only 4 regular season starts that year, though he did pitch in the postseason), Stroman has defied the odds, developing into one of the most exciting, successful and charismatic starters in the game.

Even with his flashiness on the mound, it still feels as though he’s overlooked across the league. When you think about the best pitchers in baseball, most point to Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. There’s no disputing that these few, and some others, are deserving of being labeled as the best in the game today.

Stroman, though, deserves to be recognized as the Blue Jays ace. Why? Because he’s pitched like one and at age 26, has enjoyed his best full season in the majors. Perhaps he doesn’t get the credit he deserves because of how he’s managed to find success on the mound. The biggest reason? Stroman is, by far, one of if not the best in the game at getting batters to ground out.

While other aces rely on electric and overpowering stuff, Stroman — while still fully capable of striking batters out — doesn’t rely on whiffs. Instead, he capitalizes on the movement on his pitches, particularly his fastball, sinker and slider. Since 2015, a span of 61 starts, Stroman has combined to a ground ball percentage of 62 percent — the best mark in baseball.

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Stroman’s heat map since late 2015 is a solid indicator at how he’s been able to generate ground ball outs by keeping the ball low in the zone. (Courtesy: FanGraphs)

Who cares about ground balls? Everyone should. If you have a dependable infield, which the Blue Jays do, ground balls lead to easy outs and double plays. Outs lead to scoreless innings and, scoreless innings lead to wins. Stroman has greatly benefited due to his ability to rack up ground ball after ground ball and it’s led to success.

If you want more proof, it’s time to take a look at one of baseball’s most available and used pitching metrics. FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) strips out out the role of defense and luck, meaning it’s a better indication of how a pitcher performed over an extended period. Among American League qualified starters this year, Stroman has pitched to a 3.69 FIP — good for eighth best. Let’s dig deeper and broaden the search.

Since 2014, among qualified pitchers, Stroman has the AL’s 12th best FIP, registering at 3.48. If you factor in National League starters he drops a bit but comes in at 28th. What’s interesting here, though, is who he’s ahead of.

Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Sonny Gray, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Harvey. Most of, if not all of these pitchers are or have been considered legitimate staff aces at one point or another. That’s significant.

Let’s turn our attention to WAR, a stat most baseball and sports fans in general should be aware of by now. WAR provides us all with a terrific guide to a pitcher’s value to date. It coincides with FIP because that metric is used in determining a starter’s WAR total.

Because Stroman missed 2015, let’s diminish the search and look at WAR pitching leaders since 2016. Among league qualified pitchers, Stroman has combined to 6.7 WAR, good for ninth-best in the majors placing him above every single one of the pitchers I mentioned above other than Verlander. He’s also provided more WAR than Jacob deGrom, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke during that span, though it should be noted they’re just barely beneath him, making it quite close. Still, Stroman has the edge.

The Blue Jays, though not serious contenders this year, have seen at least one player along with Stroman perform above expectation. First baseman Justin Smoak has been so unpredictably great this season that it’s sparked debate over whether or not he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. Stroman, who enters his next start with a team-leading 11 wins, 2.99 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, should not only be viewed as Toronto’s best starter, but a pitcher the front office can build around for the future. It’s been a long time coming but Stroman, assuming he stays with the organization long-term, has what it takes to join Halladay and Stieb as one of the best home grown pitchers the Blue Jays have ever seen.

For now, though, being labeled as the club’s ace shouldn’t be considered far fetched. Even if he continues to be overlooked, Stroman will manage to surprise you. Hey, he’s made it this far doing it, why stop now.

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