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The Marcus Stroman signing by the numbers

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The starting pitcher signed a three-year deal with the Cubs

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets
Stroman pitches against the Cardinals in September at Citi Field
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Stroman has never pitched at Wrigley Field.

There were a lot of tidbits and rumors on social media mere hours before MLB decided to lockout the players (they were not obligated to do that) due to a failure to come to terms to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Adbert Alzolay was tweeting popcorn emojis. Matt Spiegel of 670 The Score was chit-chatting in his mentions about how nerve-wracking it was to break the Stroman news. Marcus Stroman himself was adding pictures of Michigan Avenue to his Instagram story.

Stroman’s Instagram two hours before the trade was finalized
Marcus Stroman’s Instagram

But the fact that stuck with me as I (finally) stopped refreshing threads and comments was that when Stroman dons blue pinstripes to pick up the ball for the Cubs at home, it will be his first time knowing the joy of pitching at Wrigley Field.

Let’s get a cautious mea culpa out of the way at the top of this post — I did not expect the Cubs to complete a signing of this magnitude this offseason, let alone before the lockout. They’ve seemed to be in transition for multiple years now. The Yan Gomes signing looked a lot more like a backstop against missing on a Willson Contreras extension than a deal done to make both catchers better for a competitive team. The Cubs still don’t really have a starting shortstop.

But signing Stroman to a three-year $71 million deal (with some escalators for innings pitched in years two and three) signals the possibility of a a slightly different plan than what I envisioned. Specifically, I still think the Cubs are still hedging their bets until they get a wave of talent in late 2023 or 2024. However, by adding one of the best starting pitching arms available there is a way to do that while potentially competing in a weak division in 2022. So let’s take a closer look at Marcus Stroman’s stats, what this signing means for the Cubs and why I can’t wait to head to attend Stroman’s first start at Wrigley Field.

The stats

Marcus Stroman may not have the fastest fastball but he is excellent at run suppression and has been throughout his career. You can see some key stats below:

Marcus Stroman Select Stats

Season Tm IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB% K-BB% AVG WHIP BABIP LOB% FIP xFIP
Season Tm IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB% K-BB% AVG WHIP BABIP LOB% FIP xFIP
2014 TOR 130.2 7.65 1.93 3.96 0.48 20.79% 5.24% 15.54% .250 1.171 .306 68.40% 2.84 3.17
2015 TOR 27.0 6.00 2.00 3.00 0.67 17.48% 5.83% 11.65% .208 .963 .237 90.91% 3.54 3.34
2016 TOR 204.0 7.32 2.38 3.07 0.93 19.42% 6.32% 13.10% .264 1.289 .308 68.60% 3.71 3.41
2017 TOR 201.0 7.34 2.78 2.65 0.94 19.66% 7.43% 12.23% .264 1.308 .310 78.05% 3.90 3.58
2018 TOR 102.1 6.77 3.17 2.14 0.79 17.15% 8.02% 9.13% .283 1.476 .326 60.54% 3.91 3.84
2019 2 Tms 184.1 7.76 2.83 2.74 0.88 20.54% 7.49% 13.05% .257 1.307 .307 76.11% 3.72 3.99
2021 NYM 179.0 7.94 2.21 3.59 0.85 21.64% 6.03% 15.62% .242 1.145 .286 75.45% 3.49 3.57
FanGraphs

He’s not a big swing and miss guy, although it’s worth noting that 2021 was his best year for strikeouts with a K/9 of 7.94 and a strikeout rate of 21.64 percent. He does not walk many batters. He just gets guys out, kind of like someone else Cubs fans may be familiar with. The ground ball rate has fallen from his time in Toronto, but it was still good for eighth best among qualified starters in MLB last year:

Top pitchers GB% 2021

Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Luis Castillo CIN 187.2 9.21 3.60 0.91 .318 71.50% 56.60% 15.00% 3.98 3.75 3.63 3.7
Lance McCullers Jr. HOU 162.1 10.26 4.21 0.72 .273 78.50% 56.40% 11.70% 3.16 3.52 3.69 3.3
Dallas Keuchel CHW 162.0 5.28 3.28 1.39 .307 68.20% 54.90% 17.90% 5.28 5.23 4.74 0.6
Sandy Alcantara MIA 205.2 8.80 2.19 0.92 .270 72.40% 53.30% 13.30% 3.19 3.42 3.45 4.2
Max Fried ATL 165.2 8.58 2.23 0.81 .278 75.90% 51.80% 12.10% 3.04 3.31 3.45 3.8
Kyle Gibson - - - 182.0 7.66 3.16 0.84 .276 73.70% 51.70% 11.10% 3.71 3.87 4.14 3.0
German Marquez COL 180.0 8.80 3.20 1.05 .293 69.30% 51.60% 15.90% 4.40 3.86 3.64 3.4
Marcus Stroman NYM 179.0 7.94 2.21 0.85 .286 75.50% 50.80% 12.80% 3.02 3.49 3.57 3.4
Zack Wheeler PHI 213.1 10.42 1.94 0.68 .288 75.30% 49.80% 10.80% 2.78 2.59 2.84 7.3
Wade Miley CIN 163.0 6.90 2.76 0.94 .301 79.40% 49.40% 12.60% 3.37 3.97 4.07 2.9
Select Stats FanGraphs

This is some pretty great company. Stroman has the eighth highest GB percent in MLB among qualified starters in 2021. He also has an impressively low HR/FB rate (good for 22nd in MLB last year) and a 75.5 percent strand rate (19th in MLB).

The stuff

Stroman primarily relies on four pitches. According to Statcast he has a 92 mile per hour sinker that he throws about 42 percent of the time. He mixes that up with an 85 mile per hour slider 22 percent of the time, an 86 mile per hour change-up he throws 16 percent of the time and a 90 mile per hour cutter he throws about 15 percent of the time. You can see how frequently he throws each of his pitches in the chart below, although I should caution that because Stroman sat out the pandemic-shortened season for family reasons there isn’t a continuous line on this chart between 2019 and 2021, which makes the most recent pitch distribution harder than normal to read. I highlighted those dots to make them slightly easier to read:

Stroman Pitch Selection by Year
Statcast

What’s most interesting in this chart to me is Stroman’s willingness to play around with his pitch mix for results. There are some pretty big variations over his career here, but the results — a GB rate over 50 percent and an ERA under four, are remarkably steady.

Earlier this week at The Athletic Eno Sarris compared three of the best starting pitchers who are 30 years old in the 2021 class, Stroman, Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman. You should read the whole piece as it is excellent, but here’s the rub:

Stroman has a larger arsenal than Ray or Gausman (four pitches as opposed to two). He also has a lot less mileage on his arm (emphasis mine):

Maybe some other research is relevant here. [Russell] Carleton also found that every pitch leads to more fatigue and poorer results going forward, so maybe it’s relevant that Stroman has thrown more than two thousand fewer pitches than Gausman and Ray, and averages 15.8 pitches per inning for his career, compared to 16.8 for Gausman and 17.6 for Ray. There was also once a feeling that ground-ball pitchers got injured more often due to the mechanics of a sinker, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, ground-ball pitchers get injured less frequently.

The man

The best part of this signing is Stroman himself, and it was on display all afternoon as the rumor mill heated up. It started with some curious likes as the rumor mill started turning:

Stroman Twitter

It was playful and fun in the same way Adbert’s tweets are each time he starts. Oh, and you know Alzolay and Stroman were interacting as the contract was finally announced:

It wasn’t just the playful lead up. Marcus Stroman broke his own deal and it is frankly it’s exactly the type of energy that MLB needs:

Stroman breaking his own deal was approximately ten thousand times (give or take) more fun than watching the blue checkmarks pat themselves on the back for being the first to the rumor. I love that Stroman is on that level all the time.

Take, for example, this piece on the correlations between Stroman’s success and his durag choice from Shakeia Taylor for FiveThirtyEight. The article is informative, fun and you should read the whole thing. For the record, Taylor’s analysis indicated that the right answer could be orange:

FiveThirtyEight

Of course she documented his next start:

Long before I thought there was a scintilla of a chance Stroman would be a Cub I loved everything about this for baseball, but it’s not all fun and durags.

Stroman’s thoughtfulness was also was on full display as he discussed the importance of mindfulness and mental health to his career. The candor in this clip from Marquee Sports Network would be remarkable in a player’s fifth or sixth year with a team, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in a press conference to announce a signing:

Takeaways

Signing Marcus Stroman is the first strong action the Cubs have taken to indicate they are not waving the white flag in 2022, but the key word here is “first.” This signing gives the Cubs a solid (perhaps even above average) rotation that includes Kyle Hendricks, Wade Miley, Alzolay and some combination of Alec Mills, Justin Steele and/or Keegan Thompson in the mix. However, in order to take advantage of a rotation that really thrives on weak contact the Cubs will need to upgrade their infield defense considerably. It seems pretty clear to me they’ll need to upgrade at shortstop, which would move Nico Hoerner to his better defensive spot, second base. That may create a roster crunch with Nick Madrigal, but I trust the Front Office, David Ross and a long season to sort that out after the lockout ends.

Honestly, for me the best part of this signing was the hope and joy that came with it. Yesterday before the news started circulating I walked by Wrigley Field on my way to get coffee and let my mind wander to the possibility that if the Cubs really meant it when they talked about being competitive they could sign Marcus Stroman. I talked myself out of it almost immediately. I had no hope for this team in the near future and I wondered if I would still care about them the same way if I was grumpy at them for two seasons while we wait for the new guys to arrive.

Baseball, after all, is a game. It’s a sport that stretches from February until November with games that are long and leisurely. The hours fans devote to baseball each season have ups and downs, but most of all, they should be fun. I felt joy about Cubs baseball yesterday in a way that has been absent since July. It was an incredible feeling to be excited about my favorite team again.

Baseball has often given me something small to look forward to when the rest of the world seemed pretty overwhelming. The Cubs signing Marcus Stroman definitely checked that box for me yesterday at a crucial time. Now, get a CBA negotiated, because Stroman’s debut at Wrigley Field is set for next April.