After missing nearly the entire 2015 season, how should fantasy owners evaluate Blue Jays SP Marcus Stroman?
Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: Marcus Stroman, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
• The 2014 stats (Missed nearly all of 2015 with a knee injury): 20 starts, 120 1/3 innings, 3.29 ERA, 3.16 xFIP, 1.15 WHIP, 103 strikeouts, 21.1% K%, 5.5% BB%, 53.7 GB%
• The SI rank: No. 24 SP, No. 80 overall
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 27 SP, No. 97 overall
• The skinny: PFPs, or pitchers fielding practice, are one of those necessary evils of spring training, because it’s boring and monotonous, one of the many boxes that must be checked off. One of the PFP drills requires pitchers to field bunts and make throws to all three bases, as well as home plate. A pitcher will go through his windup and deliver a fake pitch with the bare minimum of enthusiasm and adherence to the real thing as that requires, then field the bunt and make a throw. Last year at Toronto’s spring training, PFPs become downright sinister.
Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays wunderkind starter who was coming off an outstanding rookie year in which he racked up the stats listed above and primed himself for a breakout second season, tore his ACL fielding a bunt in one of those drills, effectively ending his season. This was an exceptionally tough pill to swallow. Pitcher injuries are an unfortunate part of the game, but they’re supposed to be a natural outgrowth of the unnatural motion of throwing a 96-mph fastball or 89-mph slider—not freak knee injuries suffered during mundane spring fielding drills.
Stroman returned in September, making four starts down the stretch and three more in the playoffs, and compiling a 2.72 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings. We’re not going to try to glean anything from his 2015 experience beyond that he threw all the pitches in his arsenal upon his return, as well as the fact that he returned to the mound sooner than anyone believed possible.
So how do fantasy owners value Stroman heading into the 2016 season? Well, let’s look at one of his counterparts. Garrett Richards enjoyed a breakout season in 2014 before tearing his ACL while covering first base in a late-August start. He only missed his first few turns through the rotation in ’15, and while his numbers regressed, he still threw 207 1/3 innings, amassing a 3.65 ERA, 3.80 xFIP, 1.24 WHIP and a 20.4% strikeout rate. What’s more, he didn’t lose any of his velocity. If anything, the regression Richards experienced last season was likely natural and not induced by the previous year’s injury.
Richards, of course, had just eight months to rehab before beginning the rigors of a full season. Stroman will be about 13 months removed from the incidence of his injury before he starts his first full season with a repaired knee. He’ll also have the benefit of going through a full spring training, something Richards didn’t get before returning to the Angels. We can safely say that the knee injury is in Stroman’s rear-view mirror. Now he can get back to being one of the fantasy community’s favorite breakout pitchers.
If there’s anything interesting to note about Stroman’s brief 2015 season, it was the continuing of a trend that began in July ’14. Stroman has always been a five-pitch pitcher, with the slider, curveball, cutter and changeup constant among his offerings. Check out what started happening two summers ago, however, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Once upon a time, Stroman’s primary fastball was a four-seamer. He has all but scrapped it in favor of the two-seamer, or sinker. The four-seamer, naturally, is going to have a bit more speed, but the movement on the two-seamer will lead to even more ground balls than Stroman usually gets. We saw proof of that in 2014, with Stroman’s ground-ball rate jumping to 57.5% after the All-Star break, essentially coinciding with the change in fastball majority. He had a 48.8% ground-ball rate in the first half of the ’14 season. Again, we don’t want to draw any significant conclusions from his 46-inning sample last year, but it’s worth noting that his overall ground-ball rate was 64.1%, and a whopping 72.2% of his two-seamers resulted in grounders.
What’s more, the two-seamer has proved to be an absolutely filthy pitch for him against righties. Such is the case when you have a 92–93 mph pitch that tails in on your hands late. Righties have managed to hit just .159 against the pitch with a hilariously low .028 isolated slugging percentage. Stroman has thrown 327 two-seamers to righties in his career. Two of those, 0.6%, have resulted in extra-base hits.
The baseball world is better off for having a healthy Marcus Stroman. He was well on his way to becoming a frontline starter, for both real-life and fantasy purposes, before tearing his ACL last spring. With that injury comfortably behind him, he should continue on his star-bound trajectory.
• Best-case scenario: Stroman picks up where he left off in 2014, giving fantasy owners an ERA in the low-threes, 1.10 WHIP and a strikeout per inning while turning into a top-20 starting pitcher.
• Worst-case scenario: His numbers take the same sort of hit that Garrett Richards’s did from 2014 to ’15, and given Stroman’s lower strikeout ceiling, he doesn’t return more than top-40 starting pitcher value.