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Toronto Blue Jays

Marcus Stroman should be untouchable — for now

October 17, 2016: Marcus Stroman #6 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during game three of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre in Toronto ON. Cleveland won the game 4 - 2 and leads the series 3 - 0. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/Icon Sportswire)

These are strange times for the Blue Jays. The team has built a reputation for being an offensive powerhouse, yet suddenly pitching may be their greatest strength. The loss of Edwin Encarnacion stings the most, but unless they re-sign Jose Bautista and/or Michael Saunders, the Jays may be looking at an outfield featuring Kevin Pillar and some combination of Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton, Jr., and Ezequiel Carrera.

That’s why the Rockies and Blue Jays discussing a Charlie Blackmon trade had a certain logic. According to FOXSports’ Jon Morosi, the Rockies wanted Marcus Stroman in return, but the Blue Jays balked at giving up their 25-year-old righty.

As much as Blackmon would improve their outfield, taking a pass was the right call. A career-high 29 homers helped to boost Blackmon to 3.9 fWAR in 2016, but his batted ball profile (34.4 percent hard-hit rate, 276.2 feet average flyball distance) is not necessarily that of a slugger. He is not an especially good defender and, after a season in which he stole just 17 bases in 26 attempts, Blackmon’s days as a speedster may be on the wane. He is also two years away from free agency, and if the Blue Jays were to sign him to a long-term deal, the 30-year-old would face the prospect of decline within a couple of seasons.

Blackmon might have been able to replace Jose Bautista’s production for a year or two, but that would probably not have been enough for them to contend in the American League East. The trade would not have solved the Blue Jays’ longer-term problems. Two-fifths of the projected rotation (Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) are entering their walk years. With J.A. Happ set to enter free agency after 2018, they could ill afford to lose Stroman, unless they received some pitching prospects in return.

And starting pitching is far from the Blue Jays’ only need. In addition to filling holes in the outfield, they could use an upgrade at first base, where Justin Smoak will assume the larger part of a platoon with Pearce. They could also lose former AL Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson to free agency in two years. Worse yet, there are few impact prospects coming up through the pipeline to fill these vacancies.

Because the Jays are teetering on the edge of needing a total rebuild, there is a case for trading Stroman, who along with Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna and Devon Travis, is one of the team’s few young stars. Then again, Stroman, who won’t be a free agent until 2021, is affordable and could be a centerpiece around whom the Blue Jays can build their next contender. If the team were to decide to trade Donaldson sometime within the next year, between that and next offseason’s free agent market, they could find the pieces they need to contend in the short- and long-term, with Stroman as a key member of the rotation.

Having pitched the rough equivalent of two full seasons in the majors (since he missed nearly all of his 2015 sophomore season due to a torn ACL), it’s still up for debate as to how valuable Stroman is. He was solid, if not spectacular, in his rookie year, going 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA, but after entering 2016 with high expectations, he had an ERA over 5.00 as late as mid-July.

Then, beginning in late June, we began to see Stroman’s best work to date. Prior to his June 26 start at the White Sox, Stroman had relied heavily on his sinker, using it 55.3 percent of the time, while throwing his slider for just 11.8 percent of his pitches. Against the Sox, he threw his slider for 20 of his 91 pitches (22.0 percent), and that began a string of starts in which he used the pitch more frequently. Over his final 17 starts, Stroman’s slider usage rate was 19.3 percent, and his sinker usage dipped to 43.4 percent.

Not only was Stroman’s slider a far better swing-and-miss pitch (19.2 percent whiff rate) than his sinker (6.3 percent whiff rate) over that stretch of more than three months, but it was a better ground ball pitch, too (69.0 percent versus 67.8 percent). Stroman went from being a below-average strikeout pitcher to being slightly above-average with a 22.3 percent K-rate. The end result was a 3.59 ERA over those starts. That’s not bad for someone who pitches in the AL East with Rogers Centre as his home park.

Even more encouraging, xFIP estimates that Stroman’s ERA would have been 3.06 if we account for the impact of defense and luck. Though Stroman didn’t allow many flyballs, 19.0 percent of them became home runs, and xFIP assumed Stroman should have had a much lower HR/FB ratio. Emphasizing his slider more probably helped Stroman to keep his home run rate in check, since it was a better pitch for keeping the ball in the park, but he still managed to allow eight home runs on his sinker over his last 17 starts. Stroman allowed only four home runs on all of his other pitches combined.

The degree to which Stroman’s sinker is effective will have a lot to say about his future value. If it helps him to be stingy with home runs like it did in his rookie season (one home run allowed and an .066 Iso), and if he continues to use his slider to elevate his K-rate, Stroman could perform much like Dallas Keuchel did in his Cy Young season. If his sinker isn’t sharp, then he could pitch more like the 2016 version of Keuchel.

This is not hyperbole. From June 26 forward, the only pitcher with at least 90 innings who had a lower xFIP than Stroman was the late Jose Fernandez. Even if we look at qualified pitchers for the season as a whole, Stroman ranked sixth with a 3.41 xFIP. If he can manage to post a home run rate that is commensurate with one of the majors’ highest ground ball rates (Stroman actually led all qualified starters in ground ball rate last year), he can be one of the majors’ best pitchers. Achieving that in the AL East is challenging, but bear in mind that his teammate, Sanchez, allowed only 0.70 home runs per nine innings in 2016.

Just because Stroman has the upside of Keuchel, circa 2015, doesn’t mean he should be considered untouchable. That same upside, along with his relative youth and affordability, could make him the Blue Jays’ most valuable trade chip. Given that Stroman is coming off a year in which he started slow and then was bedeviled by home runs, now would not be the best time to trade him. If he can re-establish the dominance of his sinker in 2017 while continuing to get whiffs with his slider, the coming season could be as good as it gets for Stroman. In that scenario, the Blue Jays would have an ideal window to at least shop their young righty.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball.

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