The Cubs' Marcus Stroman Signing Gets Plenty of Love

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The Cubs’ Marcus Stroman Signing Gets Plenty of Love

Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs closed down the pre-lockout period by signing free agent starting pitcher Marcus Stroman at the zero hour, finalizing a deal and making it official all in a period of just over 24 hours. It was a whirlwind that I kinda still can’t believe played out, especially after the Cubs had been so quiet in the weeks that preceded it.

The deal – three years and $71 million, opt-out after year two – has been receiving high praise across the board, and I thought you might enjoy seeing more of it, given that it’s been a while since the Cubs were involved in this area of free agency.

In his pre-offseason rankings, Keith Law had Stroman as his top free agent starting pitcher. Indeed, Stroman was 5th overall to Law, behind only Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Freddie Freeman. Quite the company. No surprise, then, that Law thought the Cubs did very well:

Stroman offered the best combination of upside and floor of any starter on the market, as he uses his sinker to get quick outs so he can work deeper into games and maintains his conditioning so he can throw more innings year after year. He’s consistently shown he can make adjustments, adding or altering pitches and improving his body to take advantage of his incredible athleticism. I’d have been very comfortable giving him five years, more so than with Kevin Gausman or Robbie Ray, who were both more productive in 2021 but don’t have Stroman’s track record of production or durability ….

As for Stroman, the deal puts him back out in free agency after the 2024 season, when he will be entering his age-34 season, but given his durability and the way he works to stay in peak condition, he should be able to command another multiyear deal. This could be a reflection of the market not offering him longer deals, but it is also a reflection of his willingness to bet on his durability and that he could get three or more years at that point without a CBA negotiation in the way. Either way, the Cubs got a great pitcher on a three-year contract, and that is always a win for the team.

At its simplest level, this is a situation where the Cubs badly needed a quality starting pitcher, and got one of the best on the market on a three-year deal. It’s impossible to argue against it, even if things ultimately go sideways down the road. As we sit here today, this is just a no-brainer for the Cubs.

Given the five-year deals for Gausman and Ray, Stroman’s three-year deal is all the more surprising. I know the arguments in favor of Gausman and Ray – higher-ceiling, huge stuff, big breakouts – but I agree with Law that Stroman’s floor is held considerably aloft by his pitchability and conditioning.

Speaking of that comparison, I want to re-up the Stroman-Gausman-Ray piece from Eno Sarris, which came out just before the trio signed last week:

Unsurprisingly, a pitcher’s K-BB performance is huge in projecting future performance, and on that front, Stroman is only slightly better than the league average starter. Gausman and Ray blow him away in recent years. But on every other factor analyzed – stuff, command, number of usable pitches, and health – Stroman compares favorably with, or better than, the other two starters:

But, to summarize, it looks like we have three relatively healthy pitchers who will all get five-year-deals this offseason. Two of them make their living off two elite pitches and high strikeout rates, and the other has a wider arsenal and an elite ground-ball rate. Given the fact that ground-ball rate ages so well, and ground-ball pitchers perhaps have better injury outcomes and that Stroman has more pitches he can start using as he uses his fastball less, it could be the case that he will age the best of the trio.

On the whole, from a purely analytical perspective, you can make the argument that Stroman is the best bet of the three to put together good seasons from 2022 to 2024. The big difference is that, if you’re the Blue Jays and the Mariners, you’re left to hope your guy can also put together good seasons in 2025 and 2026, since Gausman and Ray did indeed get five-year deals.

Lastly, I wanted to share Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections on Stroman, which peg him to be a safe and solid starting pitcher for the three years of his deal:

After noting that Stroman’s value easily could have brought him in at closer to what Gausman and Ray got, Szymborski writes:

However they got to the current contract, this is a very astute signing by the Cubs. No, Stroman is not as exciting a pitcher as some of the other names available this offseason. His fastball isn’t all that fast, though it’s far from the Jered Weaver Zone, and his stuff doesn’t yield an impressive bounty of hitters looking foolish after flailing away at strike three. But if not a star thrower, he’s certainly a star pitcher, and he added another good one this season — a splitter that’s more on the changeup side than the fastball side of the spectrum.

While sinker pitchers seem almost passé in current years thanks to the increased willingness and ability of hitters to golf anything low into the stands, Stroman has seemed basically immune to the offensive changes in baseball over the last five years. Batters struggle to get loft against him; of the 92 pitchers in 2021 who threw 2,000 pitches, he had the ninth-lowest average launch angle. As a result, he’s never allowed more than 21 homers in a season, and his FIP has been remarkably stable, with less than a half-run of separation in his last five seasons.

Again, you get the picture of a guy who may not come with the highest ceiling of the starters who were available, but who is among the best bets to at least give you what you paid for. And if you knew you were gonna get a 3.0-ish win starter each of the next three years out of Stroman, you’d be very happy to take it.

If you want to dream on upside, consider this: Stroman, who is just 30, had his best two seasons thus far in his last two seasons (with him sitting out the pandemic season in between – saving some bullets?). Over those two seasons, his strikeout rate was climbing and his walk rate was falling, all while his groundball rate was actually dropping (he had previously been an absurd 60% guy, but last year was down to a still-quite-good 50%), and the results were fantastic.

Why am I pointing out a drop in groundball rate as though it’s a good thing? Well, I’m not, in isolation. Instead, when you view it in conjunction with the increase in strikeout rate, the drop in walk rate, and the overall better results, it just makes you wonder if this is a guy who is still figuring out how to be the best version of himself. Just because you *can* get 60% grounders and never strike anyone out doesn’t necessarily mean that’s your best version. You can tell by looking at his pitch type data that he’s been tinkering hardcore not only with his pitch mix the last couple years, but also the pitch shape. He also added a split-change this past year and leaned on it heavily to the tune of a 33.9% whiff rate. I’m not saying he can do that again in 2022 – add a new pitch with impressive results – but clearly he’s a guy who has shown the ability to improve in that way.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.