Marcus Stroman finds his swing-and-miss stuff in dominant start vs. Rays

Even during a strong start to 2017, Marcus Stroman had not been striking out many batters, until Friday night. (Fred Thornhill/AP)
Even during a strong start to 2017, Marcus Stroman had not been striking out many batters, until Friday night. (Fred Thornhill/AP)

Marcus Stroman doesn’t have to pile up punch outs to keep opposing offences down. More than anything, his major-league success has been built on an ability to induce groundball after groundball with his top-flight sinker.

A vintage Stroman outing is not dissimilar to the Roy Halladay gems of old: efficient innings speed by as infielders do the heavy lifting and idleness reigns supreme in the bullpen. Although Friday night’s 7.1-inning two-run start against the Tampa Bays Rays was outstanding, it didn’t exactly fit that mold.

While the ball stayed out of the air for the most part, Stroman showed a different side to his game, missing bats all night long on the way to 10 strikeouts – twice as many as he’d managed in any other start this season.

“Stroman’s going to have some games where he gets a lot of strikeouts,” manager John Gibbons said after the game. “Then he’ll have games where he gets a lot of quick outs and groundballs because of that two-seam fastball. Sometimes he’ll get a really good breaking ball going against certain teams where he gets a lot of strikeouts.”

Strikeouts are not the be-all and end-all of success on the mound – especially for a guy like Stroman – but it was encouraging for the right-hander to see the Rays come up empty on his offerings so often.

Even with his ability to force weak contact, allowing too many balls in play invites the risk of hits being strung together and Stroman entered the day with a K percentage of 15.3% – 83rd among 101 qualified starters. As a result, it was encouraging for the Blue Jays to see the 25-year-old get double-digit punchouts for the first time since August 1 of 2016.

It was clear early on that he had multiple pitches he could lean on with two strikes. In the second inning, Stroman struck out the side on three different pitches, getting Steven Souza on a curveball, Logan Morrison on a four-seam fastball, and Corey Dickerson on a slider.

“I was just being aggressive,” he said. “Working with my sinker and mixing in some four-seamers and keeping them off-balance with the slider.”

He also showed an ability to paint the corners with four-seam fastballs when he got ahead in the count and got four Rays looking on the pitch – an offering he’d thrown just 9.7 percent of the time entering the contest.

It was a significantly different look for Stroman whose sinker normally dominates while his four-seamer can be little more than an afterthought. Throwing to brand-new callup Luke Maile for the very first time caused a break from that pattern.

“Luke was unbelievable tonight,” Stroman said. “He was awesome.”

Stroman’s opponent on the night also played a role in his pitching line. Not so long ago the Rays were known for speed, defence and athleticism, but the current iteration employs a number of high-strikeout sluggers like Dickerson, Souza, and Evan Longoria. The team brought a 25.7 percent strikeout rate into the game – a mark second in the majors behind only the Milwaukee Brewers.

That said, Stroman faced the same group on April 6 and struck out just five batters.

The outing Friday night isn’t necessarily evidence the Blue Jays will see any substantial changes from Stroman going forward. Based on his excellent start to the season it’s not as if a course alteration is required.

He just gave the team a glimpse of another way he can be successful this season, and showed that he and Maile are certainly capable of working well together. On a pretty damn awful night for the Blue Jays, they could certainly use that silver lining.

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