ANAHEIM, CALIF.—A bit like Christmas morning, Marcus Stroman is ripping open boxes, pulling out a vast array of gaudy and ultra expensive athletic sneakers.
He goes along the row of lockers in the visitors dressing room, asking: What’s your size? What’s your size? What’s your size?
An 11 for strapping reliever Elvis Luciano? Here you go. How about you, Daniel Hudson? Here you go.
Within minutes, the Blue Jays ace — at the very least co-ace, circa 2019 — has distributed every pair of shoes that the manufacturer has sent him. He likes that, playing the benefactor. It makes him happy.
Perhaps Stroman, who turned 28 Wednesday, was always that way, generous and team-driven and fundamentally a pleasant person to be around. But it’s more overtly evident this year, especially within the sanctuary of a baseball club that had been, not too long ago, a collection of cliques. And Stroman had his own posse, both within and without the locker room.
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So many of those boldface Jays are gone now as the team transitions and rebuilds. In what feels like the blink of an eye, Stroman has practically become an eminence gris Blue Jay, certainly a veteran, and it agrees with him. Where once management fretted about the negative influence Stroman wielded among youthful teammates, they now have no concerns about a toxic contagion.
Which doesn’t mean the brass won’t trade Stroman’s ass down the road a bit, because he’s reverted into a primary leveraging asset, turning the page on a rotten 4-9 and 5.54 ERA 2018 season that was plagued by health issues. An all-around pitching funk.
What the tall foreheads should do is extend Stroman a new multi-year contract to replace the one-year, $7.4-million (U.S.) deal he signed in January to avoid a third round of arbitration, after the first two wrangles left him feeling bruised, belittled and bitter.
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This Stroman, the version that strutted to the mound Wednesday night against the Angels — and dejectedly trudged off in the fourth inning, shortest of his seven starts this year, lacerated by a Mike Trout three-run double laced into the left field corner — ranked No. 1 among all American League pitchers, No. 2 across baseball, with a 1.43 ERA, albeit 1-3. Pitiful run-support, just eight in 37.2 innings pitched, prior to Wednesday – lowest RS/9 among AL starters. Zero runs on his behalf – hell, zero hits — when Stroman departed the fray at Angel Stadium, L.A. up 5-0, on a night of struggle on the bump for the Toronto right-hander and way too many pitches thrown over three and a third innings.
This Stroman and that Stroman still wears his emotions on his sleeve – recall the spring training rant — but they’re less like a tornado now. He’s matured, developed some self-possession. He’s even gracious and approachable with the media. So he won’t lose his nut over one poor outing.
“I’m at a better place mentally with myself,” Stroman was saying the other day. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m very comfortable with the people I have around me and with my progression. I’m really not fazed with anything anymore, to be honest. I could care less what is being said. I know the type of player I’m going to be. I know I haven’t reached my prime yet. Regardless of how anybody portrays it, or where they think I’ll be, I’m just excited to wake up tomorrow and attack every day.”
Yes, well, he still does tend to speak — and tweet — in motivational platitudes and social media buzz lingo. That’s just who he is and that’s not so bad. Over the years, his over-the-top expositions, the psychological torque of the Stro Show, has been easy to mock. Lord knows I’ve done my share of it.
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But it’s easy to like the latter-day Stroman, who perhaps finally realizes he doesn’t always have to lead with that chip on his shoulder. The Stroman who is indeed a genial and thoughtful teammate. The Stroman who has released his inner nice guy.
Indeed, manager Charlie Montoyo credits Stroman with initiating a feel-good vibe around the club when he took everybody out for a bonding dinner in Boston last month. “One of the best things this year is that dinner. That was awesome for the team. It was nobody’s idea but him.”
Of course Stroman still has that self-absorbed component. But I suppose a starting MLB pitcher, an ace, is entitled to that, perhaps needs it, especially one who stands (generously) five-foot-seven.
“I’ve always been a guy that a lot of the minor-leaguers have come to, to ask questions. To kind of preach to them the ins and out of the big-league life. Now it’s a greater role, maybe. You can go ask anybody about me as an individual and I know what they’ll say — ’cause it shows day in and day out. I’m not scared to go up to anybody in this clubhouse and talk to them or say anything to them. That’s something that’s developed over the years.”
There is, as well, the mound Marcus, and probably it all starts from there: his cockiness, his show-up and show-offy nature. But underlying it this season is the commanding performance, even as Stroman has gone less to his signature sinker, more toward the slider and cutter.
“It’s still the best sinker in the business,” he boasts. And he may very well be right. “It’s not retired. I’m just not throwing it as much.
“I feel like I can spin the ball with the best in the league. So, just kind of looking at trends, looking at the league, going to a little bit more of my off-speed stuff. And it’s actually making my sinker better when I do throw it in certain counts.”
Pitching coach Pete Walker has helped wean Stroman off that sinker, using it more judiciously and effectively. “The spin on it has been outstanding. We’re getting a lot of swing and misses on it.”
He has an arsenal of six pitches but they’ve condensed some of the breaking balls, mixed up the offerings so that Stroman isn’t so sinker-identified.
“Again, it’s not slighting his sinker because it is one of the best in the game,” says Walker. “I think it’s going to make him even a better pitcher because the opposing team can’t sit on one pitch. They’re looking for spin, they’re looking for sink, and the other thing he’s been able to do a little bit — we’d like to do more of — is the elevated fastball. The cutter, curveball, slider, they kind of meld together. He’s got two breaking balls right now and you can call them whatever you want. There’s certainly a tighter one and one that’s a little bit bigger.
“But he’s such a gifted pitcher. He’s rare in that he can maintain the different pitches and utilize them at different times.”
Does this management cabal get Stroman? Or is he, at this stage, more valuable as horse-peddling asset, because maybe they’ve had a bellyful of Stroman to date? Surely, one or the other, they have to retain and re-sign either Stroman or Aaron Sanchez, especially if the Jays emerge from the rebuild quicker than anticipated.
Certainly Stroman has made his wishes clear.
“It’s pretty evident, don’t you think? I don’t have to talk about my love for Toronto anymore. I have the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre tattooed on my stomach.”
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
Published at Thu, 02 May 2019 01:49:37 +0000