The St. Louis Cardinals have not hidden their primary interest this off-season. Time and again, both in direct and indirect quotes, they’ve mentioned starting pitching as their target. This makes plenty of sense, too. They clearly have internal options for outfield depth, the middle infield, and a potential DH, and most of those options help them become more left-handed, or at least offer more production against right-handed pitching. The one area where they’ll need the most help is in the rotation. This past season proved to them that they need to plan for more rotation depth and reliability even before Kwang-Hyun Kim and mid-season Dollar General band-aids J.A. Happ and Jon Lester reached free agency. Thankfully, there’s a deep market for starting pitching this off-season. As I mentioned last week, there are options to suit any taste. One name stands out, though, and we’re going to profile him today. Meet Marcus Stroman, baseball’s most Cardinally pitcher who hasn’t Cardinalled (yet?).
I say “meet Marcus Stroman” as if you don’t already have some inkling who he is. If you follow baseball even casually, you surely know a little bit about Stroman. And given his durability, you’ve had ample opportunity to see him pitch. He arrived on the scene in 2014, then missed most of 2015 after tearing an ACL in spring training. Since then, he’s been one of MLB’s steadiest pitchers. If we omit 2020- when he missed the beginning of the season with a torn calf muscle and then opted out of what was already a very weird season- here’s how Stroman ranks among pitchers since 2016:
- 5th (tied) in games started with 149
- 8th in innings pitched (870.2)
- 16th in fWAR (15.4)
His FIP in those seasons: 3.71, 3.90, 3.91, 3.72, and 3.48. While his results have been eerily consistent, his repertoire has evolved. In his early years, he threw many more curveballs and change-ups. From 2017 to 2019, he greatly diminished those offerings in favor of a slider and a cutter. This season, he unveiled a split finger change and it was one of his best pitches (2nd lowest wOBA against, just behind his slider). When showing it off in spring training, Stroman referred to himself as a chameleon. The context of the full quote is important so I’m going to re-share it. It really endears him to you:
“I’m always looking to adapt and learn through life. I feel like you can truly never accumulate enough knowledge,” he said. “I feel like we should be learning until. ... the day we die. I feel like I’ll never be too stubborn to take in new information, and I feel like that’s why I’m still in league to this year.
“I feel like a chameleon. I feel like I can kinda do anything. You can put me in any situation, and I’m gonna thrive.”
He did everything he’s done since 2016 while usually pitching in front of mediocre or worse defenses. Using Statcast’s Outs Above Average, his teams were -2 behind him in both 2017 and 2018, and an even 0 in 2019 and 2021. That’s important for a pitcher like Stroman, who allows more balls in play than the other big names on the market. His percentage of plate appearances ending on a ball in play- 70.1% since 2016- is decidedly upper quartile. That number has decreased a little in recent years (69.4% in 2019; 68.8% in 2021) but is still upper quartile.
The dude uses his defense. In the modern game, that can be stated in the pejorative, but not for Stroman. His .339 wOBA on contact (wOBACON) is 16th best of 143 starting pitchers in 2019 and 2021 (min. 400 PAs against). He tends to stay off the fat part of the bat, with the 12th lowest Barrels-per-PA in 2019 and 66th lowest (out of 189) this season. The average launch angle against him is routinely one of the lowest in the game. He’s quite proficient at making hitters kill worms.
As an added bonus, Stroman’s glove would fit right in with the Cardinals’ litany of Gold Glove defenders. Since 2016, his 17 defensive runs saved (Fielding Bible) is 5th best among pitchers. It’s all punctuated by tremendous athleticism. To wit:
Marcus Stroman. Different team. Same Gold Glove. pic.twitter.com/32JxLm2od5— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 4, 2019
The Cardinals have professed a desire for a pitcher who is both durable, and can use his ballpark and defense to his advantage. And while Citi Field has traditionally been a pitcher’s park, it’s still not on the level of run-suppression of Busch. Per Statcast, Citi Field boasts a 98 park factor overall and 98 for wOBACON over the last three years (100 is average). Busch is at 95 and 91, respectively, with the lowest wOBACON park factor in the game.
If you could somehow Frankenstein together a baseball player out of the attributes you want and someone asked you to create a pitcher that fits the Cardinals’ modus operandi, you would want:
- Heavy sinker usage
- The ability to get strikeouts... but the practice of eschewing them for contact
- Fields his position well
That’s Marcus Stroman. If you showed me his numbers, repertoire, and told me about his attributes, I would’ve just assumed he was someone the Cardinals had drafted and developed over the last 10 years.
The question, as always with the Cardinals when it comes to free agency, is cost. If you’re into the whole wisdom of the herd thing, the average crowdsourced estimate for Stroman on FanGraphs is 4 years at an annual average value of $20.7M. If you’d rather trust VEB writer emeritus Ben Clemens, it’s 4/$25M. For frame of reference, Eduardo Rodriguez just got 5/$15.4M, when Ben projected 4/$20M and the crowd average was 3.81/$18.2M. More years, plus an opt-out, but lower AAV. Jose Berrios signed a 7/$18.7M extension, but is younger than Stroman, has gaudier K rates, and more of a prospect pedigree... and the deal also buys out his last arbitration year. Noah Syndergaard signed a one-year deal for $21M and it’s completely irrelevant here.
Throw in the pending work stoppage and whatever the new CBA looks like, and it’s truly hard to know a) what the Cardinals can budget, and b) what Stroman will get, although the market seems less likely to punish the top end like Stroman.
However you slice it, Stroman makes the most sense for the Cardinals. The organization may not have been his home yet, but they’ve spiritually been a pair for years.