Why Did the Blue Jays Choose to Start Marcus Stroman in Game 5?
One pitcher is the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner. The other didn't get a single vote for the American League Rookie of the Year Award last year.
One pitcher has thrown 1441 2/3 career Major League innings with 50 additional innings in the postseason. The other is now up to 157 2/3 career innings and made his postseason debut last week.
One pitcher is the model of durability, having made at least 27 starts in 6 consecutive seasons. The other was hobbling around with a torn ACL six months ago.
All signs seem to point to David Price being the obvious choice for the Toronto Blue Jays in Wednesday's Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. However, manager John Gibbons has elected to go with the young pup, Marcus Stroman, instead.
You can break this matchup down a thousand different ways, and you may end up with a thousand different reasons behind Gibbons' decision. Let's try to walk through it and see whether or not Stroman was the right selection, despite what the matchup appears on the surface.
Looking at the Rangers' Lineup
The three main aspects that immediately came to mind when trying to figure out this decision were the opposition's strengths, the pitchers' current effectiveness, and the ballpark. Let's sort through what the Rangers bring to the dish before we touch on the other two.
When it comes to platoon splits, the Rangers had a weird season. They started the year off excelling against left-handed pitching before going into a major funk. Then, with the acquisition of Mike Napoli, they came roaring up the leaderboards. So how do we evaluate them now?
At the end, the Rangers actually finished with the exact same wRC+ against both right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching at 96. Thanks, guys. Real big help there.
The issue with looking at season-long numbers is that -- as noted above -- personnel changes over the course of a season. We need to look at this based on the batters the team is trotting out right now, and that would seem to favor the Jays putting Stroman on the hill.
Of the batters likely to be in the lineup against a lefty like Price, six finished the season with a wRC+ greater than 100 against lefties. Not only does that include Napoli, but you've also got Adrian Beltre, who hasn't had a hard-hit rate lower than 33.1 percent against lefties since 2006. Those are two fairly intimidating guys to face.
On the flip side, there would be four batters in the order with a wRC+ of 100 or higher against righties if Stroman were pitching. These guys tended to have a higher level of success with Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, and Mitch Moreland all posting extremely solid numbers, but the depth wasn't quite as defined as it was against lefties. So, maybe there's something to this.
When looking at the two pitchers' platoon splits, the waters muddy a bit again. Price's xFIP was hardly different at all between lefties and righties this year, sitting at 3.28 and 3.22 respectively. Over Stroman's career, his xFIP against lefties (3.46) is much higher than his xFIP against righties (2.87). Stroman would likely face five lefties with Price facing five righties. Slight advantage to Price.
After looking at the Rangers' lineup, it's hard to say which pitcher would be the better choice. The Rangers are less deep against righties, but they bring more lefty batters who could trouble Stroman. Overall, this seems like a wash, where you'd assume Price's overall body of work would win out. However, there are other factors to consider, including how these two guys are performing right now.
While Stroman was rehabbing from his torn ACL, I'd assume that he was tossing the baseball around a bit. Otherwise this whole comeback thing may have been a wee bit more difficult. That said, he likely didn't face the same wear that he would if he were pitching against a big-league lineup every fifth day. Could this give him an edge over Price?
Let's start here by looking at Stroman. His first start this year wasn't his best as he struck out only two batters over five innings. He picked things up from there, though, crescendoing to an eight-inning, eight-strikeout performance in his final start of the regular season. He walked two batters, but outside of that, he was superb. He came into the postseason smoking hot.
In Game 2 against the Rangers, Stroman struggled out of the gate, allowing three runs (two earned) in the first two innings. He settled down from there, though, and didn't allow another run to score until the bullpen allowed an inherited runner to cross in the eighth. Overall, he went seven innings with five strikeouts and two walks. Not his best performance, but it also wasn't terrible.
Now we turn to Price. If he had shown signs of wearing down, then maybe the move to Stroman would make sense. However, it was almost the opposite. Price appeared to be getting stronger as the season went along.
Although Price was very good in the first half, he locked things down after the All-Star break with just a 2.88 xFIP. If we look at just his starts in September in October -- where he would be more likely to tire -- Price's xFIP crawled even lower to 2.71. That's not going to help our quest to understand.
If we want to compare Stroman and Price in their one respective playoff shot, it's again hard to differentiate. Price's line almost exactly mirrored that of Stroman: seven innings, five strikeouts, and two walks. The only difference was the runs scored, though Price was the victim of some bad luck with fly balls. So, again, when comparing the two, it's hard to find a tie-breaker. Until you get to the park factor, that is. If I were to gamble, I'd say this is what led Gibbons to his decision.
The Role of the Rogers Centre
When comparing Price and Stroman, outside of their experience levels, there is one huge difference: Stroman is a heavy ground-ball pitcher, while Price lives more by the fly ball. That tosses an interesting little curveball into our conundrum.
I wanted to see how conducive the Rogers Centre is to home runs. However, park factor is something that varies pretty heavily from year to year. So, I looked over the past six seasons to see where the Blue Jays' home ranked in home run park factor over that span, equating to 486 games.
The average home run park factor over the past six years at the Rogers Centre is 1.196, making it one of the more dong-friendly parks in the league. It never had a below-average home run park factor over that time, and it ranked in the top four among all stadiums three of the seasons. It's a park that is not a stranger to the long ball, and that may have worked in Stroman's favor.
In his 157 2/3 Major League innings, Stroman has a ground-ball rate of 55.6. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings over the past two years, that's the 10th best total in baseball.
Price, on the other hand, has just a 40.4 ground-ball rate, which is below the league average. Does this make him a worse pitcher than Stroman? Not for a second. Price is much more of a strikeout pitcher than Stroman, which is extremely valuable. But ground-ball rate is still something you must look at when making a one-game decision, especially in a park that allows more home runs than an average venue.
I, honestly, have no idea if this was the reasoning that Gibbons used in deciding to go with Stroman over Price. He's the manager of a baseball club, and he knows that club ten thousand times better than anybody else does. Clearly, he saw something that made him prefer Stroman, and we may never know what that was.
If I were the one making the decision, I probably would have gone with Price. There isn't a major difference between the two, and Price has consistently shown that he is up to the task. And if I were to go with Stroman, I would have made sure that Price were available out of the bullpen in Game 5 just in case. He reportedly is not, so this is Stroman's game all to himself.
Once again, though, Gibbons knows this team and its players better than we do. Because we can formulate an argument around starting Stroman based on park factor, it's not as if this is some outrageous decision. If it doesn't work out, Gibbons will get hammered for it. But that doesn't mean he should. He had a process for his decision, and he stuck with it. And if it pays off? Then these little pups are going to the American League Championship Series. Not a bad reward for taking a risk.