Is Marcus Stroman Baseball's Next Big Thing?

Stroman showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season. Is he ready to take the next step and become a bona fide ace?

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman has always had doubters due to his small frame (5'9" and 185 pounds), but the diminutive ace in the making has never let that slow him down. Stroman has stuck to his trademarked motto "Height Doesn't Measure Heart" and has proved the doubters wrong so far in his short career (no pun intended).

After a successful rookie season, Stroman suffered a torn ACL before beginning his sophomore campaign. Most assumed it would cost Stroman the entire season, but the 24-year-old flamethrower defied the odds again and made a late-season return. After sitting out six months, you'd assume Stroman would be rusty upon his return, right? Wrong. Stroman was flat-out dominant down the stretch for the Jays, winning all four of his starts and posting a 1.67 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP.

The former first-round pick's filthy five-pitch arsenal and pinpoint control has translated into a 15-6 record, 3.31 ERA, and 1.14 WHIP in 24 career starts.

A look at his advanced stats suggest there might be room for improvement entering 2016, though.

Advanced Metrics

In 20 starts during his rookie campaign, Stroman posted a respectable ERA of 3.65.

A look at his xFIP of 3.17 and SIERA of 3.18 would suggest that Stroman actually pitched better than his 3.65 ERA would indicate. While it was just one season, those numbers are pretty much right in line with his minor league FIP of 2.96. His 1.67 ERA from last year is likely unsustainable, but the numbers point to Stroman being a low-three-ERA type pitcher, and a look at his peripherals make it seem very plausible that he could improve on the numbers he posted in his rookie season.

While most would expect Stroman to be a dominant strikeout artist due to his overwhelming stuff, he has not been so far in his career.

Stroman’s 20.3 percent strikeout rate and 8.7 percent swinging strike rate, while good, don't jump off the page. But his pinpoint control and ability to induce ground balls more than makes up for his average strikeout numbers.

Stroman's focus on pitching to contact and avoiding walks has led to impressive efficiency for such a young pitcher. Playoffs included, Stroman has went at least six innings in 21 of his 27 career starts and has only had to throw 15.4 pitches per inning over his career -- a number that would have tied David Price and Johnny Cueto for 22nd in the MLB last year.

Stroman is able to pitch to contact because of the five different pitches he mixes in and the movement his pitches have -- which always keeps batters guessing. This is evidenced by Stroman's career hard hit rate of 23.2 percent, which would have ranked third among starters last season, behind only Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta.

Another positive quality Stroman possesses is his dedication to pounding the ball low in the zone and ability to induce ground balls and avoid fly balls. By pitching to contact but keeping the ball down, Stroman is able to work quick innings and avoid the long ball -- a recipe for success.

Stroman's career 53.8 percent ground ball rate would have ranked 10th among qualified starting pitchers last season. His 7.4 percent home-run-to-fly-ball rate would have ranked fifth among starters last season, behind only Gio Gonzalez, Shelby Miller, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke.

What is truly impressive about Stroman’s numbers thus far is his walk rate. Many youngsters struggle with control early in their career, especially ones with stuff as nasty as Stroman. That has not been the case for Stroman, whose career 5.3 percent walk rate is equal to, or lower than what Jake Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel, and Felix Hernandez put up last season -- not bad company.

Stroman has already shown the ability to be an ace, even if he doesn’t turn into the strikeout machine that some expected him to. It’s scary to imagine the numbers he could put up if he can convert his electric stuff into more strikeouts.

Toronto Effect

Many shy away from Toronto pitchers because Rogers Centre is thought of as a hitter's park. While it is true that the 203 dingers that left the park last season ranks as the third-highest mark in the league, that doesn't affect Stroman much, for the reasons we discussed previously.

What does affect Stroman is the ridiculous run support offered to Blue Jays pitchers by their loaded lineup. Toronto paced the league in runs last season, scoring 5.5 runs per game. Their 891 total runs were 127 ahead of the second-highest total and were 203 runs higher than the league average. For a historical perspective, 891 was the most runs scored in a season since the 2009 Yankees put up 915 runs. Not bad.

Last season, the Jays had five different starting pitchers with double-digit wins, and their starters averaged 14 wins apiece. A clear beneficiary of the added run support was mid-season acquisition, David Price, who went 9-1 in his 11 starts for the Blue Jays last season. The Jays offered Mark Buehrle 6.9 runs support per nine innings last season, which marked the highest total since 2012.

Toronto is ranked as the second best team in our nERD rankings entering the 2016 season, and a full season with Troy Tulowitzki in the lineup could result in an even more potent offense than last season's historic team.

Toronto also addressed a major issue this offseason by bolstering their bullpen. The Jays traded for closer Drew Storen in hopes he can return to his ninth-inning shut-down form from 2011 in which he recorded 43 saves.

While it's often a fool's errand to project wins, Toronto's improved bullpen and intimidating lineup offer arguably the best win potential for starting pitchers. Just add this to the list of factors in Stroman's favor entering the 2016 season.

Putting It All Together

So, all these numbers are great and all, but what do they really mean? How good could Stroman really be?

Among 78 pitchers who threw at least 160 innings last season, only two matched Stroman's career numbers -- a K% of at least 20 percent, BB% of six percent or less, a SIERA below 3.2, and a hard hit rate of 25 percent or lower.

The two pitchers? Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta -- or perhaps you know them better as the 2015 AL and NL Cy Young award winners.

Am I saying Stroman is going to win Cy Young this season? No. All I am saying is that the kid’s talent is legit, and he pitches on one of the best teams in baseball.

He could certainly deal with some stamina or mechanical issues after missing almost all of last season (he has a 2.79 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 9:0 K:BB ratio through three spring starts). He could endure a sophomore slump. He’s not risk free.

I just think it is time that people stop doubting the emerging ace and start acknowledging just how dominant of a force Stroman is on the mound.