Stroman's been a shot in the arm to Jays staff

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BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Even before Brandon Morrow went down, the Blue Jays' biggest need was starting pitching. That's still the case now, but Toronto has been provided a boost with the in-season addition of Marcus Stroman.

It's easy to forget about Stroman's brief and miserable five-appearance experiment in the bullpen with the way he has recently thrown. Stroman could offer as much upside for this season alone as any Blue Jays starter, and since joining Toronto's rotation May 31, he's pitching better than any of them, too.

The 23-year-old, who excelled in the minor leagues before his promotion, has lived up to the enormous hype that has surrounded him since the Blue Jays made him a first-round draft pick in 2012. It was said Stroman was near major-league ready coming out of Duke and, less than two years after signing with the Blue Jays, that's certainly the case now.

Stroman is of course just five starts into his big-league career and one of them was a 98-pitch 3 2/3 inning dud against a veteran New York lineup at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees didn't crush Stroman, although he was tagged for a homer, but they worked him for three walks, elevated his pitch count and chased him from the contest before he was able to record 12 outs. Stroman has gone at least six innings in each of his other four starts, allowing three or fewer runs, while walking no more than two batters.

That includes Monday night, his best performance yet, when he got revenge against the Yankees, setting career highs in innings (eight), pitches (114) and matched it in strikeouts with seven. He produced whiffs on five different offerings -- a high of six off his fastball, which sat 94 mph and maxed out at 96 -- and induced a personal-best 16 swinging strikes. It was an exceptional start to kick off a big series and further cemented the impact Stroman can have on the American League East race.

Over his five starts, Stroman has a 2.43 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 3.36 FIP in 29 2/3 innings. He has struck out 26 and walked six, good for a 21.3% K rate and 4.9% BB rate, respectively, which, if qualified, would be the best marks of any Blue Jays starter, as would his 4.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Stroman's strikeout, walk and groundball (45.5%) rates are all better than league average and the list of starting pitchers across baseball with an average fastball better than the right-hander's mark of 94 mph does not run entirely deep.

Here's how Stroman stacks up to the rest of the Blue Jays' starting staff over the last 30 days, which excludes all relief appearances he made, courtesy of Fangraphs.com:

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A major question surrounding Stroman since he was drafted was whether he would be able to generate enough downhill plane on his fastball -- because of his small 5-foot-9 stature -- to avoid being homer prone. While he has allowed a homer in each of his last three starts, as a starter his fly-ball rate, HR/9 and HR/FB% are all essentially league average. And none of the long balls he has served up have come off his fastball. It goes without saying that the sample is small, but he's been fine in that department up to now, and has been tested early pitching in homer-happy parks (four starts at Rogers Centre, one at Yankee Stadium).

Stroman generates some arm-side run on the heater -- 5.7 inches of horizontal movement on average, more than the typical right-hander -- which, if commanded well at 94-96 mph, can be a weapon of his. We have seen the filthy breaking balls on display, too, which have tremendous movement.

Now, the amount of tumble he gets on his breaking balls -- his curveball is averaging 9.3 inches of lateral movement, more than Adam Wainwright's (9.0), which is considered among the best in baseball (Corey Kluber's 11 inches is tops in the majors) -- doesn't guarantee success and make Stroman's a better pitch than guys with less movement. But it does tell us that Stroman has some nasty movement, and his slider and curveball, both hard pitches, can be big swing-and-miss offerings. It can at times be tough to distinguish whether he is throwing a slider or curveball -- ESPN's Keith Law has in fact called the curve a slurve, a hybrid, showing characteristics of both -- but Brooks Baseball has him leaning more heavily on the curveball. The curveball is a little slower on average (82 mph compared to the slider at 86) but he can get it up to the mid-80s.

In addition to the fastball-curveball-slider, the New York native has a changeup that's been an ideal 8-10 mph slower than his heater, and a 90-plus mph cutter. It's a deep repertoire of power stuff.

The five-start sample -- four of which have been really good -- could be forgotten if Stroman turns in a series of poor outings in a row. But, right now, there is no reason to suspect that he will. His stuff is better than any current pitcher in Toronto's rotation and he's getting desired results. If he keeps his rate stats where they are at right now, he'll be fine and could be in for a big year.

Stroman is, in my opinion, one of the closest things to an untouchable as their is in the organization. He would certainly be attractive, and is quite possibly boosting his trade value, if the Blue Jays offered him as a headliner in a deal. But based on the high ceiling and fact he's already contributing as part of the rotation, he'd be one of toughest pieces for the Blue Jays to part with. Toronto has plenty of unproven talent in the minors, but Stroman is already pitching well in the big leagues. It's important to keep in mind the discrepancy in polish and talent levels between the majors and minors.

Since joining the rotation, Stroman's numbers stack up very well against other highly-touted rookies in some select categories (the chart is a span of the last 30 days, a week before Stroman made his first major league start).

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Stroman is more than holding his own against them. Trevor Bauer has struggled, although the velocity and K rates are nice, but the rest of them are pitching well, including Jake Odorizzi who has put a rough first month behind him. Odorizzi, who entered the season with fewer than 40 major league innings under his belt, has a 27.4% strikeout rate, which ranks sixth in baseball among pitchers who have thrown 70-plus innings.

Stroman and Kevin Gausman -- close friends -- could help their respective clubs in a department where its needed, and go on to have a say on what team takes the AL East.

That brings us to whether Stroman will face an innings limit. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during spring training, found on Gregor Chisholm's blog, that there would be none. Anthopoulos said when factoring in the Arizona Fall League and extended spring training, where Stroman worked as a starter last year while he finished serving his suspension, that he threw north of 150 innings. The GM has mentioned before that a 20% increase of innings for a young pitcher is a general benchmark. That would mean Stroman could get up to the 180-inning range, which would allow him to work deep into the season. If there is concern regarding his workload, the Blue Jays can find ways to manipulate his innings and preserve him for the length of the season. I think it's entirely possible to believe that Stroman will not be shutdown.

Stroman is pitching better than any member of the starting rotation and it should surprise no one if he continued to do so through September. He's young, and has barely been tested at the major-league level, but Stroman can deal and he wouldn't be the first rookie to make a major mark during his inaugural season.

h/t Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for stats

Stats (entering play Wednesday)