The Advantage of Matching Up Marcus Stroman

The Blue Jays paid a lot to get David Price, even though they knew he was about to become a free agent. The Jays rightly figured the starting rotation could use a big upgrade if the team was going to go on to make some playoff noise. Of course, at that point, they didn’t yet know what to expect from Marcus Stroman. They might not have expected anything.

The American League Cy Young is going to go to Price or another guy. Price stands a perfectly fine chance, and you’d assume that when a team trades for that sort of pitcher, the same team will use him in as many important starts as possible. Sure enough, Price started Game 1 of the ALDS, but as you know by now, the ball in Game 5 is being handed to Marcus Stroman. Price just threw a lot of pitches in relief in Game 4, even though the Jays were already heavily favored. It’s surprising, and it’s complicated. It doesn’t seem like throwing Price so much out of the bullpen was a good managerial call. Yet we can at least say this much: it’s not all that clear the Jays are worse off. Stroman might even come with a certain advantage.

Let’s start with an assumption. Let’s assume Stroman is at or around full strength. If he weren’t, I doubt the Blue Jays put him in this position. Given that, how much worse is Stroman than Price, really? I don’t mean because Price has had some problems in the playoffs. I don’t mean because there are whispers that Price might be tipping his pitches. I know it might sound silly to compare a sophomore coming off a major injury with a proven, established ace, but look at the respective batting lines allowed since the start of last year:

Batting Lines Allowed, 2014 – 2015
Marcus Stroman 0.241 0.285 0.329 0.614
David Price 0.235 0.273 0.365 0.638

Stroman looks a little worse by OBP, but the gap is small, and he’s been better by slugging. By these actual results, Stroman hasn’t been less effective. Granted, Price tends to pitch a little deeper. Stroman can’t match Price’s endurance, probably. But the Blue Jays have a fresh bullpen. It’s a pretty good bullpen, even without Brett Cecil. Fresh relievers are good.

How about another table, with some advanced stats? Here are the park-adjusted rate metrics:

Pitching Effectiveness, 2014 – 2015
Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP- GB%
Marcus Stroman 78 74 83 57%
David Price 77 73 78 41%

I should note these numbers include the playoffs. Why wouldn’t they? The playoffs include games that happened. Makes sense to fold them in. By ERA, Stroman and Price are basically equals. It’s the same by FIP. It’s almost the same by xFIP, which is a blunt tool. Stroman seems like about as good a matchup, on a per-batter basis, and then there’s that last column. Price is not an extreme fly-ball pitcher. Stroman, though, is a fairly extreme groundball pitcher. Maybe even more so this year than last. It’s powered by that sinker of his, and Stroman’s groundballing ability might be a bigger key here than it seems like.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference, we can eye some interesting splits. This year, against non-groundball pitchers, the Rangers posted a .759 OPS, third-highest in baseball. However, against groundball pitchers, they posted a .674 OPS, ranking them 23rd. That difference was the fourth-largest, in the negative direction. The Yankees were most vulnerable to groundballers, and the Orioles were the least. But the Rangers were somewhat close to the Yankees. Grounders gave them fits.

Of course, ideally this would all be controlled for pitcher quality. Some groundballers the Rangers had to put up with: Dallas Keuchel, Felix Hernandez, Sonny Gray, and Garrett Richards. But then, the Rangers were overall worse against those pitchers than the rest of the league. So some of it might’ve been tough matchups, but this could also be real signal.

Here are career splits for the Rangers likely to face Stroman. I’ve included two catchers; only one will play. The rest of the lineup is predictable.

Rangers vs. Groundball Pitchers (Career)
Player Career OPS vs. GB Pitchers Difference
Robinson Chirinos 0.709 0.606 -0.103
Chris Gimenez 0.639 0.605 -0.034
Mitch Moreland 0.761 0.694 -0.067
Rougned Odor 0.742 0.558 -0.184
Elvis Andrus 0.679 0.660 -0.019
Adrian Beltre 0.814 0.810 -0.004
Josh Hamilton 0.865 0.890 0.025
Delino DeShields 0.718 0.629 -0.089
Shin-Soo Choo 0.837 0.790 -0.047
Prince Fielder 0.903 0.837 -0.066
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The past five years, hitters overall have a .716 OPS, and a .714 OPS against groundballers. There’s almost no split at all. The Rangers don’t mirror that. Hamilton has been better against groundball pitchers. Beltre has been no worse. But you see the other players drop off. The average of the first column is .767; the average of the second column is .708. And this is just comparing overall numbers to numbers against groundballers, instead of splitting out numbers against non-groundballers.

It’s a little thing, but it could be an important thing. If it’s true that the Rangers, collectively, struggle a little more against pitchers with good sinkers, then it makes all the more sense to give the nod to Stroman. He certainly did well the first time out, while Price looked a bit more hittable. This still doesn’t quite excuse the way Price was used in Game 4. John Gibbons told the media they won’t see Price in relief in Game 5. Price, for his part, said he’d be good to go, and maybe he will be available for a short stint. Maybe he could handle Choo and Fielder, back-to-back, later on. There’s something to be said for adrenaline.

But there’s a theory out there that’s interesting: it says the Jays wanted to use Price up so there wouldn’t be a Game 5 debate. It’s implied that the Jays wanted to give the ball to Stroman anyway, and they needed a way to keep Price from being upset. It could be a stretch, but it sort of fits. Maybe they really do still intend to give Price a batter or two, now that he’s re-experienced bullpen work. He’s a free agent to be; they don’t need to worry about his long-term health. Yet as things stand, Price would start the first game of a potential ALCS. The matchup calculus would be different then than it is with Stroman and the Rangers in Game 5. It would be tipped more in Price’s favor, so why not play those odds, even if it looks a little strange in the short-term? The whole point is to maximize the chances of winning the whole thing. The Blue Jays might really be doing that by going with Stroman first.

Maybe what I’ve detected is noise. Maybe the Rangers aren’t truly worse against groundball pitchers. Everything always needs more adjustments than are actually provided. If that’s the case, let this be the takeaway: Marcus Stroman has been every bit as effective as David Price. That’s incredible on its own, and it’s the biggest reason why the Blue Jays love him so much. If he has a particular Wednesday advantage, to boot? All the better.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Can anyone link to further reading on the “Price tipping pitches” issue? Very curious about this and Google wasn’t very helpful.