Things could be going better for the Toronto Blue Jays. The only true “must-win” games are elimination games, but trailing Cleveland two games to none in the ALCS, there’s little doubt that tonight’s Game 3 feels like a must-win game Toronto. Should they lose tonight, all anyone will be able to talk about is how only one MLB team has ever come back to win a series after being down three games to none.
Could the Blue Jays become the second team to make such a comeback? Of course. They strung together a four-game win streak as recently as the Wild Card Game through their ALDS sweep over the Rangers, after all. But, naturally, facing a best-case scenario of four straight elimination games is not the outcome Toronto will be seeking in tonight’s game.
The most obvious aspect of Toronto’s game which needs to improve if they want to win is their offense. In the 18 innings they’ve played against Cleveland thus far, they’ve scored just one run – not exactly an ideal method for winning games. Of course, scoring runs at prodigious rates is something else we just saw Toronto do,what l when they tallied up 22 runs in their three-game ALDS sweep over the Rangers. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Josh Donaldson or Edwin Encarnacion or another key member of their lineup stepping up to the plate and delivering for Toronto. If they want to win tonight, someone is going to have to push runs across the plate and they aren’t lacking for players who can be that guy.
However, to state the obvious, a two-game stretch of inept offense does not change the fundamental realities of baseball for the Blue Jays. Hitting well isn’t their singular path to getting back into the series. Defense and pitching are just as important as ever. So far, Toronto’s pitching staff has done a tremendous job of keeping Cleveland’s offense in check, yielding just four runs over the two games. There are a multitude of paths to success in a baseball game, but among the simplest is to prevent the other team from scoring. Tonight, they’ll turn to starting pitcher Marcus Stroman in hopes that he’ll become their latest pitcher to keep Cleveland’s offense in check. One of the interesting things to watch tonight will be what Stroman looks like — aside from the diminutive bundle of energy we’ve come to know over the past few seasons — because Stroman is constantly evolving.
The 2016 season could have gone better for Marcus Stroman, as his 4.37 ERA demonstrates. Coming off his electric September and October in 2015, there were hopes that Stroman would establish himself as a top-of-the-rotation arm for Toronto, but instead he’s struggled with consistency. One of his primary challenges surfaced when the league began to solve the sinker upon which he had become so reliant. It’s through this frustrating development, however, that something potentially very good came out of his somewhat disappointing season: he showed an ability and eagerness to adjust.
At the end of August, August Fagerstrom noted that Stroman had taken the encouraging step of cutting back on his sinker usage in favor of his successful slider. Then, prior to his start in the Wild Card Game, Paul Sporer looked at Stroman’s increased cutter usage. The slider and cutter have been two solid offerings for Stroman this season, with opponents batting .195 and .191 against the pitches, respectively. That’s excellent compared to his signature pitch, the sinker, against which opposing batters hit .307 and slugged .462 this year — and which he used more than 50% time during the first half of the season. It was critical for Stroman to find a new approach, and the slider and cutter have both played a role in that.
If you look at the pitch-usage chart below, though, you’ll notice that there is yet another pitch coming into favor for Stroman:
Stroman has recorded four of his five highest single-game usage figures for the curveball this season over his last four starts — including his postseason start against the Orioles. In fact, over those four starts, his curveball has been his most heavily used secondary pitch — even moreso than his slider or cutter. And just like the slider and cutter, the curveball has been really effective this season, with opponents hitting just .197 against the pitch.
One thing Stroman has done with his pitch repertoire in general and his curveball, specifically, is increased the velocity.
In his one October start, his curveball velocity was sitting nearly as high as his slider velocity was at the start of the year!
One of the big reasons why Cleveland may expect to see this trend of increased curveball usage continue tonight is that their lineup will be stacked with players batting from the left side, including (in rough order of their place in lineup): Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Lonnie Chisenhall, Coco Crisp, and Tyler Naquin. Although Stroman has had some success burying sliders and cutters down and in to left-handers, the curveball is a clear weapon against opposite-handed batters. Righties are hitting .237 and slugging .447 against the curve this season whereas lefties are batting .152 and slugging .273.
So what exactly does this curveball look like? Here he is using it in his Wild Card start against Baltimore…
… to strike out Chris Davis:
… and Matt Wieters:
… and to make Adam Jones look silly:
Toronto is in an unenviable position, but, at the risk of overstating the importance of momentum, a win tonight can dramatically change the outlook for their series. The scheduled starters for Tuesday’s Game 4 are Aaron Sanchez and Mike Clevinger — a matchup which heavily favors Toronto. Stroman has been tinkering for much of the second half of the season; now is the ideal opportunity to prove that he’s learned something about how he pitches best. If he’s able to effectively mix in his strong secondary offerings — cutter, slider, and curve — there’s every reason to hope that he can help put the team in position to win. Assuming Toronto’s offense finally shows up, that is.
Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.