PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Marcus Stroman speaks often about his core strength, and in the same breath, proudly says that his muscled midsection is among the best in baseball, if not No. 1.
We’re fine taking his word on that. There’s no way to objectively measure such a thing. You can’t research those rankings on Fangraphs. It’s not factored into WAR.
But Stroman does separate himself from the pitching pack in a way that suggests his core really is a big reason — and you don’t need Trackman data to identify it.
Just watch Stroman the next time he takes the mound.
On one pitch, Stroman may pause his left front leg in mid-air, hesitating an extra beat — or two or three — before completing his delivery. The next, he might downshift into slow-motion for the entire wind-up. For another, Stroman could go quick-pitch mode, or start fast before decelerating.
Messing with mechanics like that typically is a pitcher’s worst nightmare. Enough to force most of them to study video for hours. To Stroman, however, it’s a unique skill that isn’t developed much around baseball these days, for a number of reasons.
“I think it’s all core strength, stability, so I focus on that a lot,” said Stroman, the former Patchogue-Medford star. “My balance as well. I put a lot of work in the weight room — a lot. I’m not saying anybody else doesn’t put in as much as I do, but I know I’m at the high end. So once my body feels strong, everything else takes care of itself. I don’t need to worry about anything else.”
Opposing hitters should be concerned. Not only does Stroman feature a five-pitch repertoire, including a top-rated sinker, he can throw them with a number of different timing variations. It’s a havoc-causing wrinkle that the majority of pitchers don’t feel comfortable even thinking about, never mind trying.
“His body control is a weapon for him,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “Not every pitcher has that ability to control their body the way that he does. And that's not a knock on the other guys, that's just a strength for him. He doesn't have a 100-mph fastball, but he has this ability to change up the timing. That’s a weapon.”
Stroman picked it up in a place you wouldn’t expect: hanging around the batting cage during his Toronto tenure, watching the Blue Jays’ hitters, chatting them up, finding clues, taking mental notes. He learned the value of toe taps and bat-waggles and the triggering of weight shifts.
Now Stroman looks for those signals, and basically lets the hitter relay the optimal plan of attack. Since they’re waiting to react to him, the unpredictability tosses a grenade into that mental blueprint. And Stroman is flexible enough to keep changing according to those cues, which can make for a very frustrating trip to the plate.
“It’s just kind of random, to be honest,” said Stroman, 28, who believes the variations could even help prolong his career. “I’m always watching hitters before I pitch against a team, always watching their timing. I’m watching how many times they waggle the bat, how many times they step out of the box. I don’t necessarily go into a game saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to do it to this guy.’ It’s all feel. I feel confident to do any type of timing to anybody, in any count.”
Stroman’s techniques were on full display Wednesday against the Cardinals when he struck out four without a walk over three scoreless innings. You could see a hitter suddenly lock up when Stroman paused, then rush to re-start before the pitch arrived. Even if they do manage to connect, it’s often weak contact.
“Hitters are taught to kind of dance with the pitcher,” Hefner said. “They're trying to create a rhythm with the pitcher's rhythm. So the minute you alter that rhythm it's no different than a musical group.
“If one guy is off, then it's gonna throw the rest of the band off. You can think of that pitcher-hitter relationship as kind of a band. If they're in sync, then usually the hitter is going to win. If they're out of sync, then usually the pitcher is going to win.”
That’s what Stroman is banking on. You could say his own timing was disrupted some with last season’s surprising trade to the Mets, but he shook off an early adjustment period to go 3-1 with a 2.91 ERA over his final six starts. So far in spring training, Stroman has a 2.70 ERA, with seven Ks over 6 2/3 innings. He will make his fourth start Monday in a simulated game at Clover Park as the Mets are on the road.
“I know if I’m strong and I’m stable, and my mind is clear, I know what I’m capable of,” Stroman said. “So it’s just a matter of staying in that element, in my zone.”