Having a career year, this veteran just might be available

July 1st, 2023

Unless the Cubs can turn their season around in the next few weeks, will likely find himself in a familiar situation -- involved in yet another summer trade.

Four years ago, when Stroman was a member of the then-rebuilding Blue Jays, Toronto made the decision to deal the right-hander to the Mets shortly before the Trade Deadline.

Given Stroman can opt out of the final year of his three-year, $71 million contract and become a free agent after 2023, we could see Chicago make the right-hander available prior to this year’s Deadline if the club doesn't get back in the postseason race.

Standing at 5-foot-7 and lacking swing-and-miss stuff, Stroman doesn't have the profile of a prototypical ace, but he has long been an above-average starter. And for roughly a calendar year now, he's been even better than that, performing like one of the best pitchers in baseball.

After recording a 5.32 ERA in his first nine starts with the Cubs last season and spending a month on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, Stroman has pitched to a 2.51 ERA in 33 starts since returning last July. That includes a 2.47 ERA over 17 starts this season, which would be a career low for any season in which he made more than four starts.

Stroman’s peripherals don’t line up with his sparkling ERA, which could give some potential suitors pause, but this is nothing new for the righty. His ERA has been considerably lower than his FIP, SIERA and xERA in every season since 2019.

  • 2019: 3.22 ERA // 3.72 FIP // 4.41 SIERA // 3.72 xERA
  • 2020: Did not participate
  • 2021: 3.02 ERA // 3.49 FIP // 3.95 SIERA // 4.30 xERA
  • 2022: 3.50 ERA // 3.76 FIP // 3.74 SIERA // 3.94 xERA
  • 2023: 2.47 ERA // 3.36 FIP // 3.99 SIERA // 3.80 xERA

FIP: fielding independent pitching; more here
SIERA: skill interactive ERA; more here
xERA: expected ERA; more here

Assuming the blister that forced him from his start against the Cardinals in London on Sunday doesn't prove to be a recurring issue (he's lined up to start Saturday against the Guardians), there's reason to buy in on Stroman as a potential difference-maker on the trade market.

Even if some regression is likely, some of the components of Stroman's career year seem sustainable. (All stats below are through Thursday.)

What’s fueling Stroman’s career year?

Stroman has a diverse arsenal featuring six different pitch types, and nearly everything he throws gets a lot of downward movement. More than 92% of the pitches he’s thrown this year have dropped at least 20 inches, and nearly 60% of his pitches have dropped at least 30 inches.

With the way his pitches move, keeping the ball down has always been Stroman’s forte, and he’s playing to his strengths more than ever in 2023.

Stroman has thrown 65.1% of his pitches in the bottom third of the zone or lower in 2023, up from 55.8% in 2022. It's a personal high for the veteran (data available since 2016) and the highest rate in the Majors this season (min. 750 pitches).

Highest rate of pitches thrown in lower-third of strike zone or below, 2023
Min. 750 pitches thrown

  1. Marcus Stroman (CHC): 65.1%
  2. Corbin Burnes (MIL): 63.0%
  3. Zach Eflin (TB): 62.7%
  4. Logan Webb (SF): 62.6%
  5. Kevin Gausman (TOR): 62.0%

As a result, batters are having a much tougher time getting the ball elevated against the righty than they did in 2021-22. Stroman's ground-ball rate is 59.3% (up from 52.9% in 2021-22), and only two pitchers (min. 150 batted balls) have yielded a lower average launch angle (2.5 degrees).

It explains why he has a 94th percentile barrel rate -- the percentage of batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle -- despite ranking in the 26th percentile in average exit velocity allowed and the 42nd percentile in hard-hit rate.

In turn, extra-base hits have been few and far between against Stroman, who owns the lowest XBH/PA rate among qualifying pitchers.

Lowest rate of XBH/PA, 2023:

  1. Marcus Stroman (CHC): 4.3%
  2. Jon Gray (TEX): 5.3%
  3. Shohei Ohtani (LAA): 5.7%
  4. Corbin Burnes (MIL): 6.1%
  5. Mitch Keller (PIT): 6.3%

He's been especially stingy on pitches in the lower-third of the strike zone or below, giving up just eight extra-base hits in 263 PAs (3.0%) ending on such pitches. That includes only one homer, a solo shot by Dodgers DH J.D. Martinez on a slurve that hung a bit and caught too much of the plate during a game at Wrigley Field on April 23.

Because Stroman allows so few extra-base hits, especially homers, opponents often have to string together multiple hits to push runs across against him, limiting opportunities for big innings.

Best trade fits for Stroman?

Ironically, the Cubs might be a better fit for Stroman than any other team. The club has one of the best infield defenses in the Majors after signing shortstop in free agency and shifting to second base full time, and only one pitcher across MLB has gotten more outs above average from his infield defense than Stroman this season.

However, it doesn't seem likely at this point that the veteran is going to have a long-term future with the team.

Stroman certainly has been vocal about his desire to stay in Chicago, revealing on Twitter several weeks ago that he and his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, have made "multiple attempts" to engage the Cubs in talks about a contract extension. But the club has not shown interest in going down that road at this time, according to Stroman.

And while the Cubs are still in the NL Central race, they haven't been over .500 since May 6 and just followed up an 11-2 stretch with a four-game losing streak, slipping back to five games under entering their weekend series against the Guardians. If something doesn't change soon, Chicago's front office may determine that the playoffs aren't going to happen for the team in 2023, in which case it would make sense to shop Stroman and other impending free agents such as .

Due to Stroman's specific set of skills, some contenders are clearly better trade fits than others. For instance, the Giants (+13 infield OAA), Rangers (+12), D-backs (+6) and Phillies (+6) seem like better fits for the righty than the Dodgers (-11), Reds (-11), Orioles (-8), Braves (-8), Blue Jays (-6) or Angels (-6), just to name some playoff hopefuls that could be on the lookout for a starting pitcher.

In any case, Stroman is likely to have a long list of suitors. There may be pitchers available who are younger, whiff more batters and have more long-term value, but for contenders seeking rotation help for the stretch run in 2023, it's going to be hard to find a better option than the 32-year-old.