September 11, 2014
The Dangerous Business of Comparing Stroman to Maddux
Greg Maddux is one of the best pitchers of all time. Marcus Stroman, meanwhile, shut down a pretty lousy Cubs lineup this week*. Comparing a rookie pitcher to the living embodiment of pitching genius is silly at first blush and downright sacrilegious on a second glance. The quickest way to sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about is to insist too earnestly that a rookie pitcher is just like a Hall of Famer, so we’re going to tread very carefully here. That said: Marcus Stroman is a lot like Greg Maddux.
The similarities aren’t obvious. Maddux was renowned for his pinpoint control, which helped him drive professional hitters mad despite a somewhat lackluster arsenal. Maddux’s fastball was typically in the high 80s or low 90s. He’d supplement with a mid-80s breaking ball, and a high-70s changeup, none of which would make your jaw drop with velocity or movement or combination thereof. Stroman is a flame-thrower whose fastball has averaged over 94 mph this season. Stroman uses a mix of three different fastballs (four-seam, sinker, and cutter) along with two breaking balls (slider and curve) and a changeup. Stroman reached the majors at age 23, more than two full years older than Maddux was. Maddux posted 76.3 WARP over roughly 5,000 innings pitched. Stroman has posted 1.6 WARP in just over 100 innings.
At face value the only thing Stroman and Maddux might have in common is that they are undersized by starting-pitcher standards—though, even at that, Maddux was generally listed at around 6 feet, while Stroman measures an even more diminutive 5-foot-9.
There’s more to it than that, though. Here’s a quote from an excellent Thomas Boswell piece on Maddux’s approach to getting major-league hitters out:
One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux’s catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher’s glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.
Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn’t taste quite right, he said, “That’s all I got.”
Then he explained that I couldn’t tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the later the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.
Thomas Boswell - Baseball Hall of Fame: Greg Maddux used methodical approach to get to Cooperstown
That last paragraph is the key to Maddux’s approach. The pitcher’s best friend is often deception, especially for the multitudes who aren’t blessed with something like Aroldis Chapman’s fastball or Craig Kimbrel’s curveball. This will be the key to Stroman’s success, as it was with Maddux.
The first chance hitters typically get to identify the pitch—assuming the pitcher isn’t tipping his pitches—is at the release point. Breaking balls or off-speed pitches are often released at a slightly different point than fastballs, giving the hitter an early hint to what’s coming. This is the first thing going for Stroman, as his release point is remarkably consistent for all types of pitches:
If opposing hitters are looking at Stroman’s release point for a tip as to which pitch is coming, they are out of luck. As you can see, all of Stroman’s pitches come out of the same spot, regardless of type. Each dot on the graph represents a month of average release points, which should give us a good idea of where Stroman releases his pitches time after time. The only real variation in release points comes on a game-by-game basis as Stroman shifts an inch or two to the left or right on the rubber. But there’s no tell as to whether or not a breaking ball, fastball, or changeup is coming.
Not only are Stroman’s release points very consistent, but his six-pitch repertoire helps him keep opposing hitters guessing. Of course, not all deep repertoires are equal, particularly when a pitcher shelves certain pitches depending on batter handedness or pitch counts. Stroman, though, doesn’t fall into many patterns that make it easy for opposing hitters. He’s basically a five-pitch pitcher for batters from either side of the plate (benching the slider against lefties and the changeup against righties). In a few cases, he’ll dramatically change his approach, as seen in the blue boxes (when he cuts pitch usage by 10 percentage points or more) and the red boxes (when he increases by the same amount). Those splotches of color are infrequent:
This is amplified by the fact that it can be extremely difficult for hitters to tell which pitch Stroman has thrown until it’s too late. This is because of another aspect of pitching that Maddux would discuss with Boswell:
Maddux was convinced no hitter could tell the speed of a pitch with any meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.
“You just can’t do it,” he said. Sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different releases points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.
Thomas Boswell - Baseball Hall of Fame: Greg Maddux used methodical approach to get to Cooperstown
This tenet of pitching builds on the earlier quote about trying to make each pitch look the same coming out of the hand. Maddux was an expert in keeping his pitches looking exactly the same until that aforementioned late break. This is something Stroman has going for him because, by and large, his pitches don’t move an exceptional amount. They move, but it’s a late, hard break. This makes it difficult for opposing hitters to time the pitch and/or tell one pitch apart from another. We’ll use an at-bat from a recent game against the Red Sox to illustrate Stroman’s late break.
Below are two pitches from Mookie Betts’ first at-bat against Stroman on August 27th. See if you can tell which pitch is a curveball and which is a fastball:
You might have been able to tell by pitch location, Betts’ reaction, or some other nuance. But I’d bet that for most, the pitchers looked too similar to tell apart; the hitter’s time to identify the pitch is passed.
The pitch on the left was an 83 mph breaking ball that Betts took down the middle for a strike. On the right was a 93 mph tailing fastball that Betts also took for a strike.
Stroman would later strike out Betts on a pitch that made Betts look silly:
Notice the swing. This is the swing of a batter badly fooled. In the image on the left below, Betts believes this pitch is going to end up low and away. You can see his upper half putting him in position to swing through a pitch on the outer half of the plate. In the image on the right you can see where the pitch ended up, as the late arm-side run brought it back across the plate.
The late break on Stroman’s pitches have shown up in several scouting reports for the pitcher. BP’s own prospect team described both Stroman’s slider and changeup as having “late” movement, noting that both generate swings and misses as a result of said break. (The last-second swerve of the pitch he got Betts looking with earlier in the game might have been even nastier.)
If Stroman wants to be the next Greg Maddux, he’ll need to work on something that he doesn’t quite have down as well as Maddux just yet. Maddux’s precise command is the one trait most fans associate with his success. There are stories about Maddux using caroms in bullpen sessions to deliver baseballs to his catcher, after hitting chairs, walls, and the like. Over the final 16 seasons of his career Maddux would post a walk rate over two per nine just once (and even that season was just 2.03), with 10 of those seasons coming in at under 1.5 BB/9.
So far in 2014 Stroman has walked just 2.2 batters per nine innings, a solid mark for a young pitcher. Using some arbitrary filters we can put that in perspective: Since 1990 there have been 317 pitchers who were 23 or younger, threw at least 110 innings, and struck out at least seven batters per nine innings. Only 33 of those 317 posted a walk rate under 2.3, a group that includes Stroman. Stroman doesn’t have Maddux’s command—but neither, at this point in his career, did Maddux, walking 2.8 batters per nine over his first eight seasons as a pro.
Consistent release points to hide the ball. Late, hard break on all of his pitches, making it difficult for hitters to decipher one pitch from another. Excellent control of his pitches, minimizing the damage done by free passes. Those three characteristics describe Marcus Stroman. They also describe Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Fine, we didn’t get so far as proving that Stroman’s got anything like Maddux’s future, and Stroman hasn’t gone so far as proving it himself. Until he does, he’ll have to settle for using many of the tenets that made Maddux great—and he’ll have to settle for being “merely” on the cusp of being an ace.
*It’s not lost on me that the Stroman’s outing against the Cubs was a “Maddux”, the term given to a complete-game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Stroman threw 93.