February 14, 2014
Bush League: Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez
The Bush League series takes a slight turn this week, doubling up to tackle a pair of pitchers from the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list. I broke down the mechanics of a total of 21 pitchers from the Top 101 in the newly-released 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide, including each of the top 18, and all 47 arms from the big list were covered by Paul Sporer within the guide. I’d like to cover a number of those top pitchers at BP before the season begins, so let's make a dent with the top two prospects in the Toronto system.
History is not on Stroman's side, given the relative dearth of sub-six-foot pitchers who enjoyed a sustained career in the rotation. But history is also skewed by the self-fulfilling prophecy that shorter pitchers belong in the bullpen, since pitchers of Stroman’s size are given very few chances to stick in the rotation. Whereas a tall pitcher with big stuff is typically given multiple opportunities to fail before being limited to relief outings, shorter pitchers must make an almost immediate impact in order to avoid the reliever label. Stroman has the ability to overcome the conventional wisdom, and the BP prospect gurus tabbed him with the no. 1 designation in the Toronto system (after some debate) ahead of fellow righty Aaron Sanchez despite a height disadvantage of more than half a foot.
Stroman owned the strike zone in his first full season of pro ball, striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings while walking just a shade over two hitters per nine, for a K-to-walk ratio of 4.8-to-one. He was closer to average in terms of hits and homers allowed, though he was also facing the advanced competition of the Eastern League all season, as Stroman essentially skipped A-ball with less than a dozen career innings below Double-A under his belt.
The organization increased the right-hander's workloads throughout the season. He threw 94 pitches in his first game of the year on May 19th, followed by two very brief outings, and he didn't crack the 94 mark again until July 2nd. That's when the Jays took off the restraints and Stroman rattled off nine consecutive starts of 98 pitches or more, including a six-start run that included counts of 109, 112, 113, 104, 113, and 113 pitches. The Jays avoided the kid gloves in their handling of Stroman, and he cleared the 98-pitch threshold in 11 of his final 12 games of the year.
The MiLB.tv archives include a handful of Stroman's road starts from last season, and the feeds were kind enough to offer a couple of different camera angles to better evaluate his game. One of the first things that I noticed was that Stroman likes to work quickly from the windup, with very little time between the moment that he gets the baseball back from his catcher and the time when he kicks back into his delivery. In the fourth inning of his June 4 start at Akron, he walked cleanup hitter Adam Abraham on four consecutive pitches (Stroman's only free pass of the contest), and the entire plate appearance was executed in less than 60 seconds.
The right-hander's timing was off in that at-bat, with all four of the pitches over-rotated and finishing below the shelf of the strike zone. Low targets are good for Stroman, especially given the lack of natural plane that comes from his short stature, but the sequence was essentially an over-correction; most of his missed targets on the day were the result of a late arm that pushed baseballs high and to the arm side of their intended locations. That said, Stroman started the day with pristine command, striking out the first two batters of the game on called third strikes. In fact, leadoff hitter Jose Ramirez stood and watched the umpire call strikes on three consecutive pitches, never taking the bat off his shoulder as Stroman played catch with receiver Sean Ochinko.
Stroman's start at Reading on August 22nd provided a different view of the action, allowing the audience to get a good look when his timing of trunk rotation was just a bit off-kilter. Many of his pitches were located near the “3” and “6” digits of the strike-zone keypad, particularly on his 93-95 mph fastballs. His slider had a big vertical component, though he did show a tendency to over-rotate the pitch outside the zone, especially to right-handed batters.
Reading’s batters seemed to take note of Stroman's preference to work quickly, as many of them called time prior to every pitch, showing an open hand to the umpire while they dug in and performed their pre-pitch rituals. Perhaps Stroman was annoyed, but if he was, the emotion fueled his competitive fire. He struck out eight batters in the game across 5.7 innings, with two walks and two runs allowed. The only knock against him was a big home run in the fifth inning hit by slugging Phillies prospect Maikel Franco. Stroman had been on a serious roll prior to the Franco bomb, striking out four of the previous six hitters, each of whom was retired with the backwards K.
Stroman’s fastball was hitting spots, and he was both mixing in the changeup effectively to keep hitters off-balance and coaxing ugly swings and sideways looks with his slider. Everything he put on display looked the part of a big-league starter, and his mechanics did little to alter that image.
Mechanics Report Card
Stroman follows the manual for shorter starters to succeed in the pros, with huge power grades that help to overcome some of his height deficiencies. At peak, he has excellent momentum that begins with a good lead of the hip and transitions into a powerful second gear that continues to accelerate into foot strike. The big burst helps to extend Stroman's stride and leads to a solid release-distance that measures up with pitchers who are significantly taller.
Stroman has big torque that is driven primarily by hip rotation, with a pronounced delay after foot strike before triggering the upper body to fire. His peak torque is reliant on ideal momentum to maintain his timing mechanism, and though Stroman does a great job of honing his timing within a narrow window, he also goes through bouts where he battles to find his optimal time signature, resulting in inconsistencies at release point. However, he helps himself by sticking with a regular leg lift from the stretch, thus negating the need to internalize different timing patterns with runners on base. Stroman’s overall delivery is a thing of beauty when he lines up the gears.
Stroman does have some room for improvement with his stability grades, which is common for pitchers with non-ideal size combined with massive power, but he appears to have the strength and athleticism to hone those finer elements of his game. The scores for balance and posture already grade out as major-league average, and he needs only to quiet the drop in his drive and minimize the spine tilt in order to see some major leaps in his release-point consistency. The template is certainly there for Stroman to buck the trends and find success near the front of a big-league rotation.
Despite his having the size that is supposedly required to handle a starter's workload, Sanchez has had trouble staying on the pitching mound during the first few years of his pro career. His single-season high is 90.3 innings, and the 2013 season was par for the course, as a shoulder injury shelved him in mid-May and kept him off the mound for over a month.
The Jays were careful with Sanchez upon his return from injury, and he faced no more than 14 batters in any outing until late July. He pitched six or more innings in a game only twice all season, facing more than 20 hitters just three times, with a season-high of 7.0 innings and 25 batters faced in his final start of the year. For the season, he averaged just 4.1 innings per start (he also pitched five innings of relief), a factor that contributed to his meager total of four wins.
Sanchez’s low rate of hits and homers allowed kept his ERA within reasonable range, but the peripheral stats were unimpressive, with strikeout and walk rates that left much to be desired. He finished with a K-to-walk ratio of just 1.88-to-one. Sanchez is a long way from being the workhorse that the Jays need near the top of their rotation, and his Florida State League stats don’t give the impression that he can dominate A-ball hitters, let alone the advanced bats of the upper levels.
Of course, his future projection goes way deeper than 2013 stats can possibly capture, and the backstory to last season's struggles includes constant adjustments to his mechanics. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no footage on MiLB.tv that we could use to assess his full-game approach or in-season development, and the dearth of visual data prevents me from giving Sanchez a full report card. His grades receive an “Incomplete” for the time being, but we are not left completely in the dark.
I have been able to watch Sanchez's progression in various clips across the past two seasons, and the adjustments he has made are relatively easy to recognize. The biggest change has been a slowing of his momentum, sapping what was once an above-average burst to the plate and converting it to a pedestrian pace. That change was a point of emphasis in his instruction, and though his new motion received some raves during his AFL demonstration, this evaluator sees a delivery that has lost effectiveness over the past two seasons. The first gear of his momentum is decent, but after leg lift he keeps his weight back and slows down to a snail's pace.
The purpose of the slower drive is to help Sanchez maintain balance and find a consistent timing pattern. I agree with the emphasis on stability in general, but I don’t think that pitchers need to slow down their momentum to such an extreme, particularly with a pitcher who already had solid balance and posture in the past, as was the case with Sanchez. His stability was always a point in his favor, but the delivery that he showcased in the AFL was almost stiff throughout the stride phase, with diminished athleticism throughout his frame.
Of course, every pitcher has a different timing signature, and 80-grade momentum isn’t conducive to a repeatable release point for the vast majority of pitchers, but the down-shift into slow-motion actually opens up the window for timing to fall off track, making it even more difficult for a pitcher to find a consistent delivery. The issue is compounded when one considers that the pitcher will need to up the ante of momentum with runners on base, thus requiring him to learn two timing patterns. The potential cons of an ultra-slow delivery far outweigh the pros.
Possibly the biggest issue with the slow momentum is that it has greatly shrunk Sanchez's stride, thus decreasing his release distance. Compounding the problem is that he engages foot strike prematurely, compensating for the painfully slow momentum by putting his foot down early in order to progress into the next link of the kinetic chain. This strategy has created further wrinkles in his timing signature, and it will be very difficult for Sanchez to find a trustworthy delivery as long as there is such a weighted emphasis on glacial momentum. His 2013 numbers can be taken with a grain of salt, given that he was trying to integrate some of these changes to a lesser degree during the year, but the worry is that his 2014 performance will also be salted while he battles his mechanics.