On Wednesday, Dec. 1, the Chicago Cubs signed right-hander Marcus Stroman to a three-year, $71 million contract. The deal includes a $21 million player option for the third year and $2 million escalators if he pitches at least 160 innings in the 2022 and 2023 seasons, bringing its maximum value to $75 million.
Stroman, 30, is coming off his seventh major-league season. In 2021, he had a 10-13 record, 3.02 ERA, 21.6 K%, and 15.6 K-BB% in 179 innings with the New York Mets. He also tied six other starters for the most games started (33) and accumulated 3.4 fWAR, which ranked 23rd of qualified pitchers last season.
Stroman’s $71M contract marks the highest dollar amount given by the Cubs since they signed fellow right-hander Yu Darvish in the 2018 offseason. Along with acquiring lefty Wade Miley from the Cincinnati Reds, it signals a clear desire from their front office to improve a bleak rotation and possibly even contend.
“I mean, I think them going out and getting me kind of speaks to that point,” said Stroman.
Previous Rotation Woes
The Cubs’ rotation was among the league’s worst in 2021. They finished 27th in ERA (4.88), 21st in K% (21.9), 23rd in K-BB% (12.3), and 30th in HR/FB% (17.2). Their advanced stats weren’t much better, as evidenced by a 4.39 SIERA and 4.43 xFIP.
While Stroman doesn’t address the Cubs’ desire for strikeouts and power pitching, he offers one thing they’ve missed over the past few seasons: pedigree. His career ERA in 1028.1 innings (a mark only 38 other pitchers have surpassed since 2014) comes out to 3.63. More recently, his 2021 season was his fifth year with an fWAR above three and set a career-low in ERA. And, while he’s pitched in seven seasons, he’s had at least 20 games started in only five.
Stroman’s calling card over his career has been his affinity for ground balls. Despite his percentage of them having decreased as his arsenal has evolved, his 50.8 GB% in 2021 was just under nine percent above the league average. Hitters also averaged a 6.3-degree launch angle against him in comparison to the 12.6-degree average.
His sinker has a lot to do with his batted ball quality. It’s a premium seam-shifted wake pitch, a buzzword that explains how pitches can move towards the plate in unexpected ways. For sinkers, low spin efficiency (spin that contributes to movement) and high spin deviation (difference in movement direction measured on a clock) are signature signs to look for. And Stroman’s 59 percent efficiency and 90-minute deviation led every sinker in 2021.
Along with his sinker, Stroman features three secondary pitches: a sweeping slider, split-finger changeup, and cutter. His slider and cutter have had climbing usage rates over his past few seasons, but his splitter was newly introduced in the 2021 season. Not only is that diverse, but all of them were efficient out-getters. His slider contributed -6 runs, his cutter -5, and his splitter -2 per Baseball Savant’s run metric.
His secondaries are highly effective at neutralizing specific types of hitters. For instance, his slider and splitter are meant for righties and lefties respectively to chase away. That’s why they occupy exact opposite corners at the bottom of the zone, opposite of their target handedness. His cutter has a similar heatmap to his slider, but it’s meant to attack lefties in. They’re unable to see its tight movement as well and often miss their barrel. Having a specific game plan like this allows pitchers to adapt to adverse situations and thrive.
Stroman’s secondaries also led to more whiffs than ever before. In 2021, he posted career highs in K%, Whiff%, and SwStr%. The latter two ranked above the league average, but his K% still fell slightly short. However, his K-BB% (which factors in his plus command) ranked a percentage point above. While he doesn’t have an outstanding miss profile, he’s steadily improved over his career, a positive sign for his molding arsenal.
Contract Structure Signals More to Come
Stroman’s three years of control follow the Cubs’ intentions to start spending “intelligently.” It’s an ambiguous term, but investing a low number of years while inflating annual average value into premium free agents has become more popular among large spenders. Having a pitcher like Stroman long-term is exciting, but it’s thinking about the long-run opportunities that keep championship teams alive.
That advantage works both ways, however. Stroman has the opportunity to opt-out of his contract when he’s just 32 years old. It’s a gamble to bet on a strong market two years down the road, but it’s not a bad one given Stroman’s consistency and the aging trend of low-velocity pitchers.
Beyond the numbers, Stroman is one of the most energetic pitchers in the MLB. For a team that traded three franchise icons over the course of two days last season and played the remaining two months with a rebuilding team, it’s infinitely valuable. Cubs fans fill Wrigley Field for the aroma of a riveting three-hour game, and Stroman brings that every game.
With Stroman, the Cubs are getting a proven, valuable starting pitcher in his prime, a luxury they haven’t been able to say in more than a few years. And while he doesn’t eliminate every need, he’s a confident step in the right direction.