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At the beginning of the first season of his Cubs tenure, Marcus Stroman wasn’t feeling like himself. The lockout-shortened spring training didn’t help. After his last start in April, Stroman held a 6.98 ERA and still hadn’t picked up his first win in a Cubs uniform.
“Just off right now. Just a mess a bit, mechanically,” Stroman said April 20 after an outing against the Rays in which he allowed eight runs in just 4 1/3 innings, only the second time he’d given up eight in a game to that point in his career. “Can’t find any rhythm. Nothing seems synonymous. Every pitch essentially feels like I’m doing something different mechanically. It just kind of comes and goes in stretches. I feel great for an inning or a few batters, and then I kind of just lose it.
“It’s frustrating. It’s beyond frustrating.”
Stroman just never felt right consistently in the first half of 2022. After the April struggles, he spent 11 days on the COVID IL in the May. That led to a stint on the 15-day IL in June due to right shoulder inflammation he said stemmed from ramping up too quickly after his bout with COVID-19.
One player doesn’t sink a team, but there was certainly some correlation between Stroman’s issues in the first half and the Cubs rotation’s own ineffectiveness (4.83 combined first-half ERA for Cubs starters, 25th in the majors). In the same vein, Stroman finding success following his return from the IL just before the All-Star break (2.56 ERA in his final 16 starts) played a big part in the starters’ collective second-half turnaround (2.89 rotation ERA, third-best in the majors).
Considering this Cubs team isn’t built to win offensively every game, run prevention is going to lead the way. A large part of that is starting pitching. Though the results haven’t necessarily been top-tier overall through six games, Stroman has delivered exactly what the Cubs need to get from him every five days.
Stroman matched his six shutout innings on Opening Day with another six scoreless against the Rangers on Friday. He also struck out six and held Texas to just six total baserunners in the 2-0 victory. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Stroman is just the fourth starter in team history to deliver two scoreless outings of six innings or more.
Again, this team isn’t built like an offensive juggernaut. It’s going to need starters to keep them in games, and thus far, that’s what Stroman has done.
“He’s been great for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Every time he’s stepped on the bump, you feel you got a chance to win. We just didn’t get to see that as often last year early on. This year, obviously a great start. Hasn’t allowed a run. That’s why you get those types of guys, give them the Opening Day start and get them back around as much as possible.”
Stroman credits the World Baseball Classic for having him seemingly in mid-season form this early in the year. Considering he was pitching for Team Puerto Rico in meaningful games a month, he was already in that mindset long before the start of the year.
“I just feel like it puts you in that competitive mind frame and gets you going much earlier than spring training,” Stroman said. “Spring training, you can kind of go through the motions at times, so playing super competitive, playoff-level atmosphere baseball in March, it’s extremely fun. But not only fun, it makes you get ready for the start of the season.”
Stroman has always been known as a ground-ball pitcher, so his 68 percent ground-ball rate two starts into the season isn’t a shock. His 30.4 percent strikeout rate and 13 percent walk rate, which would be career highs, will surely drop some as the season goes on. That ground-ball rate, even if it drops, too, should remain a large part of his game.
With Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner playing up the middle, that’s what will bring him success.
“Nico was an incredible shortstop last year, now having him over at second with that same ability to go get balls in that range,” Stroman said. “And then bringing in Dansby, who’s one of the best shortstops in the league. That just gives me more confidence. I already had a lot of confidence in my sinker to begin with. I truly feel like if I get my sinker to where I can get it in the zone, that it’s going to be an out a majority of the time. If you give me more confidence, that’s a scary sight.”
Stroman has had a tremendous start to the year, for sure. This is who the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him in December 2021. Compared to where he was a year ago, Stroman has looked like that No. 1 starter the Cubs know they can rely on whenever he takes the bump.
The Cubs don’t have that ace-level starting pitcher, but they have a lot of depth.
Behind Stroman, they’ve got Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski rounding out the rotation. Javier Assad is currently in the bullpen but should be able to move back to the rotation when needed. Adrian Sampson and Caleb Kilian are right at the top of the minor league depth chart.
That depth should keep the rotation afloat should the injury bug bite again this year. With starting pitching’s importance to any potential success for the Cubs this season, though, they need Stroman to set the tone beyond these first two times through the rotation.
If he can do that consistently, that would go a long way toward getting this rotation to perform like a playoff-caliber group over the course of the year.
“Honestly, I feel like starting pitching is extremely important when it comes to going deep into the year, to winning,” Stroman said. “I feel like you need to have a good staff that’s able to keep you in games throughout the entire year. I’m very confident in our five, six, seven — we have a lot of depth as well — to go out there each and every start, each and every five days.
“It’s at the point now where I’m just excited to go out there and see what we can do rather than have everybody kind of doubt us as a rotation.”
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