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MILWAUKEE — Marcus Stroman is pretty comparable to Jon Lester.
At least in a way that I hadn’t really thought about until David Ross brought it up Sunday morning.
That comparison didn’t have anything to do with the way the two men pitched — or really in how they played the game at all — but more in terms of the specific situations they came in to begin their Cubs careers.
- Both pitchers signed with Chicago on high-profile, expensive contracts — Lester in December 2014 on a six-year, $155 million deal, Stroman last December on a three-year, $71 million pact.
- Both had rough starts to their first seasons with the Cubs. At the end of April 2015, Lester owned an 0-2 record and a 6.23 ERA and had allowed 15 earned runs and 29 hits in 21 2/3 innings. In the same vein, Stroman owned an 0-3 record and a 6.98 ERA while allowing 15 earned runs and 22 hits in 19 1/3 innings.
- Both had expectations to live up to but weren’t doing so right out of the gate. And they knew it.
“What I have experienced from former teammates and just my short time managing is, guys that come to a new environment with big contracts, you put a lot of pressure on yourself early on,” Ross said during Sunday’s pregame media scrum. “You try a little bit harder. You want things to work out. Jon did that, I think, in his first year here. You want these guys to just settle in.”
Want another comparison?
On the first day after the calendar flipped to May, both pitchers looked exactly like the pitchers Chicago thought it would get when it shelled out those large sums of money. Back on May 1, 2015, it was Lester shutting out Milwaukee on seven innings of three-hit ball. On Sunday, Stroman faced the same team Lester did, and he put together easily his best start as a Cub.
Stroman tossed seven shutout innings of his own, allowing just two hits, walking only one and striking out five. On the way to recording his first ‘W’ in a Cubs uniform, against a team who’d just put up 20 runs and 25 hits in the last two games, Stroman sent each of the last 14 hitters he faced back to the dugout.
“I think it was huge,” Stroman said of finishing the challenging road trip with a win. “Avoid the sweep. Definitely pick up some momentum going into Tuesday, into the off day, feel good. It’s a long year, man.
“I’m going to say the same thing every start, I promise: it’s 162 games, so you’re going to have a stretch of 10, 15 bad ones, (and) we can go on a run for 30. So baseball, you just got to show up, put the work in and bring good vibes, bring good energy each and every day and hope things play out in your favor.”
The turnaround began his last time out when Chicago was in Atlanta.
There, Stroman produced his first quality start as a Cub, allowing three runs (two earned) over six innings. That outing didn’t lead to a win, but he and Ross both felt that it marked an improvement in the mechanics and rhythm that had been lacking in his first three starts.
“We did start the season a little bit earlier compared to where spring training (started) and all that. Sometimes, one of those early (regular season) starts that didn’t go quite like he wanted probably (would normally happen) in spring training, maybe two of those,” Ross said. “Just starting to find his rhythm. I really thought he found his rhythm his last start. Looked really good in Atlanta. A couple of hard hit balls there at the end, but (today), we needed that one. A really big outing for us and for him.”
In his fifth start of the season, Stroman was impressive in more ways than one. He excelled in some ways that he’s been known to do his entire career, while he also got it done in ways Cubs fans haven’t yet seen him pitch.
Heading into Sunday, Stroman’s ground ball percentage was stuck at 41.3 percent (per FanGraphs), which if the season ended on Saturday would be by far the lowest of his career. He doesn’t have elite velocity; it’s keeping things on the dirt that’s made him successful throughout his eight-year career.
But on Sunday, he was finally able to limit the hard contact (his average exit velocity was 87.3 mph, nearly 6 mph below his season average) and he kept the ball on the ground (nine ground balls, accounting for 11 outs, out of the 16 balls put in play).
“Even though I do it a little different than what’s tradition out there, as far as striking guys out, I’m usually a guy who’s keeping the ball on the ground and pitching deep into games,” Stroman said. “I think when I’m doing that, I’m bringing a lot of value to my team.”
At the same time, Stroman stuck to the slider (37 times) more often than any other pitch on Sunday, even though he’d come in seemingly using the sinker (34 times) as his go-to pitch.
The sequencing might’ve switched up, but Ross noticed that Stroman and Yan Gomes did well mixing the two pitches together. When some Brewers hitters would take the slider, Stroman would go with the sinker to keep them honest.
Being able to throw that sinker helped make his slider more effective, and in turn, kept Milwaukee off-balance all day.
“I think it was good. I don’t think it was great. I still think there’s a lot of room for it to be better,” Stroman said about his slider. “I think Yan was awesome today. I think the defense was incredible. I think I had a really good mix of pitches, so they weren’t able to sit on anything in any count.”
“Some pitches start working,” Gomes said. “It was a fun game to call, because you could just like flick a number, and it was a competitive pitch at all times. Once we started seeing that either sliders were being taken early, as later on it went, he was able to expand with it. Those are fun games to call.”
As the team has scuffled lately, there haven’t been too many things for Cubs fans to cheer about, but an outing like the one Stroman put together on Sunday gives them reason to be excited.
It’s only one start, and Stroman knows he still has a long way to go. Expectations are high for him, not only due to the size of his contract, but also because he’s been a successful arm in the past.
But on Sunday, “The Stro Show” was on full display.
“You notice his confidence coming back,” Gomes said. “I think he’s been working his absolute tail off during starts, and it’s starting to finally come around. I think he’s kind of starting to come together, and we’re starting to see who that Stroman is. The guy that’s full of confidence on the mound, and that outing kind of showed it.”
Oh, and did I mention it was his 31st birthday?
His b-day performance on Sunday now gives him a 2.45 ERA, a 2-1 record and a 0.87 WHIP in three career starts on May 1.
So, Marcus, are you going to act like it’s your birthday every time you go out there?
“No,” Stroman said with a laugh. “I just got to pitch better. I want that to be the standard.”
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