Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Marcus Stroman Was Impressive in His Spring Debut

I'm not one to make too much of spring training appearances for pitchers. Often in spring games, pitchers are working on getting ready for the season rather than concentrating strictly on getting outs. For instance, if he's working on sharpening his slider, he's going to throw it a lot, even if the hitters are looking for it. Early on in the spring, batters are still searching for their timing, which may allow a hurler to get away with pitches that will be sent into deep orbit once the season starts. As tempting as it is, when I am watching spring games, I try to get more general impressions of players' performances and stay away from reading too much into stat lines.

Keeping that in mind, I generally had favorable impressions of the Mets pitchers who took the mound against the Astros yesterday.

I have to admit I was puzzled when it was reported that Marcus Stroman talked manager Luis Rojas into starting him against the Astros. Starting pitchers who are considered locks in the rotation don't pitch in these early games. I thought it kind of a douchey move on his part. He could have got his work in an intrasquad game and allowed kids who were competing for jobs to pitch those 2 innings. It made more sense once I learned that Stroman had been working on a split change and wanted to see it against live batters on another team.

The results were impressive. That changeup looked good, as did the rest of his pitches. I've been thinking about Stroman a lot this spring. The Mets will need Jacob deGromCarlos Carrasco, and Stroman pitching effectively early to help them get off to a solid start. The division is going to be really tough. They can't afford to bury themselves early on. Of the big three, I'm most worried about Stroman.

I wasn't all that impressed with the man when he came over in 2019. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for that short 11-game stretch because it's been reported that he was trying to do too much to strike out batters rather than pitching as he normally does to contact. If the changeup continues to be effective, he'll have a weapon that he's never had before in the majors, and that's great.

Still, if he's to be an effective starter for the Mets this season, it would help to have some confidence in the defense behind him, particularly the infield defense. It might behoove manager Luis Rojas to try to field his best defensive lineup when Stroman pitches. There have been reports that Stroman is trying to throw his 4-seam fastball up in the zone more often, and he's been getting a higher spin rate on it. High-spin 4-seamers up in the zone are the pitch de jour, an answer to the "launch-angle" approach of most of today's Major League hitters. All well and good, but Stroman's bread and butter is his hard sinker, and he shouldn't get too infatuated with his 4-seamer at the expense of that strength. Having confidence in his infield defense should help there.

The Mets are talking a good game about making defense the priority this year that it has failed to be in recent seasons. Confidence in his defense surely will help Stroman pitch at his most effective. Assuming improved defense becomes a reality, the whole staff will benefit, not just Stroman, and that's going to help the Mets actualize the promise of their greatly improved roster into wins on the field.

Further reading: Michael Ajeto had a really detailed piece on Stroman at PitcherList.com. Well worth checking out if you enjoy getting into the weeds of what makes Stroman effective. Of particular interest to me is why it's so difficult for pitchers who feature heavy sinkers to develop an effective changeup, and why the split change may be a difference-maker for Stroman:

For Stroman, his changeup has struggled to separate from his sinker both in velocity gap and by vertical or horizontal movement. In fact, when not including the forces of gravity, his sinker actually gets more vertical movement than his changeup. Split-changes are low-spin pitches, and so, since Stroman hasn’t been able to kill lift on his changeup, his split-change may be able to help him get there.

The pitcher originally intended to start the game, Jordan Yamamoto, entered the game next. Yamamoto is a young pitcher who features high spin rates on his fastball and curve. Over 90 MLB innings, Yamamoto's stats speak to his strengths and weaknesses. He's allowed fewer than a hit per inning while striking out just over one batter per inning but has control issues, handing out free passes at the rate of 4.3/9.

In his first action as a Met, Yamamoto did a decent job of throwing strikes, 16 out of 25 total pitches. He allowed a couple of hits in his 2 innings of work but no walks. The curveball looked good, with a nice sharp down break.

After Yamamoto's 2 inning stint, Jerry Blevins and Drew Smith survived their innings of work without being scored upon. By the time they came into the game, the Astros had their kids with those really high numbers batting. While Blevins and Smith looked fine, nothing really stood out for me with those 2 pitchers.

Next, the game's final pitcher for the Mets was Sam McWilliams making his Met debut. He walked a guy and gave up a hit. On the positive side, he notched a couple of Ks and didn't allow a run. He has a bit of a funky delivery, with a weird landing where he falls off towards first base. He wasn't especially impressive. He may have been nervous or a bit out of sync. I'll need to see more of McWilliams to make any sort of judgment on him. He will certainly need to throw more strikes. He threw more balls (13) than strikes (12) in yesterday's outing.

If you missed yesterday's game and want to check out some highlights, including Stroman's new split change and McWilliams' delivery, take a look at the 11-minute video below:

We'll keep an eye on how things go this spring, especially those hurlers who seem to be pitching well. I'm not going to recap games, however. That's something I mostly avoid, as others are doing it in a more timely manner than I possibly could. (Note that I am posting this after today's game vs. St. Louis has concluded.)

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I wrote about defense yesterday. My feelings are that a real emphasis on defense — not just the lip service that is always paid to the topic in spring training — can lead to more positive results for the Mets in 2021. One really hopeful thing coming out of spring training is the leadership of Francisco Lindor in the field:

Lindor, J.D. Davis and Luis Guillorme were doing early work fielding grounders on the left side of the infield when Lindor stopped the drill. The Mets’ star shortstop had some advice for Davis at third base, seemingly on getting rid of the ball quicker. The trio had been getting timed on their throws to first base.

...Friday morning’s impromptu tutorial stood out, but moments like that have been a common sight early on in camp, with Lindor also spending plenty of time in early-work sessions consulting with his new double-play partner Jeff McNeil.

Davis, who is trying to sharpen his defense to prove he can be the Mets’ everyday third baseman, has appreciated Lindor’s approach.

"You feed off [his energy] right away," Davis said earlier in the week. "Knowing that that type of player, that caliber a player is wanting to get better and is so focused on the details that, why aren't you doing it? It comes with a little bit of a humble pie where you should be getting extra work in, working on this, working on that. Just because you're a starter, you're a third baseman this year, whatever it is, you need to get better. If this guy's getting better and he’s that good and he still takes pride in his craft, then you should be doing it as well."

I believe having someone as talented as Lindor who's also willing to be a leader in the field will pay huge dividends for the Mets this season. No one will ever confuse J.D. Davis with Nolan Arenado in the field, of course, but that's not the point. If Davis' bat bounces back, and he can limit his mistakes in the field, the Mets are a stronger team this season.

If Luis Guillorme can continue to provide the solid offensive contribution he did last year, he will be an important contributor to an upgraded Mets defense. He can help the Mets defensively at second base and third base while also allowing the Mets to give Lindor some days off at shortstop without taking a huge defensive hit. Meanwhile, Jeff McNeil's solid defensive play at second base can only benefit from the work that he and Lindor are doing together this spring.

That will do it for today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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