Marcus Stroman: A Gentleman and A Scholar

Marcus Stroman, the emerging pitching star of the Toronto Blue Jays, recently was lost for the entire 2015 campaign due to a costly injury.  The 23-year-old went down with a torn ACL, a very rare and uncommon occurrence for a Major League pitcher.  And by all accounts a freak accident it was, as Stroman injured himself during defensive drills at first base during the early part of Spring Training.  This may turn out to be a really big deal for the pitching-starved Jays, especially as the offense has been designed to win now with the additions of Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and the exciting Dalton Pompey to go along with Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.  So what exactly did the Jays lose?

On the face of it, the Jays lost a young, physically talented pitcher with the ability to mix 6 different pitches, including a four-seam fastball that averaged almost 95 MPH last season.  Pitching alongside the likes of rotation mates R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, one could very easily say he has “stuff.”  After being taken 22nd overall by the Jays in 2012, Stroman flew through the minor league system.  Entering the 2014 season as the Jays #2 prospect, Stroman seemed to quickly put it all together for the Majors, especially after adding a sinker to his pitching repertoire.  The pitcher ended up with a record of 11-6 in 20 starts, as well as a 3.65 ERA.  He struck out 111 batters in just over 130 innings, with an impressive strikeout to walk ratio of 3.96 and a WHIP of 1.17.  An ERA+ of 107 and a FIP of 2.84 suggest he was an even better pitcher if it weren’t for the Rodgers Centre and its AstroTurf as well as the defense behind him.

Yet the Jays may have lost something more than a talented physical specimen.  After the pitcher announced last week that during his rehabilitation he will be going back to Duke University to earn his BA in sociology, it seems the Jays lost an academic.  During his initial career at Duke, Stroman became fourth all-time at the university with 290 career strikeouts.  Yet Stroman also was a two-time Academic ACC All-American  and on the academic honor roll three consecutive years before Toronto picked him in 2012.  Beyond the crazy hair styles, tattoos and bubble gum, Stroman may in fact have a little something more between the ears than your average athletic talent.  Yes, Stroman is one smart jock.

So what does a little intellectual curiosity add to an athlete?  So far we’ve already seen that Stroman can learn and adapt rather quickly, as he was in the Majors only two years after being drafted and began to implement his sinker against Major League hitters on the fly.  Unlike Stroman, lacking the ability to adjust seems to be a consistent issue with young talent.  Many times you hear of highly rated prospects that are held back in the minors indefinitely.  If it’s not injury based, it’s more likely than not that the prospect simply cannot take direction or at least refuses to adapt at every level in the system.  The cliched image of the dumb jock comes to mind.

Compare that image to a player such as Greg Maddux, AKA “The Professor.”  A renowned student of the game, Maddux combined his incredible talent and pitching control with a school-boy persistence to constantly learn and refine his skills, studiously tailoring his pitching ability to every hitter he saw.  For a better example, take Jamie Moyer or Stroman’s current teammate Buehrle.  Unlike Maddux, both Moyer and Buehrle don’t and never did possess the natural physical talent and “stuff” yet both are considered very smart pitchers.  In the case of Moyer, he pitched until he was 49 with a fastball no faster than 80 MPH in his final season.  In the case of Buehrle, he has racked up 14 straight seasons of 200 or more innings, plus thrown two no-hitters including a perfect game.  All this throwing in the mid-80s.

Now imagine Stroman’s potential.  His stuff blows away both Moyer and Buehrle and his raw talent is arguably better than Maddux.  Although he lacks the control that Maddux had, his mental make-up suggest that the sky’s the limit for the young stud.

It seems getting a degree, or at least putting academics first, was always Stroman’s plan.  Stroman’s father Earl said that his son “never wanted to go to a school that was just a baseball factory.”  Now with the time off due to injury (at least five months after surgery), Stroman looks to stay out of trouble that easily could find a young man in his twenties.  Stroman said it’s “super-important” that he finish school and that going back to Duke was a  “logical move” as it will keep him “focused and busy.”  Summer classes start in the middle of May.

The Blue Jays may have lost Stroman for 2015.  But they’ll be getting a scholar for 2016 and many exciting years to come.

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