Marcus Stroman is the prize of the trade deadline

Toronto Ace Marcus Stroman delivers a pitch.

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The Blue Jays’ ace is better than you think.

For some reason, there seems to be a bizarre belief among baseball fans that Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman is a bit of a bust, perhaps owing to his erstwhile top prospect status. Stroman was even labelled among the most overrated players in the game a couple of years ago. But Stroman is actually a really, really good pitcher, and one Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards said everyone should want at the upcoming trade deadline. I’d go one step farther, however, and argue should be the top pitching target for any contending team at the deadline.

Let’s start with what Stroman does well—specifically, induce soft contact on the ground. Since 2014, Stroman’s first full season in the bigs, 192 starting pitchers have thrown enough innings to qualify. Of that group, via FanGraphs, Stroman ranks second in GB%, at 59.7%, second only to southpaw Dallas Keuchel. Stroman has never had a groundball rate below 53.8%, his rookie-year mark, and has posted a GB% above 60% in each of the last four years.

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This year, he’s at 57.5%. Groundballs don’t leave the yard, and so as a result the diminutive righty has allowed just 0.82 HR/9 IP since 2014, the seventeenth-best mark in baseball and the fifth-best in the American League, hanging around names like Jose Quintana, Charlie Morton, and Keuchel. A lot of grounders and very few walks (a BB% of just 6.8% for his career) leads to good run prevention, and so Stroman has a 3.65 FIP and 85 FIP- for his career, which would place him inside the games top-30 starting pitchers—again, next to Keuchel.

And Stroman’s 90 ERA- shows he’s been good at preventing runs, despite pitching so many games in AL East bandboxes. By xFIP-, which uses a league average home run to fly ball rate, Stroman has been even better. How? Because Stroman allows so few balls in the air that he’s actually been unlucky with the number of dingers is allowed in Toronto’s hitter-friendly home ballpark. The righty’s 84 xFIP- since 2014 is better than Patrick Corbin, Blake Snell, German Marquez, and Luis Castillo, and just a point or two behind Zack Greinke and Aaron Nola.

How good is Stroman? Let me show you something. I present to you three pitchers of approximately equal value.

Marcus Stroman, in context

Stroman has the lowest strikeout rate of the trio, but also has the highest groundball rate with a walk rate comparable to both of his compatriots. fWAR thinks Stroman is a step below pitcher B and a step above Pitcher A, accounting for innings; bWAR thinks they’re all about equally valuable. So who are these other pitchers? Pitcher A is Pirates hurler Jameson Taillon. Pitcher B is Yankees southpaw James Paxton.

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Both Taillon and Paxton are both widely considered top-of the-rotation starters. Jeff Sullivan called Paxton a number one starter, and Paxton isn’t that different from Stroman in terms of run suppression. And yes, by the numbers, that’s the tier where Stroman belongs. In just five full seasons (Stroman missed most of 2015 with an injury), Stroman has three +3-fWAR seasons to his name already, and is on pace for a fourth.

So despite Stroman’s mediocre strikeout rate, the right-hander is a top-of-the-rotation force, and his value to Toronto will never be higher. Stroman has a year of team control after this one—he’s a free agent after 2020—which makes now the ideal time for a contender with rotation needs this year and next to check in and see what the price would be. As for that price, the Paxton trade to the Yankees would be an obvious starting point, except that the southpaw had two full years of team control remaining rather than a year and a half.

That half-season matters, because it’s seventeen or so starts that a team won’t get, and a starter only makes 32 or 33 in even the best of seasons. The same goes for the trade of Sonny Gray from the A’s to the Yankees a couple of years ago. The last major starting pitcher acquired at the trade deadline with a year and a half remaining was the Cubs’ trade for Cole Hamels for an A-ball fringe prospect last year, but Hamels’ success with the Cubs has erased that he had been struggling mightily with Texas at the time of the trade and a price that low for Stroman therefore seems extremely unlikely.

In fact, it’s been quite a while since a top of the rotation starter who was pitching like a top of the rotation starter was traded with 1.5 years of service time remaining before free agency. Jose Quintana had option years, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer had two years or more. That, combined with Stroman’s penchant for inducing ground balls in a strikeout-happy world, will make determining the price for the righty difficult.

The Yankees, Brewers, Angels, and Astros are all interested, as well as the Twins, but the Angels likely aren’t willing to gut their just-rebuilt farm system in a year where they’re looking up at three teams in their own division. The Brewers badly need the rotation help, but with Keston Hiura needed in the majors and a weak farm system, they might not have the chips to get it done.

On the other hand, the Astros, despite injuries to top pitching prospects Forrest Whitley and Corbin Martin, still have a deep and talented system and the need to make a splash with Gerrit Cole preparing to depart in free agency after the season. Even a weakened Astros’ farm still allows them to dangle talents like Kyle Tucker, Cionel Perez, and Josh James, all of whom are nearing major league readiness and all of whom are blocked, at least on this year’s win-now iteration of the team.

But the Yankees have to be a heavy favorite in these sweepstakes, and not just because Stroman himself expressed a desire to don pinstripes. The Yankees and Blue Jays have hooked up on deadline pitching deals before, and the Yanks have the one trade chip no other team can offer in the person of Clint Frazier: a young, controllable bat who has already proven he can hit in the majors. The Blue Jays have prioritized close-to-the-majors, controllable bats over upside in their rebuild, and Frazier certainly fits that bill, posting a 117 wRC+ this season over 209 MLB plate appearances and a 104 wRC+ overall across 107 MLB games the past three years.

But with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton locked into the Yankees’ outfield for the foreseeable future and the team still needing at bats for Brett Gardner, Frazier is likely blocked well beyond this year. He’d make a ton of sense as the centerpiece for a Stroman trade, and would bring big upside to a Blue Jays team which right now is putting 33-year-old utility infielder Eric Sogard in right field—and which, unlike the Yankees, can let Frazier work through his defensive issues without the pressure of a pennant race. Frazier wouldn’t work by himself, but he’d be a very good headliner, and the Yankees have a plethora of attractive, hardthrowing young arms (Jonathan Loaisiga, Futures Game star Deivi Garcia, and flamethrowing Albert Abreu just to name a few) whose plentiful upside would entice the Jays.

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