Duke Sports Information
One of the top pitching prospects in the nation resides in Durham. He has made a mockery of ACC hitters this season and leads the nation in strikeouts. He has perhaps the best fastball in college baseball, but is more than just a thrower. One of the most polished pitchers in the nation, scouts praise his makeup and talent, but are obligated to mention his height when discussing his future pro potential.
At just 5-foot-9, Duke junior right-hander Marcus Stroman is defying the odds and making his mark as the best pitcher in the ACC. Digs at his lack of height have followed him throughout his career, but his performance is simply too good to ignore. He's out to dispel the notion that taller is better, one 98 mile per hour fastball at a time.
Stroman will make his 10th start of the year this Friday against ACC powerhouse Virginia at Durham Bulls Athletic Park at 6 p.m. Tickets to the game are available online at the Durham Bulls website:
As the anchor of the Duke pitching staff with a fastball that has been described as electric, heavy and major-league ready, Stroman is widely considered a potential top-20 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft and could be Duke's first first-round selection. He has a legitimate arsenal with four pitches that Duke pitching coach Sean Snedeker -- he of 15 years of minor league coaching experience -- says are already major league average or better. Stroman has performed at an elite level as a closer and a starter in one of the country's best baseball conferences, and this year as Duke's full-time Friday night starter, he has taken his pitching to another level in the starting rotation.
"In general, I think in pro ball there's just been that feeling that they want the 6-3, 200-pound guy, the projectable guy, but Stroman's ability is so exceptional that I would think most organizations would overlook his size," Snedeker said. "They shouldn't look at his height as so much of a crutch but look at just strictly what he does with the baseball, how he competes, how athletic he is, the quality of his pitches, how much pitchability he has with each pitch."
The notion that professional organizations gravitate toward the tall, lean, "projectable" starter is clear through a quick glance at major league starting rotations. The average height of a major league starter this season is 6-3, and of the 149 MLB starters, only six are listed as shorter than six feet tall. While there are a handful of pitchers under six feet tall who make it to the bigs as career relievers, few are given the opportunity to start games.
It's easy for scouts to look at Stroman's big arm, dominant stuff and past success as a closer and assign him to a future role as a reliever. He has been nothing short of dominant in that role not only for Duke, but also for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and in the renowned Cape Cod Baseball League where he was named an all-star in 2010. However, now that he is firmly entrenched as Duke's Friday starter, his performance makes it difficult to discount his ability in the starting rotation.
"This year, clarifying his role is important," Duke head coach Sean McNally said. "First and foremost, we want to keep him healthy. Secondly, we felt like Friday night is that critical night in any series. That's when (everybody) throws their best. So rather than have him sitting around waiting to close games, why not put him in that role so he knows when he's going to pitch."
The move has paid off. Finally in the seven-day routine of a starting pitcher after splitting time between closing and starting over his first two seasons, Stroman owns a 2.05 ERA, 93 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 66.0 innings. He leads the nation in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings, boasts an impressive 5.2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has held hitters to a .212 average. Remarkably consistent, he has thrown at least seven innings in eight straight starts, given up more than three runs just once and has amassed 63 strikeouts in six ACC starts including against traditional powerhouses Florida State (9), Miami (13), Georgia Tech (12) and Clemson (13).
"I feel like I've benefited from (the move to the starting rotation) 100 percent," Stroman said. "Just being able to get into a routine, especially during the week and have my set workout days, have my set throwing days, my bullpen days. I feel like my arm has felt the best it's ever felt. I've also felt like since I've dedicated all my time to pitching that all my pitches have gotten that much better. Last year I was kind of all over the place and I didn't really throw bullpens because I didn't know when I would throw.
Stroman has dispelled nearly every negative connotation that comes with being a starting pitcher under six feet tall. He has handled the workload well, throwing over 100 pitches in eight of his nine starts without losing velocity or stamina his next time out. He leads the ACC in innings pitched, and on his off days, he often plays in the outfield or first base, pinch runs or stays in the lineup as the designated hitter.
McNally and Snedeker have transformed Stroman from a talented two-way player with a big arm into a polished pitcher who is capable of beating any team in the nation. Early in his career, Stroman relied primarily on a fastball and slider combination that traditionally favors relievers. This year, he has expanded that to include a hard cutter and deceptive changeup that has allowed him to keep hitters off balance after they've seen him for two or three at bats.
Said Stroman of his changeup, "I've worked at that pitch relentlessly. I flashed it here and there last year, but it was just very inconsistent. I couldn't throw it for a strike most of the time, so coming into this year, the whole fall and even in the summer when I was at USA, I was working on it. It's gotten to the point where I can use it as one of my out pitches, and it helps drastically because it helps guys get off my fastball."
Hitters can no longer sit back on Stroman's hard fastball. His changeup averages 10-12 miles per hour slower than his fastball, allowing him to alter his approach when facing hitters the second or third time through the lineup. It also gives him another pitch to throw to left-handed hitters as it fades down and away from lefties. Couple that with his mid-90's heater, low-90's cutter and overpowering slider, and he can dominate any lineup in the country.
Snedeker estimates that if Stroman threw his changeup just five percent of the time last year, he throws it more than twice as much this season. Snedeker was impressed, but not surprised that Stroman picked up the pitch so easily during the fall. He credits Stroman's feel on the mound and overall pitchability in allowing him to harness the changeup.
"We've spent an unbelievable amount of time on his changeup knowing that he was going to be in the rotation and going through a lineup three or four times," he said. "I just really felt like that changeup was going to be a big pitch for him. Everyone knows he's got fastball/cutter, fastball/slider, but when you add that changeup in it really makes him better."
The key to generating so much velocity out of his 5-9, 185-pound frame lies in Stroman's powerful lower body. He has the biggest squat max on the team at 490 pounds and uses his powerful legs and hips to drive the ball to the plate. He is as athletic on the mound as he is in the infield and uses a quick, effortless and compact delivery to throw with the least energy possible.
Said one American League scouting director about Stroman to Baseball America, "Would you want the guy bigger? Of course. But he has the filthiest stuff in the country. If he were 6 feet tall, he'd probably go in the top five picks. He still might. He's small but he's athletic, repeats his delivery and throws strikes. I'm not saying it will be his ultimate role, but I don't see why you couldn't try him as a starter."
Stroman himself is undecided as to which role he feels he is better suited. He admits that his mentality is that of a closer, and he identifies Atlanta Braves' fireballer Craig Kimbrel as a player whom he tries to model himself after. While closing could be his future, Stroman said that serving in both roles during his three-year career has made him a better all-around pitcher.
"I still have that approach when needed, like when there's a guy on third and less than two outs and you need to bear down and have that mentality. I think I still carry the same approach that I come in to shut games down. I still carry that with me. It's still there with me when I'm starting."
That attitude is what vaults Stroman into the upper echelon of college pitchers and separates him from those who have the talent, but lack the mental fortitude. He has the arm, the ability and the mentality to succeed at the highest level of baseball, and it's all wrapped in a 5-9, 185-pound package.
"I spent 15 years in player development in the minor leagues and six years now in collegiate baseball, and an organization would be getting someone that's as close to major league ready as someone could possibly be," Snedeker said. "He's well-equipped with stuff that's major league average or above right now. He's not a guy that you look and say, 'Well, you've got plus velocity, but he doesn't command very well' or 'He's got a plus pitch but he needs a secondary pitch.'
"Stroman is as close to major league ready right now as anybody that I've had in the minor leagues or in college baseball. It's just a matter of someone saying, 'Hey, I want to take a chance on this guy.' They will be justly rewarded if they do that."