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The Cubs Dynamic Duo: Steele and Stroman


I am not a fan of gambling because I am very frugal with money. However, if I was forced to bet on which rotation’s top two starters would have the lowest combined ERA at the All-Star break, I would probably have bet on Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, or Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, or even Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah. All would have been safe bets, probably in the top 5 money lines before the season. This is why I never bet on sports because I would not have even been close. On the other hand, the die-hard Cubs fan that knows nothing about the rest of the league and who bet on the combo of Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele winning that title would have won big.

The Chicago Cubs own a 42-47 record as of the All-Star break and are not hopeful for the playoffs, as the NL Central belongs to either the Brewers or the Reds. They are having a pretty average season with not too much to get excited about. Sporting a team OPS ranking 18th in the league and a team ERA placing at 11th is not terrible but also not amazing. They have a couple of hitters having decent offensive seasons, like Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson, but nothing to write home about. With all of that said, Cubs fans should be excited to watch Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele each pitch every 5 days. They are each having arguably the best seasons of their careers, both playing in the All-Star Game this year. But what have they done this year that has made them so dominant? First, let’s look at Marcus Stroman.


This is obviously only through half of the season, but if Marcus Stroman keeps up this pace, this would be the best ERA+ of his career (for years he qualified). It also would be a career-low WHIP, HR/9, and H/9. His K/9 is pretty consistent with the rest of his career, but, oddly enough, his BB/9 is the highest it has ever been. What Marcus Stroman is doing is great, but he will have trouble sustaining it. Based on this alone, you can get the inkling that there is luck involved. He is striking batters out at his normal rate and walking batters at a higher rate than he usually does. The hits and home runs, the results most affected by “luck”, are at career lows. A good measure of how lucky a player is getting is their BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in play. According to MLB.com, BABIP measures a player's batting average exclusively on balls hit into the field of play, removing outcomes not affected by the opposing defense (namely home runs and strikeouts). The league average BABIP tends to be around .300. A pitcher with a low BABIP allowed and batters with a high BABIP are considered “lucky” by baseball standards unless they have the peripherals to back it up. For example, Ronald Acuna has a BABIP of .337 but also has some of the best offensive peripherals. He is not getting lucky but is just having an MVP-caliber season. Right now, Marcus Stroman’s .255 BABIP is the lowest of his career. The only extremely promising peripheral Stroman has is a Barrel % in the 93rd percentile. While Stroman is limiting Barrels extremely well, a lot of that can contribute to his low-velocity pitches, with his fastball averaging around 92 MPH. Pitchers who throw softer naturally give up fewer barrels when compared to pitchers who throw harder. For example, Spencer Strider, with his upper-90s fastball, is in the 26th percentile for Barrel % but leads the league in strikeouts. Stroman sports some ugly rankings in other important metrics. He is giving up hard contact, ranking in the 49th percentile for Hard Hit % and 30th percentile for average exit velocity. He is not getting strikeouts or even swings and misses, sitting in the 39th percentile for K% and 32nd percentile for Whiff %. A 40th percentile BB% also suggests he is walking too many guys. Unless something drastic changes or he keeps getting lucky, all of that will inevitably come back to bite him come the second half.


You could also look at Stroman’s xERA compared to his actual ERA (I explain Expected Stats in my last article about Alek Manoah if you want to know more) to see how sustainable his numbers are. Marcus Stroman’s ERA on the season is 2.96, but his xERA is 3.81, almost a whole run higher. Comparing his SIERA to his ERA is another way to test Stroman’s luck (check out our article about SIERA for more information). Concerningly, Stroman’s SIERA of 4.01 is even higher than his xERA. That should be evidence enough he is due for regression.


This season feels similar to 2019 when Marcus Stroman was on every contender’s board at the trade deadline. He had an outstanding 153 ERA+ in 124.2 innings with Toronto before being dealt to the Mets at the trade deadline. Across 59.2 innings in New York, he put up a 109 ERA+. Respectable, but not exactly what New York wanted from their premier deadline add. The metrics suggest history will repeat itself. Stroman’s second half should still be above-average but not All-Star level like his first half. Of course, some pitchers can get lucky for an entire season and then reveal their regression the next season. If you are a Cubs fan, hope that is the case.


North Siders should be much more optimistic about Justin Steele. Along with having a super cool name, he is top 10 in ERA and WAR among Starting Pitchers in his second full season in the majors. At the All-Star break, Justin Steele leads the league with his 0.4 HR/9 and 172 ERA+. Couple that with a 1.062 WHIP, a 2.86 FIP, and more than four times as many strikeouts as walks, and you’ve got an incredible argument for the NL Cy Young. Every single one of his stats is on pace to be the best of his young career. Steele is rocking a .286 BABIP, which is close enough to the league average to not worry about regression. His xERA of 3.18 is higher than his 2.56 ERA, but that difference is also not large enough to worry about significant regression. Just in case Cubs fans are still worried, Steele’s underlying metrics, like his season thus far, are elite. Unlike Marcus Stroman, Steele is limiting hard contact and walks. He sits in the 90th percentile or better in average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and walk percentage. He may not be getting strikeouts, as he is in the 41st percentile. Although punching people out seems to be the only thing anyone cares about nowadays, Steele is being extremely effective without relying on strikeouts. He induces tons of ground balls, good for a groundball rate of 49.4%.


Now, Marcus Stroman has a higher ground ball rate at 59%, but their batted ball profiles tell two different stories. Stroman’s ground balls come mainly from a topped percentage of 46.2%. Opposing batters are hitting on top of the ball, driving them into the ground. However, a 1.6% weak contact percentage suggests that those ground balls are being hit hard. Justin Steele’s ground balls come more from poor contact, with a weak contact percentage of 7.6%. Stroman is likely to see the hard grounders he gives up become base hits, while Justin Steele's weak grounders are likely to keep turning into outs.


In the end, both pitchers are having great seasons, which gives Cubs fans something to be happy about in the midst of another depressing season. While I see Stroman regressing, it will not be severe, as he almost always finishes his season as an above-average pitcher in terms of ERA+. I do not know if Stroman is a part of the Cubs' future, but Justin Steele is for sure. Everything suggests that he will be able to sustain this production over the coming years with only slight regression. If Steele keeps it up, he could even find himself in contention for the Cy Young Award this season.






Sources:

Baseball Reference

Fangraphs

Baseball Savant

ESPN


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