At the end of the 2021 season, you could count the Mets players who had, at minimum, reached their preseason expectations or, at best, exceeded them on one hand. A disproportionate number of the season reviews on this site (and other Mets sites across the internet) will lament how this player had a disappointing year or how that player was hindered by injuries in what could have been a special season. Marcus Stroman fit into neither of those categories, instead writing his own story as one of the few Mets who side-stepped injuries and limited poor performances to craft a memorable 2021 campaign.
Stroman, who came to the club via trade from the Blue Jays before the 2019 trade deadline, returned on a Qualifying Offer after missing all of 2020 following a torn calf and, eventually, a decision to opt out due to COVID-19 concerns. Given that he hadn’t thrown a pitch in a major league game in a year-and-a-half, it was hard to predict what you would get from the Long Island native, which was one of the uncertainties many teams across the league had to navigate, both with players who opted out but also pitchers who, in general, experienced lighter workloads during a shortened 2020 season. The 30-year-old entered 2021 with a career 3.76 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 19.6% K%, and 6.9% BB% in 849.1 innings.
In the end, the Mets got more than they could have even dreamed of, as Stroman started the year off strong and never took his foot off the pedal. He started out as a triumvirate of talented pitchers at the top of the rotation and, when Jacob deGrom was permanently sidelined by arm issues and Taijuan Walker began to struggle under the burden of more innings than his arm had thrown in three season, Stroman seamlessly assumed the role of the team’s ace.
Stroman is a bit of a rarity in today’s game, as someone who is more focused on pitching to contact than striking out his opponent. Stroman is a ground ball pitcher, utilizing every bit of his six-pitch arsenal but heavily relying on his sinker (thrown 41.47% of the time in 2021, according to Brooks Baseball), and his slider (thrown 24.44% of the time in 2021) to induce ground balls. He finished the year with the fifth-highest GB% among NL starting pitchers at 50.8%. The team’s improved defensive positioning and reliance on shifting this past season aided Stroman’s overall results and helped him put together a more consistent campaign than he did in his first go-around in Queens.
This was on full display in his first appearance of the year on April 6 in Philadelphia against the Phillies. In this outing, he generated 15 grounders from the Phillies and was in full control, limiting Philadelphia to three hits over six one-run innings. As a result, he earned the team’s first victory of the season, one in which they would only end up with 76 more over the course of the next six months. His next start was an ill-advised one against the Marlins in which he only went one-third of an inning before heavy rain suspended play until August. He did not let that derail him, however, as he returned two days later to toss six scoreless innings against the Phillies. He followed that up with one of his strongest starts of the year, dominating the Rockies to the tune of one earned run and three hits over eight innings in notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field. Through three starts, Stroman owned a 0.89 ERA and had three wins to show for his efforts.
He settled for losses in each of his next three starts, though he only really struggled in one of them—a four inning, four run effort against the Nationals at Citi Field on April 24. After a strong start against the Orioles that saw his toss 6.1 innings of one-run ball, he endured perhaps his roughest outing of the year against the Rays on May 16. That start was particularly anomalous because he served up three home runs in defeat. In fact, across his 33 starts, he only allowed multiple long balls in a game four times, and he finished 2021 sixth among qualified NL starters with a 0.85 HR/9. He rebounded to close out May with two strong starts, capping things off with six shutout innings against Colorado at home.
Stroman went at least six innings in each of his first four June starts, giving him a streak eight straight outings in which he completed at least six frames. That came to an end on June 17, when he exited his start against the Braves after one inning with left hip soreness. This was the only real injury scare the right-hander experienced in 2021, which is a minor miracle considering how many injuries plagued the club from spring training on through the season’s conclusion.
He returned without missing a start, but he wasn’t sharp in his last three outings before the All Star break, allowing 12 runs (eight earned) in 13 innings against the Phillies, the Yankees, and the Pirates. The latter two starts came in the first game of doubleheaders, which was something Stroman became quite familiar with. The Mets, who played a truly unmatched number of twin bills for today’s era last year, saw Stroman take the hill nine times in either the first or second game of a doubleheader. Chalk that up to one of the quirks of the 2021 season.
Stroman was the picture of consistency in 2021, and that was on full display from July onward. Starting with the aforementioned performance against the Yankees, Stro completed at least five innings in his final 16 appearances. He was never quite as dominant as he seemed at times during the first part of the year, but when starter after starter went down and with the bullpen overburdened, he was there to at least ensure he would give his club the first half of any given ballgame. That is no small feat, especially in today’s era of quick hooks for pitchers. He was also someone Luis Rojas could pen into the lineup as the club’s starting pitcher every fifth day which, given the avalanche of injuries the club was buried under in 2021, was a nice comfort for the team and its fans.
After pitching to a 2.74 ERA, a 3.66 FIP, a 1.13 WHIP, a 20.6% K%, and a 6.2% BB%, with opponents posting a .273 wOBA, in the first half of the year, his numbers did dip ever so slightly post-break. In 14 second-half starts, Stroman posted a 3.36 ERA, a 3.29 FIP, a 1.17 WHIP, a 22.9% K%, and a 5.8% BB% in 80.1 innings. Opponents during that span posted a .298 wOBA against him.
His best outing came against the Reds, when the 30-year-old one-hit Cincinnati through eight scoreless innings on July 21. He faced that same Reds team two starts later at Citi Field, but this time allowed four earned runs on a season-high eight hits over 5.2 innings, which resulted in his tenth defeat of the year. In total, he only allowed four earned runs or more in four of his 33 outings, as he was generally good about wiggling out of trouble when it found him.
There were times in the second half where Stroman, who took over the mantle as team ace from deGrom as he sat on the sidelines, started to experience results like deGrom had been all too accustomed to. One example was his start against the Giants, where he went seven innings and allowed three earned runs but picked up his 12th loss, as the club could only manage two runs. There was also his outing against Miami on September 9, where Stroman only allowed one earned run over 6.1 innings but settled for a no decision in an eventual loss. Such is the burden of whoever is unlucky enough to be the team’s de facto ace.
After picking up his ninth victory against the Dodgers on August 22, he went winless in his next five starts, but he finally broke through in his final outing of the year on September 28 and earned win number ten with a five inning, two-run performance. While pitcher wins are far from valuable in 2021, it’s hard to believe getting into double digits in the win column didn’t matter to Stroman, and it was a nice way to cap off a strong season.
In total, Stroman finished the year with a league-leading 33 starts while posting a 3.02 ERA, a 3.49 FIP, a 1.15 WHIP, a 21.6% K%, and a 6.0% BB% in 179.0 innings. His 3.6 bWAR was the second-best of his career, behind only his 2017 campaign that saw him win a Gold Glove award and finish eighth in AL Cy Young voting. He may have done enough to earn himself a top-10 finish in NL Cy Young voting this year, though there is a lot of stiff competition that could keep him out of the top ten. He finished the year with the eighth-best ERA among qualified NL starters. His 8.1 H/9 were his lowest in a full major league season, while his 2.2 BB/9 were his lowest in a full season since his rookie campaign.
Stroman enters free agency with the chance to cash in coming off his stellar year. In taking a one-year deal prior to the season, he bet on himself rather than test free agency, and he set himself up for a big payday. The Mets should absolutely be one of the clubs lining up to back the truck up for Stroman’s services, for a number of reasons.
Beyond the fact that he has proven he can pitch in New York, the club also has far too many question marks in their rotation going forward. Walker buckled in the season’s second half, and deGrom’s injury concerns were never quite resolved. Meanwhile, Carlos Carrasco had surgery on his elbow after a year in which he missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury and was ineffective when he did return. If Noah Syndergaard is back, there is no telling what to expect from him over a full year.
Stroman was one of the few players who made it through a tough season (mostly) unscathed, and he provided some stability in an unstable world. If he were to return, he would serve a very similar role, as someone who the new manager can pen into the lineup and expect roughly the same positive results he provided this past season. But there’s a good chance Mets fans have seen the last of The Stro Show, which would be a real shame, because his good vibes will be sorely missed if he departs.