Nothing about Marcus Stroman seems small, least of all his 97 mph fastball and the knee-buckling slider that routinely makes ACC hitters look silly.
Stroman has taken up the role as Duke’s Friday starter and emerged as one of the top MLB prospects in the country, leading the nation with 93 strikeouts in just 66 innings pitched this season, ranking third among qualifiers with a rate of 12.68 per nine innings.
Despite all this, there is another number that Stroman cannot escape as he looks toward a career in professional baseball.
“If he was 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he’d be the first pick in the draft,” said Kevin Goldstein, national writer on scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus. “But he’s not.”
And he is not especially close, either, listed at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. The stigma around his size has followed him throughout his athletic career, forcing him to choose college baseball—his third-favorite sport in high school—over basketball and football and creating doubt among MLB scouts as they project his major-league future.
“Go back and watch last year’s All-Star Game,” Goldstein said. “The National League pitchers all come out—Tim Lincecum stands out like a sore thumb. The rest of these are big dudes. Big dudes who throw hard.”
Lincecum, who was drafted 10th overall in 2007 by the San Francisco Giants, is listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, and his ability to be successful at that size has led him to be nicknamed “The Freak.”
All the buzz about inches and pounds rolls right off Stroman’s back, though.
“I’ve used that my whole life to motivate me in the weight room, on the field,” he said. “You’ve got to do what you can with what you have. I’ll be the first one to tell you I don’t even wish I was 6-foot or 6-foot-1. Because something might be different—if I was that tall, maybe I wouldn’t throw as hard.”
In fact, he has chosen a career path that only exacerbates the issues with his height. He was drafted as a shortstop out of high school by the Washington Nationals in the 18th round. Smaller players have an easier time breaking into the professional ranks as hitters, and Duke head coach Sean McNally had not even seen Stroman pitch before the Medford, N.Y. product committed to the Blue Devils. But after firing 27 scoreless innings and saving all 11 of his opportunities as a closer in the Cape Cod League the summer after his freshman year, Stroman knew his future was on the mound.
He spent his sophomore year as a reliever for the Blue Devils, playing the field and occasionally starting Sunday contests if he had not been needed in relief earlier in the weekend. In the summer, he became the first player in Duke history to earn a spot on the U.S. national baseball team, making seven relief appearances for Team USA. In 8.1 innings of work, he faced 27 batters. Only two reached base—one by hit and one by walk—and 17 of them went down on strikes.
The lights-out performance led McNally to name Stroman the Blue Devils’ Friday starter for his junior season.
“We just wanted to clarify his role and get him on a really good routine,” McNally said. “From a developmental standpoint, it gives him an opportunity to develop more of his stuff.”
So Stroman spent the summer adding two new pitches to his arsenal, a changeup and a cutter, which breaks a bit less than his slider but also comes in slightly faster.
With two more offerings in addition to the elite fastball and slider, Stroman has catapulted himself into the top half of the first round in the 2012 MLB Draft, according to most experts. Conor Glassey, an associate editor for Baseball America who oversees the outlet’s day-to-day draft coverage, said he now projects Stroman inside of the top 10.
“A lot of guys that started out the year up high have either gotten hurt or haven’t been so hot in the spring,” Glassey said. “But Marcus is one of only a few players who really helped his stock.” If the predictions come true, Stroman would be the highest Blue Devil ever drafted in baseball, ahead of first baseman Larry Broadway, who was taken by the Montreal Expos in the 3rd round in 2002. Stroman’s selection will be unusual for more than just his alma mater.
“Five-foot-nine pitchers do not go in the first round. Period,” Goldstein said. “And there’s no doubt he’s going to.... He’s a difficult guy to wrap your head around. I don’t know if anyone in this draft is coming at guys with two nastier power pitches.”
The only question that remains for Stroman is his ultimate role as a pro. He has the deep arsenal to make it as a starting pitcher, but many teams wonder whether his frame can hold up over a 200-inning season.
Glassey’s doubts about Stroman as a starter have been assuaged by Stroman’s stamina this season, as the short right-hander has continued to run his fastball up into the mid-90s even in the late innings. There is no question in Stroman’s mind that he can make it as a major-league starter.
“My long-toss program has conditioned me to where my arm can withstand 120 or 125 pitches,” Stroman said. “So it’s just a matter of people coming out and not labeling me to that relief pitcher role.”
But while starting pitchers have more value to a team than relievers, there are benefits to leaving him in the bullpen.
“He could be ready really quick,” Goldstein said. “Because you can go, ‘Marcus, just get out there and throw the fastball and the slider and run people over.’ If you want to make him a starter, now you’ve got to work on the stamina, he’s going to have to develop a more advanced changeup. It’s going to take a few years.”
Opinions are divided among scouts. Goldstein said that it would be “a pretty even split” between teams that would make him a starter and those that would use him in relief. Glassey envisioned Stroman as “a solid No. 2 starter,” while Goldstein projected Stroman to be a “shutdown closer,” comparing him to Tom Gordon, who also stood 5-foot-9 and recorded nearly 2,000 strikeouts as a reliever across 21 major-league seasons.
For Stroman’s part, he will do whatever it takes to reach the major leagues.
“Once a team drafts me—whatever they want to do with me, I’ll do,” he said. “If it’s relieving, if it’s closing, if it’s starting, whatever it is—I’m up for the challenge.”
And as his major-league dreams continue coming closer, he is set on proving the doubters wrong by pouring into his game everything he has. All 69 inches of it.