Cold and blustery weather Tuesday afternoon didn’t stop Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman from participating in his regular routine between starts during batting practice before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Wrigley Field. .
Stroman, sporting lime green Nikes, positioned himself at shortstop, ready for any BP ball that came his way. He jumped into the air toward a line drive shortly after trying to run for a ball in shallow center field.
Stroman prides himself on being an athlete, not just a major league pitcher. He is part of a determined approach to how he prepares his body to take the mound every five days.
“I feel like a lot of pitchers become pitchers, and when you do, you lose your athleticism and you become like a robot,” Stroman told the Tribune. “I really think being an athlete…it makes for a great pitcher, being able to have repeatable mechanics, being able to make adjustments to the game. When you’re an athlete, all of those things happen much more easily.”
Stroman frequently discussed this topic with New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom while they were teammates in 2019 and 2021. Stroman referenced deGrom’s stellar mechanics, saying the two-time Cy Young Award winner he always preached the importance of being an athlete.
“I’m someone who is an athlete first, not a pitcher,” the 30-year-old Stroman said. “I make very good adjustments in the game because I am an athlete. And at the end of the day, I go out and perform. I don’t think anything when I’m clear out there. I am in space and I move. I think that’s when I’m at my best.”
Stroman, who signed a three-year, $71 million deal with the Cubs in the offseason, was still trying to find that steady rhythm before his third start Wednesday against the Rays. He showed signs of it in his Cubs debut when he allowed one run on two hits in five innings with three walks and three strikeouts, but gave up five runs in four innings in his second start. When he’s locked up, Stroman can have a string of quality starts.
Growing up in Medford, New York, on Long Island, baseball was Stroman’s third favorite sport. He ranked it behind basketball and soccer with soccer also among the sports he played.
But he realized he could go further in baseball and eventually earned a scholarship to Duke, where he became the first Blue Devil to be drafted in the first round. It was there that he met Nikki Huffman, who later became part of the team that oversaw his recovery from ACL surgery on his left knee after he suffered the injury during spring training in 2015 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Huffman now trains Stroman and credits him with helping him learn about the body from him.
Stroman understands how everything should move and what to do when something feels wrong. He compared himself and Huffman to scientists who are always playing and learning. The key, Stroman said, is that they are always pushing the needle and never getting complacent.
“She knows my body better than I do, like, I can’t even put into words how grateful and lucky I am to have Nikki in my corner,” Stroman said. “I wake up every day and tell her essentially how my body feels, and she puts together a daily schedule. She is huge for my development.
“I think that’s why I’m resistant. That’s why I’m 5-foot-7, but I’m going to go out there and throw, hopefully, 180, 200 innings year after year. It’s because of the amount of work involved.”
Aside from biomechanics, Stroman trains his body and wants to be balanced. As a right-handed pitcher, much of his movement and delivery is dominated by the right side. So whatever he does with his right he mirrors with his left. That includes boxing as a southpaw and doing his throwing motion as a southpaw. If he throws, say, 100 pitches in one start, by the time he gets to his next outing, he’ll be attempting his left-handed pitch 100 times.
Stroman believes this mirror-image approach allows for better recovery and is why he was able to go from zero innings pitched in 2020, when he opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns, to 179 innings in 2021.
“As athletes, we’re always going in one direction, so we never relax,” Stroman said. “We never go the other way. And when you do that and when you start to really become a balanced athlete, it allows you to go the way you’re going much better, more efficient, much more stable.”
When a pitcher is described as athletic, the first thought might be someone who moves well on the mound and fields the position. But the descriptor implies more than that. Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy points out how players who fit that mold, like Stroman, are in control but explosive at the end of their pitch.
“To the average fan, it might look like you’re just going through an outing and you might be out of control mechanically, but so athletic that you can put yourself in a decent enough spot to run throws,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “And that’s what has made him so good in his career. He has such crazy ability that no matter where he is mechanically, he can execute pitches.”
However, there are times when the Cubs don’t want Stroman to rely solely on his athleticism, but instead focus on the little things within his pitch to consistently put him in a good position.
“Then all of a sudden the athleticism goes up even more because now you’re in a good position to throw and you’re explosive,” Hottovy said. “But it’s fun to be able to talk to him about how in tune he is with his body.”
When Stroman is mechanically locked up, it is mixed with a hesitation or a problem in his delivery. He showed off the delivery quirk in bullpen sessions and during a simulated game on April 3 in Mesa, Arizona. While Stroman is still working to get to that level of consistency, he hopes the work he’s put in will produce those results.
“I wouldn’t do that if I wasn’t feeling well,” Stroman said. “I try to focus on my mechanics when I’m not. But when I feel good, all the variations start to come out. (It’s) something that I’m definitely going to play with as the season goes on and you’re definitely going to see a lot of it.”