Defense matters for Stroman, MLB’s top fielding pitchers

CHICAGO (AP) — Marcus Stroman takes pregame grounders at second base and shortstop. He is working with SSK on his own line of gloves, and there are a couple in his Wrigley Field locker in various colors.

He takes his defense seriously — especially for a pitcher.

In an age where the focus in on velocity and stuff, pushing fielding even further into the background, Stroman is part of a small but proud group of pitchers mindful of the maybe one or two extra outs they can record per game because of defense.

“Nothing I hate more than a weak-hit ball that dribbles on the infield and ends up being a hit and now you got the guy on first,” said Stroman, who signed a $71 million, three-year contract with the Chicago Cubs last December. “So I’m going all out always to make every play.”

Stroman’s aggressive approach is common among baseball’s top fielding pitchers, a group that also includes Atlanta left-hander Max Fried, St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright and Kansas City right-hander Zack Greinke, among others. Another common trait is a balanced finish to their motion, leaving the pitcher in position to make the play.

“I think the biggest thing is you got to want to be involved in that,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “A lot of guys, you see them almost run away from the ball.”

Not Stroman. Or Phillies left-hander Ranger Suárez, who leads major league pitchers with five total runs saved, according to The Fielding Bible. Or Aaron Nola, Suárez’s teammate in Philadelphia, who tops big league pitchers with six runners caught stealing.

“The guys who are the best fielders out there are the ones who usually take it most seriously. In practice also,” Wainwright said. “Fielding is a big part of the game.”

The 40-year-old Wainwright, a two-time Gold Glove winner, grew up in Georgia, giving him plenty of opportunities to watch one of baseball’s best fielding pitchers in Greg Maddux. The Hall of Fame right-hander won a record 18 Gold Gloves during 23 seasons spent mostly with the Braves and Chicago Cubs.

“That’s who we grew up wanting to be like,” Wainwright said. “I tried to model myself after him but not very well. But I tried to.”

Through Tuesday’s games, big league pitchers had committed 191 errors and recorded a .949 fielding percentage, according to Sportradar. They totaled 312 errors and a .952 fielding percentage last year, compared to 137 errors and a .944 fielding percentage during the shortened 2020 season and 373 errors and a .948 percentage in 2019.

Pitchers aren’t called on to make that many plays, but their defensive ability can influence the game in other ways. Besides holding runners on and getting over to cover at first, they also can affect how their team positions the rest of its infielders.

“It’s definitely an asset,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We have real talks about bunt plays or the threat of a bunt, you don’t have to worry about the left side as much.”

The 31-year-old Stroman was a pitcher and an infielder when he was growing up in New York. He continued to play the field during his three seasons at Duke.

The right-hander was selected by Toronto in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft and won the AL Gold Glove with the Blue Jays in 2017. But he continues to take ground balls in the infield between starts.

“I feel like sometimes pitchers can become robots with throwing techniques,” Stroman said, “and going out there and taking ground balls just reminds me that I have that athleticism in there and I need to use it.”

The balance he shows on the mound is no accident, either.

“In the weight room there’s definitely a huge emphasis on balance, stability, single leg,” Stroman said. “I do a lot of work in there hoping that it correlates and kind of shows when I’m out on the field.”

Like so many of his slick-fielding brethren, Stroman also shares an admiration for other pitchers paying close attention to their defense.

Stroman cited Greinke and former teammate Mark Buehrle for their defensive prowess. Dallas Keuchel, a five-time Gold Glove winner, mentioned Stroman and Greinke among his current list of top defensive pitchers, and called Maddux and new Hall of Famer Jim Kaat two of the best when it comes to fielding the position.

“There is just big pride in making a play yourself when you are actually on the mound, on the island,” said Keuchel, who agreed to a minor league deal with Texas on Monday. “It is just an added benefit, and I think guys respect it a little bit more too.”

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AP freelance writers Richard J. Marcus in San Diego and Warren Mayes in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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