Entering the semi final round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic I was lukewarm on Team USA's starting pitchers that were lined up for the final two games. On the one hand I respect the hell out of any Major League player representing their country, particularly when many of the game's best players chose not to. But on the other hand I want the WBC to become a legit thing, and it didn't feel like that could happen until guys better than Tanner Roark and Marcus Stroman were pitching our country's biggest games in the history of the tournament. As it turns out Roark and Stroman were exactly what Team USA needed. They gave a shit about winning this thing and in doing so will help lead to more star players participating come 2021.
Not to overlook Roark's impressive performance against Japan from Tuesday night, but the real story here is Stroman. In Wednesday night's championship game he dominated an undefeated Puerto Rican team led by Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javy Baez, and others. As a team they were batting .326 entering the game and had scored four first inning runs off Stroman when they faced him last week. The Blue Jays ace (?) responded with six shutout innings of one run ball while allowing just one walk and striking out three. Go figure that a pitcher who plays his home games in Canada and has a Puerto Rican mother was Team USA's best player that night. In typical Stroman fashion 12 of his 18 outs came via the ground ball. In 2016 he led all qualified starting pitchers with a 60.1% ground ball rate.
Last year was supposed to be Stroman's big breakout, and in some ways it was. In his first full season following a torn ACL Stroman pitched 204 innings and ranked seventh in the American League in FIP. Unfortunately those numbers also came with a 4.37 ERA and more hits allowed than innings pitched. On the bright side he had a much better second half (3.42 ERA with a 23% strikeout rate) than first half (5.33 ERA with a 16% strikeout rate). Stroman now enters 2017 riding a hot second half in 2016 with a career defining WBC performance added to his resume. Already an elite ground ball pitcher Stroman also possesses great command and is one of the most expressive (meaning fun) players in the game. Due to his performance against Puerto Rico and how seriously he took the game, I'll be rooting for him this year. Even as a Red Sox fan.