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It's Only for the Things that Matter, Only for the Things that Really Count: Keys to the 2010 Season, Part VIII

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This is the eighth part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season. Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here. Most recently, we discussed two young Jays lefties, Marc Rzepczynski and Brett Cecil in Part VII, as found here. Today's post will focus on Shaun Marcum's continued growth.

7. Shaun Marcum -- If Marcum can prove that he's fully fit and ready to compete in 2010, he could be a good #3 starter for a long time. He's looked sharp so far this spring, but it remains to be seen what the strain of a full season will do to him.

It was fairly obvious going into this season that the Jays would be leaning fairly heavily on Shaun Marcum. The 28 year old Missourian was one of just an handful of Jays starters with more than a season of experience under his belt. He had a strong spring and after being named the team's Opening Day starter, the pressure of being named the staff's ace would be on his shoulders. He responded immediately pitching seven strong innings and hasn't looked back since. In fact, Marcum has pitched fewer than six innings just once this season and in that five inning start, he struck out eight and earned a win. Heading into tonight's start, Marcum is 5-1 with a 2.59 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. Heading into 2010, we had high hopes for Shaun, but he's surpassed even the loftiest of expectations. So can we expect him to keep this up or are we just looking at some good luck?

Well, we just talked about Marcum's excellent win-loss record, ERA and WHIP, but even more importantly, he has maintained a very good strikeout-rate (7.4 K/9) and has displayed the pinpoint control (2.1 BB/9) that made him effective before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2008. Marcum's never been one to induce too many grounders and this year is no different (41.5% compared to ML average of around 44%) but, so far, he's been fortunate in that just 6.2% of fly balls (as opposed to ML average of around 10-11) hit against him have gone for dingers. His .267 BABIP is indicative of some good fortune, but flyball pitchers do tend to get outs on more balls in play. Finally, he's also benefitted quite a bit from some luck with runners on, stranding 80% of baserunners. The better a pitcher is, of course, the more of his baserunners he should be able to strand, but 80% would be an outlier even for the best pitchers in the game (e.g., in 2009, Roy Halladay stranded 77% of baserunners and Tim Lincecum stranded 75%). As calculated by fangraphs, Marcum's xFIP, which takes flyball-rate into account in lieu of hr-rate, is 3.77 and his tERA, which is calculated using groundball-, linedrive- and flyball-rates, is 3.29.

Given what we know about Marcum's tendency to yield the gopher ball, it shouldn't come as a shock that many projection systems are calling for a drop-off in production from Marcum as the season wears on. Furthermore, it's certainly possible that the repeated toll of a full season's worth of innings will take its toll on his arm come August and September. That being said, what we're seeing from Marcum is nothing different from what we expected. He's consistently getting ahead of batters and once he's ahead of them, they're forced to guess at what he's going to throw. We all know that he's effective because he can throw any of his pitches anywhere he wants in virtually any count. As a batter, it's tough enough to face a pitcher like that when you're ahead in the count. Marcum probably won't be able to keep up what he's done so far, but if he can keep throwing strike one and keep hitters off balance, we'll be happy with the results. I don't think it's unreasonable to look for him to maintain his peripherals as they are (though, again, don't be shocked if his strikeout- and walk-rates regress a bit as he tires over 170+ innings) but it would be quite a tall order for him to maintain a 2.59 ERA through the season. When I said he could be a good #3 starter for a long time, I might have been selling him short. I sure hope so.