Just months after asserting himself as one of amateur baseball’s premier closers, Duke University right-hander Marcus Stroman was thrust into what should be an even more prominent role.
Duke head coach Sean McNally watched from the sidelines while Stroman served as the closer for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team for a few weeks this past summer. Stroman was nothing short of sensational for Team USA, going 4-for-4 in save opportunities while not allowing a hit in 8 1/3 innings. He struck out 17 of the 27 batters he faced with only one walk during the international competition.
Stroman’s fastball was sitting at just about 95 mph but reached 98. McNally had used him both out of the pen and as a starter in 2011, but in the fall made the decision to make him a full-time starter. In fact, he was to become the Blue Devils’ Friday night starter.
Stroman feels up to the challenge.
“It’s definitely a different role from what I’ve been in since I’ve been here, but I have some experience; I had (eight) starts last year,” Stroman said. “It hasn’t changed my mentality at all. Closing, starting, it’s all the same mentality – you want to go in there and dominate games. I’ll continue to work on developing my changeup and cutter – two more pitches to add to my arsenal so I’m able to go out there and throw seven or eight innings.”
An important two-way player for the Blue Devils – he is an established middle-infielder – Stroman was named the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Freshman of the Year in 2010 after batting .265 (44-for-166) with two home runs, two triples, 10 doubles, 20 RBI and 26 runs in 49 games. He made 17 appearances on the mound with five starts, and was 6-4 with three saves, a 5.31 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.
His fastball started reaching the mid 90s during his sophomore season in 2011 and his reputation as a power pitcher was cemented. In 17 pitching appearances – including those eight starts – Stroman was 3-4 with four saves and a 2.80 ERA and struck out 90 in 64 1/3 innings. His 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings ranked third nationally.
Stroman continued to play the field when he wasn’t pitching – he made 30 starts at second base and three in centerfield in 2011 – and hit .250 (30-for-120) with nine doubles, 15 RBI, 19 runs and 12 stolen bases. At the conclusion of the season, he was an ACC Academic Honor Roll selection.
Stroman also was phenomenal in one-plus seasons pitching in the Cape Cod League. In the summer of 2010, he pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings and saved 10 games while striking out 25 and walking three. In two appearances in 2011 before joining Team USA, he pitched six more scoreless innings and allowed just one hit while striking out eight.
But it's his performance with USA Baseball that will serve as Stroman’s calling card throughout this collegiate spring season and into the 2012 MLB draft.
“Honestly, it’s probably one of the best experiences that I’ve had,” he said. “Just being around that level of talent and being able to compete for your country and against another country was unreal. The best thing was just getting to know all those guys and playing with the best talent in the country, and the friendships that I formed. It was a great experience.”
He didn’t necessarily have any lofty expectations before the competition began.
“After I got the call I went in just wanting to enjoy it with my family,” Stroman said. “Going in, I didn’t know exactly what my role was going to be, but I got there and I kind of settled into the closer role. I didn’t really care what I was going to be doing at that point; I was just glad I had the opportunity and whatever they wanted me to do I would have done. It was awesome I got to settle into that closer’s role.”
Stroman graduated from Patchogue-Medford (N.Y.) High School in 2009 after earning both the New York Louisville Slugger Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year awards upon completion of his senior season.
He played in eight PG WWBA championships in 2007 and ’08 – mostly with the South Florida Bandits and primarily as a middle-infielder, although his fastball was already clocked at 91 mph – and also participated in the 2007 PG Sunshine Northeast Showcase, 2007 PG Aflac Showcase and 2008 PG National Showcase.
Stroman notched a perfect 10.0 on PG’s grading scale at the National Showcase, and a PG scouting report noted that “Stroman is a very athletic player who can do it all” and repeated “there isn’t much Stroman can’t do on the field.”
“Coming from a place like Long Island, New York, there isn’t much exposure to college baseball. Being able to go to those events was very beneficial,” he said of his PG experience. “I kind of got seen first at the Sunshine Northeast and then I got invited to the National Showcase. That definitely put me on the national level, I’d say, because not many scouts can watch baseball players from New York and other cold weather places. It definitely helped.”
The Washington Nationals chose Stroman in the 18th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft, but Stroman packed his bags and headed to Durham, N.C., to begin his career as a Duke Blue Devil. The efforts by McNally and recruiting coordinator Edwin Thompson were immediately rewarded.
Stroman admits he’s going to miss playing in the field when he’s not pitching this season.
“That’s a discussion I’ve had multiple times with my coaches and we’ve decided that was the best thing for me,” he said. “I’ll start Fridays, for now, and kind of see where it goes. I’m definitely going to miss playing the field just because I’ve been doing it my whole life and I still enjoy it. It’s going to be an adjustment to not be out there on a Saturday or a Sunday because I’ve been so used to it.”
Stroman stands just 5-foot-9 and weighs 185 pounds, but despite that short stature he is unmistakably a power pitcher. He has been compared favorably to former MLB All-Star closer Tom “Flash” Gordon, and McNally also compares him to Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.
Stroman is majoring in sociology while also earning a certificate in Markets and Management Studies at Duke, and said the university’s outstanding academic reputation played a huge role in his decision to make the move to Durham.
“I wasn’t going to go to some baseball factory just to play baseball and not do well in the classroom,” he said, while also offering a small caveat. “The academic part was big but another part was being able to play in the ACC, which I think is one of the best leagues in the country.”
Any true competitor wants to face the best the country has to offer on a regular basis, but a challenging conference schedule has also made it difficult for the Blue Devils to field competitive teams. Duke hasn't advanced to the College World Series since 1961, which also happens to be the last time it played in the NCAA postseason.
“You’re playing against the best competition so you just want to go out there and work harder than ever,” Stroman said. “We want to be recognized, we want to be up there with the Virginias, and you want to be in the NCAA tournament and the regionals. I think this year we have a real good opportunity to make the NCAA tournament.”
After being selected by the Nationals in the 2009 MLB draft, Stroman sat down with his parents – Earl Stroman and Adlin Auffant – and discussed his options. He felt he owed that to himself.
“It’s definitely something that you have to consider for the most part, and I definitely considered it with my family, but overall I knew I wanted to come to college and especially a place like Duke,” Stroman said. “I wanted to come to a good academic institution and develop my baseball skills and also get a solid education. Ultimately I want to play pro ball – that’s always been my goal – but I definitely wanted to get an education.”
Stroman will be only one semester short of earning his degree after he completes this spring semester. He said he will “definitely” obtain his degree from Duke at some point in the near future even if he signs a professional contract this summer.
Perfect Game ranks Stroman as the No. 22 draft-eligible prospect in June’s First-Year Player Draft, which should translate into him being a solid first-rounder.
“It’s something that’s definitely in the back of everyone’s mind,” he said. “I don’t try to focus on it at all; I just focus on playing at Duke and doing as much for my team as I can and let all draft stuff fall into place. I’m just living the moment, living it day-by-day and not looking at after the season and what possibly could happen.”