After missing the entire 2009 season due to injury, Shaun Marcum led a young Blue Jays pitching staff in 2010 to successfully rebound from Tommy John surgery, tossing a career-high 195 innings in 31 starts.
The then-Jays ace not only ate innings, but cut down his walks and increased the frequency with which he threw first-pitch strikes; encouraging signs as he forged ahead into 2011 as the eldest member of his club’s starting rotation.
That changed significantly last December, though, when the 29-year-old was acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers, a team desperate to improve a rotation that ranked second-last in the National League in 2010.
To say Marcum was caught off guard by the news is an understatement.
“Definitely unexpected,” Marcum told The Good Point about the trade. “Prior to that, [the Blue Jays] had contacted my agent about a multi-year deal about staying there — when you get traded about a week and a half later it definitely catches you off guard. I enjoyed my time up there, I made a lot of good friends up there on that team and I wish those guys the best of luck.”
What was even more surprising about the trade was its rarity. Though both the Brewers and Jays managed to fill team needs, Marcum was swapped for highly-touted infield prospect Brett Lawrie. It’s not every day a proven major league starter is dealt for another team’s No. 1 prospect, especially not straight-up.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Marcum said. “I knew he was supposed to be a really good player and he’s doing well up there so it’s nice to see. But when you get traded – for me anyway, it’s my first time being traded – I didn’t really look at who it was for or anything like that, it was more about moving on and coming over here to help these guys get to where we want to be.”
This season with Milwaukee, Marcum is sporting a rotation-best 3.11 ERA, and he’s currently tied with Yovani Gallardo for the team lead in starts with 29. He’s on pace to establish new career-highs in innings pitched and starts, and he’s averaging 7.3 hits per nine innings, a new career-low.
“He can take any of his pitches and throw them wherever he wants, and whenever a guy can do that it’s a pretty special thing,” Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “He’s like a surgeon out there; he just executes and locates, that’s really what it is.”
One pitch that has contributed significantly to Marcum’s success this season has been his curveball, which has averaged just 71 miles per hour, almost three lower than in any other season of his career. The reduction in speed has broadened the velocity gap between it and his other offerings, making Marcum’s ability to alternate within his arsenal of pitches even more deadly than in the past.
His fondness of the pitch goes back to long before the regular season started.
“It just felt good out in Spring Training this year and in the past, out of 100 pitches, I probably threw four or five curveballs a game,” the Kansas City native said. “This year, it’s a lot more than that, and I think it’s also a pitch that’s helped me against right-handers this year. Last year I struggled against right-handers and this year I’m doing a little better against them, so it’s definitely been a pitch that has helped me out this year.”
Marcum’s curveball hasn’t just helped him against right-handed hitters this season, the pitch has completely transformed the way he pitches to them, and the numbers show it.
Last season, righties managed a .298 average and .859 OPS against Marcum, with 43 extra-base hits in 362 at-bats. This season, however, they’ve only mustered a .181 average and .531 OPS against, with 21 extra-base hits in 332 at-bats. This revamped approach to right-handers has affected other pitches in Marcum’s repertoire too, notably his fastball.
Rarely touching speeds over 90 mph with his heater, Marcum certainly doesn’t possess overpowering velocity. Traditionally he’s limited how often he throws it, but never more so than the career-low 33 percent of the time he’s used it in 2011.
“I know a lot of people say I’m throwing less fastballs than other things; they’re not changeups or anything like that. I’m just throwing BP fastballs, they’re like 84 miles-an-hour […] It’s more of a get-me-over fastball; try to get somebody out.
While Marcum has certainly picked up where he left off on the mound last season, his arrival in the National League has introduced him to a new challenge that he was barely exposed to during his time in Toronto.
With just 10 Major League at-bats to his name prior to this season, Marcum has been getting accustomed to taking regular batting practice and stepping into the batter’s box as a pitcher. Five months into the season, it’s still a work in progress.
“I played shortstop in college, but the last time I swung a bat consistently was 2003. So you take eight years off and try to hit again, it’s very tough, especially against the pitchers we’re facing,” the right-hander said. “But, then again it’s part of our job, we’ve got to find a way to get better at it and go out there, and whether it’s moving the runner or getting a bunt down and doing that stuff, it’s our job and we’ve got to get it done.”
Despite having recorded only eight hits in 54 at-bats this season, Marcum did manage to hit his first career home run back in July at Miller Park. What was even more impressive, though, was that it was a grand slam and was Milwaukee’s first of the season – an unlikely source considering the team boasts sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
“That was an accident; closed my eyes I guess,” Marcum joked. “I don’t know how that happened.”
With less than one month to play in the regular season, the Brewers have the largest division lead in baseball at 9.5 games in the NL Central, and their sights are set firmly on their first division title in almost 30 years.
After the Brewers’ starting rotation ranked 27th in baseball last season with a 4.65 ERA, it’s easy to see that Marcum has been a massive reason as to why the Brewers have been so successful this year. Along with the Brewers’ other offseason acquisition, Zack Greinke, Milwaukee’s rotation now sits seventh in the league with a 3.63 ERA.
Though he has had both individual and team success in Milwaukee and is a significant part of one of baseball’s hottest teams heading into their second postseason in four years, Marcum is sticking to the same principles he has always had over the course of his six-year career.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re at, the main thing is being consistent; throwing strikes, attacking the hitters, keeping the ball down, and going deep in the game,” he said. “What you want to do every time is go out there and go deep in the game, be consistent, and get wins. For me, that’s the main thing.”
The surgeon-like precision and deceiving ability to switch the speed of his pitches are just simply bonuses.