Marco Estrada can fill the Marcus Stroman void for Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays might have won the winter by acquiring Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, but no team has lost the spring more than Toronto, which saw young hurler Marcus Stroman tear his ACL in a workout on Tuesday morning. Surgery to repair the ligament will cost him the entire season, and it opens up a gaping hole in in the Jays rotation; even though he was young, Stroman projected as the team’s best pitcher, and one of the best pitchers in the entire league.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, speculation immediately began to link the Blue Jays and the Phillies, who have been waiting for an opportunity just like this to convince a team to pay dearly for Cole Hamels. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was pretty quick to downplay that idea, however. After stating there are few aces available this time of year, he added, "Actually there might be one, but I don’t know that we can afford that right now." For now, at least, it seems the Blue Jays will look in-house to replace Stroman.
Young hurlers Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez are likely to get much longer looks now, and with Stroman out of the picture, at least one of the two likely will break camp in the rotation, with the other fighting Marco Estrada for the last starting spot on the team. Unlike the young guns, Estrada doesn’t possess a particularly strong fastball, and certainly has the least upside of the three. But if the Jays really are going to stay with what they have, then I’d argue that Estrada might be their best option to replace Stroman, at least in the short-term.
There’s no question that Estrada was terrible in Milwaukee a year ago, particularly with his inability to keep the ball in the yard; he allowed 29 home runs in just 150 2/3 innings. When you don’t locate an 89-mph fastball particularly well, it often gets crushed, and Estrada looked like he was throwing batting practice for a large portion of the 2014 season. Estrada’s entire game is about commanding the top of the strike zone, and last year, he simply missed his spots too many times.
But there are reasons to think that, even with a mediocre fastball, Estrada’s up-in-the-zone preference can actually work to his advantage. While the result of this style of pitching is often a home run problem, that negative can be offset by inducing a large number of infield flies, which are basically equivalent to a strikeout. And few pitchers in baseball generate popups at the same rate as Estrada.
Since 2008, the only starting pitchers to generate a higher rate of infield flies were Chris Young and Ted Lilly, who also survived pitching up in the zone despite mediocre velocity. In Estrada’s category of popup induction, we find another interesting name, and one who is pretty similar to Estrada in many ways: Jered Weaver.
When you compare their lines side-by-side, the similarities are hard to miss. They have essentially the same walk and strikeout rates (once you adjust for the fact that Estrada has spent time in the NL), and because of their ability to induce infield flies, both have very low BABIPs. Weaver has essentially made his career off of controlling the strike zone and generating popups at nearly identical rates as Estrada.
The difference has always been home runs. As a starter, 13% of Estrada’s flyballs have gone over the fence, while only 8% of Weaver’s flyballs have gone for home runs. That has driven the massive difference in their results over the years. Put simply, Weaver’s just better at commanding his fastball, and works the upper part of the zone with fewer mistakes over the heart of the plate. Weaver is the king of this skillset, and his ability to avoid home runs makes him a significantly better version of this pitcher-type. The Blue Jays should not expect Estrada to turn into Jered Weaver.
But Weaver is an example of the kind of production this style of pitcher can get when he does manage to keep the ball in the park, and while Estrada’s command issues make it unlikely that he’ll sustain a low home run rate over the long-term, home run rates have more variance than most other outcomes for a pitcher. Estrada might not ever be Jered Weaver, but there are plenty of examples of previously homer-prone pitchers going on runs where they kept the ball in the ballpark and were quite effective. Dallas Keuchel, for instance, cut his ERA from 5.15 in 2013 to 2.93 in 2014 primarily by chopping his home run rate from 1.17 HR/9 to 0.50 HR/9 last year.
Even just a return to his own prior home run levels would make Estrada a useful starter, as he was an above-average hurler in both 2012 and 2013. Just 31 years old, we shouldn’t assume that one bad year means that Estrada is definitively washed up, especially when that bad year was the result of an extra half-dozen balls clearing the fence. These are the kinds of results that can fluctuate quite a bit from year to year, and if Estrada can get a few of those dingers back, he’s got the rest of the template for a quality pitcher down to a science.
Committing to Estrada as a starter doesn’t mean you have to ride him into the playoffs, should the Blue Jays make it that far. You probably don’t want a guy with this kind of home run problem on the mound in a critical postseason game, but the Blue Jays don’t have to build their October rotation in March. Estrada’s good enough to get a shot to soak up some innings for the first half of the year, and if the rest of the team is as good as advertised, the Jays can go rent an ace for the stretch run in July.
Estrada doesn’t bring the upside of Norris or Sanchez, but he’s got enough going for him to deserve a shot for half a season. If he can get his high fastballs just high enough to avoid getting crushed too often, he might be a decent enough stopgap until better options come along.