Marco Estrada’s tenure in Toronto has been one that has surpassed far beyond the initial expectations set on him when he was acquired in the 2014 offseason. As a Blue Jay, he’s been able to utilize his key strengths, while adding a cutter and increasing the use of his four seam up in the zone to have success.
He showed flashes of being a mid-rotation starter with the Brewers before coming to Toronto, but after a tumultuous 2014 campaign that saw him reverted to a bullpen role, the chances he’d reach that potential were slim to none.
He’s been able to turn it around in Toronto and put together back to back years of 181 and 176 IP with an ERA totals of 3.13 and 3.48. This success has hinged on his ability to control the home run ball and keep opposing hitter’s batting averages down by inducing weak contact. FIP doesn’t love him as much as those ERA totals indicate, but he’s been able to make it work by consistently getting terrific batted ball results.
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Throughout his time here, the most important success of all has been his work during the postseason. Across six starts in the last two years, Estrada’s compiled 41.2 IP while striking out 34 and walking just two. He’s clearly shown up in big games and gave the Jays a legitimate chance to win every playoff game he started.
Estrada’s 2016 season, in particular, saw an increased strikeout rate, sitting at 8.44 K/9, up from an oddly low total 6.51 in 2015. But with that came more walks, as his BB/9 jumped from 2.73 to 3.32. His GB%, BABIP, and HR/9 all stayed within a couple percentage points of last year’s totals, but he did manage to reduce his FB% by four points, which is important for a pitcher with chronic homerun problems.
His ERA moved upwards from 3.13 to 3.48, but his FIP moved down to 4.15 because of the bump in his strikeout totals. Despite the modest ERA bump, I was happier with his performance as a whole, and the ability to miss bats once again was an important part of his success.
Another factor that contributed to his ERA jump was the back issue that plagued him through the majority of August that resulted in his roughest stretch of the season. Without that blip, his ratios would have been closer to his 2015 totals.
Estrada’s pitch usage was similar to what we got accustomed to last year, relying heavily on his dynamite change-up and strong location with his four seam fastball. Those pitches were thrown nearly the same amount as last season, and the degree of success they had was very similar with regards to whiff percentage, batting average against, slugging against, etc. Clearly, the fastball-change combo is his bread and butter and there’s no reason to change that going forward.
However, a pitch usage change that I think had an impact on his performance was the evolution of his cutter. Brooks Baseball categorizes the pitch as a cutter, but in my opinion it has kind of morphed into a mini-slider of sorts. He threw it more than two miles per hour slower than last year, and it’s horizontal movement went from 0.75 inches to 2.52 inches. It looked as though that he took a little bit of velocity off the pitch in order to garner more swing and misses.
The adjustment paid dividends, as Estrada was able to bump the whiff rate from 4.20% to 7.85%. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference on paper, but it turned last year’s show-me cutter offering that he would use early in the count to mix things up, into a pitch he could throw in 2-strike counts as a potential put-away pitch.
Furthermore, the batting average against his cutter dropped from .322 last year to .263 this year, making it a more palatable pitch to use in an effort to generate weak contact. He used it to get in on the hands of lefties, and ran it low and away to righties. Last year, Estrada made an adjustment with his fastball that potentially saved his career, as he started throwing it up in the zone with more regularity and led to a ton of success.
This season, the cutter turned into a legitimate third pitch he could use in all situations, and it once again had a positive impact on his performance. It can’t be overstated enough, the best players in baseball are the best because they’re able to consistently, efficiently, and quickly make adjustments at the major league level. Those players who don’t, often find themselves labelled with a weakness that opponents take advantage of.
Estrada has made important adjustments in back-to-back years and it’s been able to allow him to have success into his mid-30’s.
On the other side of things, there are implications of aging that simply can’t be reversed or overlooked. Estrada will turn 34 halfway through the 2017 campaign, so the Jays will look to squeak another productive year out of him before age continues to catch up.
The nagging injury problems likely had something to do with his age, and the ability to both avoid and recover injuries won’t get any easier as he gets older. Another issue that age brings forward is declining velocity.
Estrada has never been reliant upon on velocity, this is abundantly obvious. However, his fourseam velocity did decrease from 89.91 mph to 88.89 mph this season; it didn’t have a negative effect on the performance of the pitch or his season as a whole, but it could potentially become an issue if it continues to fall.
Estrada has been able to defy the undeniable correlation between a hitter’s success with lower fastball velocity, as we also became accustomed to with Mark Buehrle, but this success can be turned on it’s head rather quickly.
Jered Weaver, a pitcher who relies on the same traits Estrada does for success, saw his career derail the moment his velocity went from passable (87.50 mph in 2014) to horrible (84.30 mph in 2015). His 2014 season saw him post a 3.0 bWAR and that slid to 0.3 in 2015, and further down to -0.7 in 2016. His career acts as an example on the other side of the spectrum that Buehrle sits on.
I’m not suggesting Estrada is going to take a similar path, but declining velocity is simply a consequence of age and it could have an impact on the way Estrada needs to pitch, and therefore, potentially having an impact on his success.
With all that being said, and despite the age, Estrada is a fairly safe bet to perform well this upcoming year. His 2016 3.4 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR are very solid for a mid-rotation starter, and there aren’t any glaring deficiencies that would suggest those numbers will nosedive.
The Jays are looking to get another productive year out of Estrada before most likely moving on after the 2017 season, when top prospects Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris could be approaching their debuts.
He’ll make 14.5 million this year, a slight raise on the 11.5 million he made last year, and he’ll be a free agent at seasons end.