How Does Marco Estrada Do It?
“Hitting is Timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
-Hall of Famer Warren Spahn
“Today he was absolutely dynamite,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “He didn’t miss spots. His changeup was fantastic. He just didn’t give us anything to hit.”
10 misses on 20 swings against Estrada’s change today. The 10 misses tied a season high. #BlueJays
— Inside Edge (@InsideEdgeScout) October 21, 2015
As Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada walked off the mound after being lifted in the 8th inning of Game 5 of their ALCS series against the Kansas City Royals, it was to a thunderous ovation from the Rogers Centre faithful. Following a brilliant 7 2/3 innings of 3 hit, 1 run ball, by the time he reached the Toronto dugout, he had become the de facto post season ace of the team’s starting rotation.
Prior to this season, Estrada had posted decent numbers, but there was little in his past performance that would have predicted this type of unlikely breakout season at the age of 32.
The Mexican-born Estrada played high school ball in California. After a stint at a junior college, Estrada found himself at Long Beach State, where he was a teammate of Troy Tulowitzki. Drafted by the Nationals in 2005, he was not considered a top prospect, and after five nondescript season in the Nats’ organization, was placed on waivers in 2010, where the Brewers scooped him up.
Estrada started 39 games in 2013 and 2014 for Milwaukee, and was largely a swing man in his last season with the club. He pitched at a league-average level, and had trouble with the long ball, allowing 29 Home Runs in 150 innings last year. Traded to Toronto for 1B/DH Adam Lind this past off-season, Estrada was viewed as little more than a possible long man out of the bullpen, or maybe a fifth starter at best. Originally thought to be in the mix for the fifth starter’s job at spring training, he started the year in the bullpen, and did not make his first start of the year until May 5th.
When a pitcher has a breakthrough season like Estrada’s, it’s often because of the discovery of a breakout pitch. Mike Scott had scuffled through five seasons with the Mets and Astros before discovering the split-finger fastball, and rode that to a Cy Young award and NLCS MVP in 1986. Steve Stone was a back of the rotation starter for almost a decade before discovering a new grip on his curveball, which he threw to baffle hitters en route to a 25-win season and a Cy Young in 1980.
In the case of Estrada, however, there is no new grip, and no new pitch. He continues to throw mostly his four-seam fastball (55% of the time this year) and change-up (27%) to get hitters out. His velocity tops out at about 91 on his four-seamer, and he doesn’t get a whole lot of movement on it.
So how does he get hitters out? What has turned him from a league-average starting pitcher, who began they year in the bullpen, to a front of the rotation starter for a playoff team?
One word: location.
Granted, his ability to disguise his change-up helps (Estrada had the 3rd-highest whiff rate on it among MLB starters this year), but it’s his ability to spot his fastball to areas where hitters tend to make weak contact:
As is well known, of the three elements of pitching (velocity, movement, location), location is likely the most important. If a pitcher has command of his fastball, it makes his secondary pitches that much more effective. And while velocity is important, it’s not all-encompassing: a 90 mph on the inside part of the plate is just as effective as a 95 mph one on the outer half. In terms of location, Estrada has been a master this year.
Which is not to say that Estrada, as is well known, does not give up contact: his 52.3% flyball rate was the 2nd highest among all qualifiers this year. But that contact tends to be of the weaker variety; while Estrada is not a groundball-inducing machine, his Line Drive rate (15.5%) was the second lowest among MLB starters. He also had the highest pop-up rate in baseball. Quite simply, when hitters make contact, it tends to be of the type typical of that which does not get much of the barrel of the bat. Because he lives on the edges of the strike zone, hitters find him tough to square up. And that is a product of his location and the timing-upsetting effect of his change-up. Because it is such an effective pitch, it’s obviously in the back of hitters’ minds. Perhaps taking a page from teammate Mark Buehrle, Estrada has started to work faster on the mound, rarely stepping off of the mound. This was especially evident in this last start, where he further disrupted the Royals’ hitters’ timing by working quickly, rarely giving them a chance to get set in the box before he was ready to deliver his next pitch.
One of the most impressive aspects of Estrada’s performance this year has been the fact that he can turn over a batting order:
|Time through the order||Batting Average||On Base Percentage||Slugging Percentage|
With free agency looming, Estrada could not have picked a better time to have a masterful game in a career year. In fact, with signing David Price this off-season a high priority for GM Alex Anthopoulos, there’s every chance Estrada may have pitched himself out of the Blue Jays’ price range with that start. Tony Blengino, of Fangraphs, who named Estrada “AL Contact Manager of the Year,” sums up Estrada’s past and future quite neatly:
Yes, Marco Estrada does live on the head of a pin. The slightest deterioration in his calculus, a mph or two off of his fastball, the slightest change in the arm speed on his changeup, could add a few mph to the exit speed of the fly balls he allows, and suddenly those cans of corns would start landing over the wall. A .000 AVG-.000 SLG becomes 1.000 AVG-4.000 SLG. Right here, right now, however, this is one pretty good, under-the-radar starting pitcher. If I’m a contender, I’d have no problem entrusting 180 innings per season to Marco Estrada over the next two or three years.