After career year Estrada still working to prove critics wrong

Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marco Estrada is coming off an outstanding 2015 season. (Nathan Denette/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla — When Marco Estrada was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in November, 2014 for Adam Lind, he did something he usually never does. He read what people were saying about him on the Internet.

“I was going to a new team, so I wanted to see what people thought. And I read into it, all these stories and comments or whatever. And no one was happy. Fans, media — like, no one,” Estrada says. “I was like, well, alright. Time to stop reading this and prove everybody wrong.”

Flash forward 11 months to October, 2015 and the fifth game of the ALCS, a win-or-go-home nine innings for the Blue Jays. Estrada’s on the mound and he’s dealing; he faces the minimum through six and holds Kansas City off the board until there’s two outs in the eighth, when he gives up a solo home run.

After allowing a single to the next batter, his manager, John Gibbons, comes out to get him and gives a gobsmacked “wow” as he takes the ball, letting Estrada step off the mound as 50,000 fans at Rogers Centre lose their minds.

And even in that moment—a perfect way to cap an extraordinary year for Estrada which began with him pitching long relief and ended with him receiving Cy Young votes after posting a 3.28 ERA across 28 starts—he couldn’t bring himself to look up from the turf and lose focus.

“I just put my head down because I really didn’t want to smile. I was still in the moment; I was still locked in. I left a guy on and there’s still a game to play — I didn’t want to be smiling,” Estrada says. “But inside, I was going, ‘oh my god, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced.’”

That’s the kind of season it was for Estrada, who never truly enjoyed the praise he should have, despite pitching some incredibly fine baseball for his new team. He began the year in the bullpen after an ankle injury limited him during spring training, but joined the rotation at the beginning of May and never looked back, allowing three runs or less in all but five of his 26 starts and twice taking no-hitters into the eighth inning. He was the team’s best starter until they acquired David Price, but when the postseason rolled around, there were still public questions about whether there would be room in the Blue Jays playoff rotation for Estrada.

After his experience with reading his own press before the year, Estrada had completely sworn off consuming any media coverage or online discussion concerning the team. But in September a member of the press approached Estrada about the uncertainty of his role going into October.

“I’m thinking, well, what else do I have to do?” Estrada says. “I had a really good year. I thought I’d proven myself. All the stats were there. And I’m still getting questioned. I couldn’t believe it, to be honest with you. I didn’t even want to answer the question. It caught me completely off guard.”

Inside the Blue Jays clubhouse, there was never a question the club was going to lean heavily on Estrada in the postseason, and he ended up posting the best October ERA of the team’s four playoff starters at 2.33. All three of his starts were strong, but his Picasso was the fifth game of the ALCS, which extended the series and sent the Blue Jays back to Kansas City to fight another day.

“If anybody still didn’t believe in me after that, then I don’t know what else to do. There’s really nothing else I could do, other than throw a no-hitter or something,” Estrada says. “And the fans that day were so great. They made it a special moment, for sure. They were behind me the whole time and into every pitch.”

That game was the culmination of everything Estrada had worked towards that year, including the new cutter he developed mid-season that helped take his game to another level. Estada threw it more times that outing than in any other and had one of his best change-ups of the season as well, earning 10 swinging strikes with the off-speed pitch he’s built his career on.

Estrada’s so confident with his cutter now that he plans to make it even more of a staple in his repertoire heading into 2016. He discovered the pitch accidentally during a pre-game bullpen in Houston, when he threw one on a whim that caught his pitching coach, Pete Walker, completely off guard. “What the hell was that?” Walker asked, after watching the pitch. “You’ve got to use that tonight.” Estrada did, throwing it 13 times in a five-inning, two-run effort against the Astros and building it further into his arsenal from there.

“The first time I throw it in a game I get a swing and miss and I’m like, oh my lord, this is going to make pitching a bit easier,” Estrada says. “As the season went on it just kept getting better and better, to the point where now I can throw it to both sides of the plate. It’s seriously a big game-changer. It came in handy during the playoffs, that’s for sure.”

The other new element to Estrada’s game in 2016 is who’s calling those cutters. Estrada worked almost exclusively with back-up catcher Dioner Navarro over the second half last season, which coincided with his best success, but this winter Navarro left for the Chicago White Sox in search of more playing time.

The pairing was so effective that Navarro started all three of Estrada’s postseason games over Russell Martin, who had a much better season offensively. In 119.2 innings with Navarro behind the plate, Estrada pitched to a 2.63 ERA and held batters to a .181/.247/.342 batting line. In 61.1 innings throwing to Martin, those numbers balloon to a 4.11 ERA and a .244/.307/.403 line.

Estrada gets asked about this all the time. And while he enjoyed Navarro immensely as a catcher, and hopes his former battery mate finds the bigger role he craves in Chicago, Estrada feels the numbers don’t tell the entire story.

“I thought Russ did a really good job with me last year. The problem was I wasn’t really ready to be a starter when he was catching me. I wasn’t as prepared. Russ was fine. His game calling was great. It wasn’t him — it was me,” Estrada says. “Dioner just took over at the right time. Not to take anything away from Dioner, he calls a great game. But so does Russ. His game calling is pretty special.”

For the first time in his career, Estrada is entering a season with a guaranteed rotation spot after signing a two-year, $26-million contract this offseason. But even with that in mind, and even after finishing tenth in Cy Young voting, there are still doubters.

Some point to Estrada’s unusually low 2015 batting average on balls in play of .216 (league average last year was .296 and Estrada’s career average is .261) as a sign he benefitted from luck last season. Some also look at a pitcher who plays half his games at Rogers Centre, throws a 90-mph fastball, and likes to work up in the zone as a recipe for home run disaster.

Some people say a lot of things, and Estrada’s heard it all. His plan is to prepare well for his outings, pitch the way he knows he can, and let the results speak for themselves.

“I’m so used to it by now. I’ve been through it my whole life. I’ve never really been that guy to show up at camp and they say, ‘hey, you’re going to be the guy this year.’ Nope. I’m always fighting for it,” Estrada says. “But I don’t let things affect me anymore like they used to. It’s just a learning process. It takes years to build. I just went through enough crap, I guess. To the point where I’ve got a strong enough head on my shoulders now to tune it all out.

“But it’s fine, in a way. I’m still going to approach this spring as if I don’t have a rotation spot. That’s my mentality. I want to keep working hard and keep doing everything that I’ve done to get here. I still want to get better. I think I had a pretty good year last season. But I think I can do better.”