Why Marco Estrada is fooling hitters more than ever as a Blue Jay

From the first year he put on a Toronto Blue Jays uniform, Marco Estrada has been a pleasant surprise.

Acquired in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2014 season for fellow walk-year player Adam Lind, the veteran right-hander inked a one-year deal with Toronto in what figured to be a brief stop before free agency. After an erratic first few outings, Estrada settled in to become one of the best pitchers in the American League, posting a 2.62 ERA while holding opponents to a microscopic .183 batting average.

Grabbing an opportunity to lock up a durable and capable middle-of-the-rotation starter, the Jays signed Estrada to a two-year, $26-million extension, committing him to Toronto through the 2017 season. That was a modest contract by modern standards; if Estrada could simply make 30 starts a year and not embarrass himself, that would be a relative bargain given the sky-high asking price for free-agent starting pitchers.

Toronto Blue Jays on Sportsnet NOW
Want to stream every Blue Jays games this season? Sportsnet NOW has you covered. Catch every Blue Jays game, marquee MLB matchups, the 2017 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, the playoffs and entire World Series.

Still, skepticism remained. Here was a pitcher who would be 34 years old at the end of the two-year deal. Moreover, there was a sense that Estrada wasn’t all that great.

His fastball sat at 90 m.p.h., an extraordinarily slow pitch for a right-hander in this era. He was one of the most ground ball-averse pitchers in the league, with 52.3 per cent of the batted balls against him in 2015 instead going for fly balls — the second-highest figure for any American League starter. Finally, some analysts speculated that he’d gotten lucky in that stingy stretch of 20 starts: His batting average on balls in play over that timeframe plummeted to .189, more than 100 points lower than league average and well below his relatively low — but not that low — career norms.

Fast-forward to today, and Estrada looks better than ever. His fastball still often struggles to break 90. He’s still one of the most extreme fly-ball pitchers in the league. But a change in approach has turned him into a totally different pitcher, one who’s dominating opponents, despite a lack of overwhelming stuff.

This isn’t the first time the brainy Estrada has used change to his advantage. At the start of his career with the Washington Nationals and Brewers, Estrada pitched primarily in relief, and did so with a low arm slot, delivering pitches from a three-quarters or even two-thirds delivery. Over time, he started throwing from a higher and higher point, until his delivery became closer to straight over the top. At the same time, he started throwing more fastballs up in the zone, which helped fuel a jump in his fly-ball rate — from 42.6 per cent in 2011 with the Brewers to that 52.3 mark in 2015 with the Jays. That might seem like a terrifying proposition for a pitcher throwing half his games at homer-happy Rogers Centre, doubly so in an era where hitting the ball in the air has spelled home-run gold for previously ordinary players like Ryan Zimmerman, J.D. Martinez, and Yonder Alonso. But by generating incredible amounts of spin on those high fastballs, Estrada induced far more harmless outs than homers.

This year’s change has produced another big step forward in Estrada’s performance. For some additional perspective, we turn to our friend Nick Pollack, pitching analyst and proprietor of the excellent site PitcherList.com.

Estrada’s striking out far more batters than he ever has before — his 27.2 per cent K rate ranks eighth among all ERA title-qualified AL starting pitchers. He’s making batters swing and miss 12.2 per cent of the time, also easily a career high. It’s rare to see a pitcher suddenly become so much better at missing bats without increasing his velocity. So what’s going on here?

For starters, he’s tweaked his pitch usage. He’s throwing fewer cutters this season when compared to last; whether that’s been a big or relatively small drop depends on which pitch classification system you use. Either way, everyone agrees that he’s throwing more change-ups, boosting his usage of that pitch from about 29 per cent to around 37. Great idea: Since 2013, opponents have never hit better than .206 against Estrada’s nasty change. Pitchers often use change-ups when ahead in the count, as an enticer that fools hitters into swinging out of the strike zone. Estrada’s used the pitch instead the zone, hiking the in-zone rate on his change-up from 36.4 per cent to 50.8 this year. That’s a big reason for a sharp drop in his walk rate, from 9 per cent in 2016 to just 6.2 in 2017.

By pounding the strike zone more frequently, mixing pitches more effectively with the addition of more change-ups, and using his change-up as a get-ahead pitch and not just a put-away pitch, Estrada has triggered a chain reaction. This season, he’s thrown first-pitch strikes 60.2 per cent of the time, his highest rate in three years.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

With hitters suitably confused, he’s then using his fastball as a strikeout offering, to great effect. First, he’s throwing it nearly 50 per cent of the time with two strikes, up from just 40 per cent two-strike usage last year. Further, batters swung and missed at his 90-m.p.h. heater just 6 per cent of the time last season. This season, with no uptick in velocity, he’s generated a 10.2 per cent whiff rate with that offering, a career high. Moreover, by throwing change-ups lower in the zone to get ahead, Estrada can then climb the ladder with that relatively slow fastball, making it appear faster than it really is, and more tantalizing for hitters. As a result, he’s making hitters chase 31.9 per cent on pitches out of the zone, a gigantic jump from last year’s 20.9 mark.

Just ask poor Ben Gamel what an 89-m.p.h. fastball up and out of the zone looks like, when you have no idea it’s coming.

Put all of that together and you have a pitcher whose ERA looks strikingly similar to what we saw the previous two years — 3.13 in 2015, 3.48 in 2016, and now 3.30 in 2017. But for the first time, Estrada’s underlying stats actually support his stinginess with runs. He’s striking out more batters than ever before, with more than four times as many Ks as walks. The owner of the sixth-slowest fastball in the league is blowing hitters away using brains instead of brawn. It’s been a damn joy to watch.