Blue Jays’ Estrada alters his routine to revitalize his best weapon

Marco Estrada wasn’t happy with how his changeup performed last season, so he is taking measures in spring training to improve it more than anything.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Watching video isn’t really Marco Estrada’s thing. He’s not all that inclined to throw bullpen sessions, either. Sometimes he’ll stop after three pitches if he feels good. Other times he won’t throw bullpens at all.

After 10 seasons in the major leagues, Estrada has a clear sense of what works for him, and what works is simplicity. In that context, it’s telling that he looked at video and threw far more change-ups than usual over the winter following a difficult 2017 season. If that work pays off the way he thinks it will, a more productive year awaits him.

When Estrada looked at video from last year, he didn’t like what he saw. On change-ups, his arm slowed down just enough to let hitters know what was coming. The difference might be imperceptible to the untrained observer, but the footage stood out to Estrada.

“It was a little easier to pick up,” he said. “I just telegraphed it a little more.”

Estrada’s velocity ticked up last year. His fastball averaged 89.9 m.p.h, a significant increase compared to the 88.1 m.p.h. he averaged in 2016. That meant his change-up was also a little harder, but at times he tried to slow it down.

“I could just see my arm wasn’t really getting through the zone,” he said. “I was trying to baby it … I noticed that I’d kind of slow my arm down.”

Making matters worse, Estrada didn’t locate the change-up as accurately as he wanted. The results weren’t good. Hitters swung and missed at the pitch less frequently, and they picked up hits more often. Their overall contact was harder, too, as measured by exit velocity and xwOBA. Bottom line, his best weapon wasn’t as trustworthy anymore.

“I kind of need that pitch,” Estrada said.

Marco Estrada pitch charts from 2016 (left) and 2017. (Baseball Savant)

And yet once the season started, it was hard to diagnose the issue, let alone resolve it.

“It’s all repetitions, right?” Estrada said. “You kind of get used to something and you try to break that habit, so sometimes it can be difficult to get out of a funk like that.”

To his credit, Estrada made 33 starts last year, a career high. But his ERA was 4.98, up from 3.13 in 2015 and 3.48 in 2016.

Determined to re-gain his feel for the change-up, Estrada threw a lot more of them over the course of the off-season. That meant bullpen sessions, some shorter than others.

“You’re going to miss a lot,” Estrada said. “And I’m going to get upset at myself for missing a spot, so I try not to get those negative thoughts in my head. I’ve had three-pitch bullpens. I’ve had 15-pitch bullpens. It’s as soon as it feels good, I remember what I felt that pitch, leave it alone and move on.”

Those off-season change-up sessions are allowing Estrada to begin spring training with improved feel for his best pitch. Turns out he just had to throw his change-up harder.

“Once I went back to just getting my arm through the zone, things got much better,” Estrada said.

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