What Is Wrong With Marco Estrada?

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The Marco Estrada saga is one of a number of great Blue Jay success stories.

Over the years we’ve seen players like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Justin Smoak struggle in other organizations only to finally fulfill their potential in Toronto.  Estrada pitched decently well, though a bit inconsistent and erratic during his years in Washington and Milwaukee, but found his form after being acquired in advance of the 2015 season for Shaun Marcum.  He was one of the key players that helped end Toronto’s playoff drought, and was incredible in the playoffs in elimination games against Texas and Kansas City.

Sadly, something is happening to Estrada, a performance decline that threatens to derail both his and the Blue Jays’ season.  After seeing his numbers dip last season, Estrada has seemingly fallen off a cliff through five starts this year.  After another rough outing last night against Boston, Estrada’s numbers, both on an absolute and relative basis, are terrible.  There are 46 qualified pitchers in the American League thus far – here is where Estrada ranks in a number of key categories:

Those are not pretty.

So what happened?  Is this simply an early season slump, a rough patch that will end after a few adjustments?  Or is this the continuation of a career decline?

I took a look at several other numbers to see if anything jumps out in his early season performance.  Is he suddenly walking more batters?  Has his velocity significantly declined?  Is he surrendering a ton of hard contact?

The good news for Blue Jays fans is that the answers to the above questions appear to be “no”.

Through five starts Estrada’s strikeout rate is 7.67 K/9, down a touch from 2016 and 2017 but up from a 6.51 rate in 2015.  His walk rate is actually down thus far, sitting at 3.0 BB/9, down from 3.44 last season.  His fastball velocity sits at 89.4, down a touch from last season’s 90.1 but in-line with the previous two years.  And in terms of hard contact, his hard-hit rate is 30.6% vs. 28.6% over the past three years.

So with those numbers fairly consistent, what has changed?

First of all, his pitch selection is much different.  Estrada’s fastball usage has increased to 58% up almost 5% from last year.  He is throwing it at the expense of his cutter (down from 6.7% to 5.3%) and his curveball (down from 7.7% to 5.3%).  In years past Estrada was excellent at mixing his cutter and curveball in and around his killer changeup to keep hitters off-balance.  With those pitches fewer and far between, hitters might be sitting on his below-average velocity fastball and teeing off.

Which brings us to dingers.  Estrada has always been a fly ball pitcher, but so far this season he has taken that to an extreme.

His ground ball % has dropped to 28.2% and his fly ball % has risen to a new high of 55.3%.  The result is a significant drop in his GB/FB rate from a high of 0.69 in 2016 to 0.51 thus far in 2018.

The obvious consequence of that is that more fly balls brings the potential for more home runs:

That is a steep incline.  Estrada has already allowed 7 HR in only 27 IP, and more often than not they have been the type of game-changing, soul-crushing bombs that can really hurt a team.  To wit:

  • March 31 vs. New York: Allowed two HR to Tyler Austin, both times wiping out Toronto leads
  • April 20 vs. New York: HR by Austin gave NY a 2-0 lead; HR by Stanton gave NY a 4-2 lead; solo HR by Andujar erased a 5-4 Toronto lead
  • April 26 vs. Boston: HR by J.D. Martinez turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 deficit

With players all over baseball trying to increase launch angles thanks to advanced analytics, Estrada will need to make some adjustments or else things might get worse.  Whether that is reducing his reliance on the fastball and throwing his curve more often remains to be seen.

But through five starts it’s obvious that Estrada is broken.  It’s up to him to fix things or else the postseason hopes of the Jays could be in jeopardy.

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