Marco Estrada on His June Struggles and Juiced Baseballs

NEW YORK — Marco Estrada nodded, walked towards Pete Walker, and put his things on the grass. He chatted with the Blue Jays pitching coach for a few minutes, and then headed back into the Blue Jays clubhouse with a smile on his face. That was the scene at four o’clock on Monday afternoon in Yankee Stadium after Estrada had thrown off of flat ground to attempt to correct whatever has been plaguing him over the past five weeks. The results of his past six starts have been ugly – a 9.11 ERA in 27 and 2/3 innings pitched is usually cause for alarm. But sitting in the air conditioned clubhouse after that throwing session, Estrada wasn’t in the mood to feel the heat. On his recent struggles, he said it is nothing to worry about in the long run:

“It is what it is. It happens in baseball. We all go through it. I’m feeling pretty good. Playing catch today, [I] felt much better than I have. I worked on a bunch of things.”

That’s the mentality one likely wants to see from a pitcher going through a down period like Estrada has been recently. It’s easy to let struggles impact one’s psyche in baseball, but to brush them aside and look for solutions to the problems is how one improves and moves forward.

It’s been a mystery to fans, media, and the Blue Jays alike what has caused Estrada to pitch so uncharacteristically poorly recently, but one theory that has been floating around on the internet is that changes in Estrada’s release point have had an impact. Estrada was unaware that he was doing anything different. “Really? Wow,” he said after he was informed that his horizontal release point had decreased by almost half a foot on all of his pitches this season, moving closer to his head, and that his vertical release point is about four inches higher as well. “I guess it’s something I should look into,” Estrada continued, expressing a deep interest in something he feels could be a reason why he has been missing his spots. However, he also hypothesized a possible reason as to why the data is showing he has changed his arm slot, when he hasn’t been doing it consciously:

“I feel like I have been trying to get on top of the ball more. I’m kind of doing it, by tilting more. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m bringing my arm up higher. It’s more of a tilt… Which is causing me to fly open, and miss my spots… I think that’s something we worked on, that I’ve been working on, and I think I got it… I don’t think it’s necessarily my arm slot going up higher. It’s me just trying tilting. My arm is going higher, but it’s because of my tilt, not because [of] any arm slot change.”

That’s an interesting theory from Marco, as it shows that not only does he understand the background behind the statistical analysis that is prevalent in the game today, but that he is also aware that he has been doing something differently. What’s concerning is that it’s still a guessing game. Estrada has struggled for a month now and no direct remedy to his problems has been found.

Many have also discussed the possibility that Estrada’s transition away from being an extreme flyball pitcher to one who also relies on strikeouts to achieve success could be behind the struggles. Estrada has shot all the way up the strikeout leaderboard this year to find himself in the top 20 in K%, after placing 43rd overall in 2015 and 2016. But Estrada doesn’t buy into that. In fact, if Estrada had it his way, he wouldn’t strike any batters out:

“Honestly, I don’t care if I strikeout another person the rest of the year. I want to go 7, 8, 9 innings every outing. And if I don’t have a strikeout, I’ll be happy. I don’t really care about strikeouts. It’s happened because I am throwing a little bit harder. I think, [I am] getting more swings and misses off of those high fastballs, but it isn’t something I am looking for. It’s just [that] I’m healthy… I’m a lot healthier. On good days, I have a little more life on the ball, and it’s caused more strikeouts.”

“Honestly, I don’t care if I strikeout another person the rest of the year. I want to go 7, 8, 9 innings every outing. And if I don’t have a strikeout, I’ll be happy.”

It is true that he is throwing harder. His average fastball velocity is up over 90 MPH for the first time since 2013, and it has been responsible for a larger chunk of strikeouts for Marco than ever before in his Blue Jays tenure. In 2015, Estrada’s fastball generated strikeouts at a 17.4% rate, and 18.5% last year. This season, Estrada is getting strikeouts on 26.2% of fastballs that factor into the play, a huge increase of over eight percentage points in just one season.

Another reason people think Estrada may be struggling is because of how his past success has been heavily influenced by his ability to utilize that aforementioned high fastball, and with the sudden rise in home runs being hit, he is suffering more than most. His HR/9 has spiked to 1.40, the highest it has been for Marco while with Toronto. But Marco doesn’t think about that all that much, instead staying true to his mantra that “if you’re going to give up a homer, just make sure it is with nobody on.”

Estrada also told ABC News last year that knuckleballer R.A. Dickey believed that the seams on the balls were being wound tighter, which was causing the dramatic increase in home runs. Well, that theory seems to have been all but confirmed recently, and Estrada isn’t all that surprised:

“You feel the ball, it feels a little bit different. To me, it feels a little smaller… If the seams are wound tighter, obviously they are going to go a little farther. It’s probably the case. But everybody is pitching with it, so [I] deal with it… I don’t know how true it really is, to be honest, but they do feel a little bit different.”

Meanwhile, Estrada is focused on himself, and not the ball. “Who cares? It’s going to be a part of the game,” he told me about the supposed changes to the ball and whether he will alter his approach to deal with the home run spike. Whether he does or doesn’t, he’s still confident in the future.

 “I feel like it’s about to turn around for me.”

For the Blue Jays sake, he better hope so.

Lead Photo: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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