The Blue Jays find themselves at the bottom of the American League East thanks to a myriad of factors: injuries, under-achievers across the roster, bad luck, and the second toughest schedule thus far. One of the most puzzling disappointments has been the complete breakdown of Marco Estrada as a quality, top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.
The veteran right-hander has been the 9th-worst pitcher in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’ PWARP at -2.0 wins. Over the past few seasons, Estrada earned himself a reputation as a FIP and DRA beater due to his low ERA’s despite much higher peripherals. 2017 has been a different story: He has a 5.17 ERA and a 4.33 FIP so far in 2017, and a 7.40 DRA on top of that.
Part of what is so confusing is that Estrada is struggling despite throwing one of the best fastballs of his career. His average fastball velocity has crept back over 90 MPH to 90.2, after being at or below 90 MPH in each of the past four seasons. He is also getting whiffs on his fastball 10.5 percent of the time, his highest mark since the 2012 season. He is riding that newfound velocity to his highest strikeouts per nine innings of his career at 9.8. He is getting more strikeouts, but still having trouble.
One of the big reasons for those troubles is that Estrada has seemingly lost some feel for his typically other-worldly changeup. Hitters are making more contact with the pitch than before; he is getting whiffs on just 19.6 percent of his changeups after posting a 23.3 mark in 2016. In addition to hitting the ball more, batters are doing more damage once they put the ball in play. Estrada’s changeup is inducing more line drives than at any point in his career, 22.94 percent of the time, which has led to hitters slugging .477 off the pitch – by far the highest of his career. At the same time that hitters are squaring up the pitch, Estrada is using his changeup more than ever. It’s possible he’s using it too often and showing his hand, turning what was once his calling card into a weakness.
Although he is mostly dependent on his fastball-changeup combo, Estrada’s curveball has also been much worse in 2017. While he is throwing the pitch just 6.9 percent of the time, the lowest mark of his career, he has given up a line drive 47.8 percent of the time when he throws his hook. That’s more than double his career high rate (21.1 percent). While a 47.8 percent line drive rate is completely unsustainable, it may explain why Estrada has been more dependent on his changeup than ever. If he is giving up a hard hit ball almost half the time with his curveball, he may feel he has no choice but to simply stop throwing it.
Estrada has been successful in the past due to his ability to limit hard contact. But with his offspeed pitches seeming to have abandoned him, that skill has disappeared in 2017. After posting BABIPs below .300 in every full season of his career, and .216 and .234 marks in 2015 and 2016 respectively, he has posted a .325 BABIP so far in 2017. His pop-up percentage is well down at 11.6 percent after getting a pop-up 16.2 percent of the time in 2016 (that’s a drop of nearly 30 percent). Estrada is once again near the top of the league in fly ball percentage, but he is not generating the pop-ups that made his approach sustainable.
As one might expect with the same amount of flyballs but fewer popups, Estrada’s HR/9 is up to 1.51. Home runs have always been a part of his game and are expected with the way he pitches, but he is on his way to allowing over 30 home runs on the season. His HR/FB is 12.9 percent, and when you take into account his home ballpark and the other parks in the American League East, that doesn’t really suggest any sort of regression. The increased amount of home runs along with the jump in the number of hits given up suggest that it isn’t just a small sample size blip, but he may actually be much more hittable right now.
The Blue Jays need Marco Estrada to get right if they want to make one more wild-card run with this aging core. The BABIP gods have caught up to him. It remains to be seen if Estrada can regain his pop-up and BABIP magic, but for now he looks like a sub-replacement level starting pitcher with a 14.5 million dollar salary.
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