Marco Estrada: Avoiding the Home Run

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Jul 24, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher

Marco Estrada

(25) throws against the Seattle Mariners during the fourth inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Many of his numbers are similar to last year, if not worse. His strikeout totals are actually down, notching a 6.81 K/9 while starting this year, compared to 7.74 last year. His walk rate is a very good 2.69 BB/9, improving his 2.94 mark from last year. Both of those changes shouldn’t have a dramatic difference on home runs.

His batted ball ratios as a starting pitcher are close to his career marks and those of 2014, with none of them pointing towards a massive improvement. His GB% rate of 31.3% is a career low, and his 49.8% FB rate is the highest it’s ever been. In the Rogers Centre, this seems like a recipe for disaster, especially for someone with home run issues.

His Pitchf/x data doesn’t show any glaring differences either. He’s getting hitters to swing at pitches inside the zone at a career high rate, and contact on those pitches is a career low. That’s a good sign, but a depressed strikeout rate suggests that’s not due to an increase in pure stuff, and isn’t pointing towards a home run reduction.

Two big things stand out when comparing his 2015 to 2014 and the rest of his career as a starting pitcher. His 2015 hard hit rate as a starter is a very solid 26.9%, right below arms such as Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Lance Lynn, and above arms such as Jacob deGrom, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels and Madison Bumgarner. Now, that obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, but that’s an elite group of pitchers to be around for an important statistic.

He’s surrendered hard hit rates of 36.1%, 36.4%, and 38.1% the last three years, so the 26.9% number is a huge improvement on what he’s done throughout his career. His BABIP is a career low .252 this year, but he’s always tended to put up low BABIP numbers; .253 in 2014, and .262 in 2013, so the effect of a decreased hard hit rate hasn’t been felt on his BABIP.

However, his HR/FB has dipped well below career norms, sitting at 6.3% (17.3% in 2014). This number seems to be directly correlated with his hard hit rate, and has been the driving factor in his success. His FB% rate of 49.8% puts him second among qualified pitchers, and without the low HR/FB, he’s not having the success he’s currently having.

Estrada’s velocity remains nearly identical to last season, with marginal changes here and there. However, his pitch usage does have a significant change. He’s reduced the use of his 4-seam by about 4%, cut out the sinker entirely, and slightly reduced the use of his change and curve. As a result, he’s mixed in a cutter consistently for the first time in his career. He’s mixed it in over 7% of the time, adding a reliable pitch to his arsenal that he hasn’t had in any year prior.

This is an important change, as it can have a number of different effects on a pitcher’s performance. He now has a pitch he can run in on the hands of a lefty and away from a righty, not so much acting as a swing and miss offering, but instead, using it as a mechanism to keep hitters off the 4-seam and as a way to miss hitter’s barrel, generating weak contact.

Introducing a new pitch also serves as another way to keep guys off balance, and Estrada himself explained this in an interview with Jeff Blair and Kevin Barker on Baseball Central, saying it was a good way to throw guys off and it’s been one of the keys to his success.

When watching him pitch, you can definitely see a guy who is constantly mixing his sequences and pitches well, and throwing all his pitches in different counts. For a guy who throws 90 mph, this is definitely important, and he’s passing the eye test in this regard. It’s tough to prove with numbers, but keeping guys off balance has a distinct effect on both hard hit rate and HR/FB.

Looking at the numbers side of the equation, the cutter hasn’t actually been a pitch that has had a lot of success on it’s own. He’s thrown the cutter 150 times, and while he hasn’t surrendered a home run with the pitch, opposing batters are hitting .375 against it, and slugging .542 against the offering. Not to say it hasn’t been effective, because it is when looking at sequencing and mixing pitches, but it’s definitely been hit hard.

The pitches making the true difference for Estrada have been his fourseam and his curve.

His change has always been his bread and butter. He gave up 10 home runs off the pitch in 2014, but he still kept batters to a strong AVG/SLG/ISO slash rate of .184/.350/.166. He’s managed to only surrender 2 home runs with the change this year, and the slash rate remains similar, yet improved, at .206/.306/.100.

With the fourseam, Estrada gave up 18 home runs and surrendered a .252/.498/.246 rate in 2014, acting as the biggest culprit of his home run issues. He’s dramatically improved that slash rate to .196/.378/.181 while giving up 9 home runs.

With the curve, he only gave up 1 home run in 2015, but hitters hit .395/.558/.163 off of it. This season, the curve has been essential for his success, giving up zero home runs with the pitch and surrendering a much improved .216/.243/.027 slash rate. That’s a dramatic change for both pitches.

According to Brooks Baseball, his curve has career high horizontal and vertical movement, showing the pitch has improved as it stands alone, but there is more to the success of the pitch than simply that.

Next: Part Three: Examining the pitch that has changed it all