Marco Estrada: Avoiding the Home Run

3 of 3

Aug 4, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada (25) knuckles with acting manager DeMarlo Hale (16) as he prepares to leave the game against Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning at Rogers Centre. Estrada was the winning pitcher in a 3-1 win for the Jays. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Estrada’s fastball usage, location wise, has dramatically changed. It’s often preached by coaches, broadcasters, players themselves, etc., that it’s essential to get the ball down in the zone, and to locate your fastball in the lower regions of the strike zone in order to have success. But for Estrada, it’s been the very opposite.

Above are two zone profile charts acquired from Brooks Baseball. They both show Estrada’s fourseam fastball usage from the catcher’s perspective. The one on the left is from 2015, the one on the right from 2014.

As you can see, the 2015 chart shows a clear difference, Estrada has consistently used his fastball in the upper regions of the zone far more often this year, and he’s reduced his reliance on the bottom of the zone. And 2014 isn’t an anomaly; Estrada’s zone profile for his fastball in his effective years in 2012 and 2013 look far more like his 2014 chart than his 2015 one.

This isn’t a case of luck, where 2014 was unlucky and this season is lucky in regards to the home run ball. He’s clearly made an adjustment, whether it was directed so by the coaching staff, whoever is receiving him, or himself, it’s had terrific effects on his ability to induce weak contact. He’s learned how, at the age of 32, to use his 90 mph fastball effectively in the upper regions of the zone and above the zone. This usage is amplified with two strikes, as shown below.

These charts show fastball usage when Estrada has two strikes on opposing batters, with 2015 once again on the left. As you can see, his 2014 usage suggests he used the fastball up in the zone with two strikes, but would still mix it in other regions of the zone. In 2015, the fastball has almost exclusively been used in the top three rows of the chart.

Using his last start against the Yankees as an example, we saw him do this multiple times. He struckout Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez with high fastballs, and he got weak/lazy flyballs in these situations from a number of other players.

These two charts show the slugging percentages opposing hitters have had against Estrada’s fastball in the various zones. The 2015 chart on the left has generally less red/purple as is, but the top of the chart is where I place my focus. Outside of the zone where hitters are slugging .900 in the 2015 chart, he’s had pretty good success with the fastball in the upper three rows of the chart. He’s actually been hit hardest in the lowest portion of the strike zone, according to this chart.

The success of the fastball up in the zone has made the rest of his pitches better, and made his sequencing more diverse. A successful sequence relies on fastball location, without it, pitchers will have a difficult time mixing different pitches in a variety of counts. This is something we’ve seen with Hutchison this year, when his fastball location isn’t there, the success of his slider and change go down the drain. The success Estrada has had with his fastball, due to the adjustment he’s made in terms of location, has made him a entirely different, better pitcher.

In order to further examine the effectiveness of his fastball usage up in the zone to combat the home run, the next two charts show hitters ISO in different regions.

Isolated power is a statistic used to measure a hitter’s ability to hit for extra bases, so using it here when we’re examining Estrada’s ability to keep the ball in the yard is very important. As you can see in the 2015 chart on the left, the same three spots that are red in his slugging zone portfolio, are also red here. But outside of those three zones, he’s doing a good job avoiding the extra bases, especially in the upper regions of the chart.

What can we take away from all of this?

Clearly, he’s made an adjustment with his fastball, and the success is evident. For many pitchers, going up in the zone generally means they’re going for the strikeout, for Estrada, it means generating weak contact in the air. He doesn’t have the velocity to get a lot of swing and misses with the fastball, but if locates and sequences well with it up in the zone it can be effective and make the rest of his pitches stronger.

The heavy use of fastball high in the zone coincides with the career low GB% and career high FB%, which like I said, isn’t typically a recipe for success, but it has been for Estrada because he’s inducing weak contact.

The increase in weak contact has made the fourseam more successful this year, but the fact he’s attacking hitters in a way he never has before has opened the opportunity for his changeup and curve to become better offerings. By using his fastball to attack hitters up in the zone, he’s been able to sequence hitters in a variety of ways. In doing so, he’s set up hitters like he never has, this keeps hitters off balance, which generates weak contact more often with all pitches. It’s these type of adjustments that big league players need to make to stay effective for a long time.

I never watched him enough while he was with the Brewers to be able to pinpoint the problem causing his home run issues, but the addition of the cutter and the adjustment with the fastball usage are two things he never did in Milwaukee. In order to have a sky high HR/9 like he did in 2014 (2.27 HR/9 as a starter), he either made far too many mistake pitches without having the stuff to get away with it, or he fell into a pattern, making it easy for hitters to guess what’s coming.

The BB/9 is in the same ballpark, suggesting his control and command of pitches hasn’t changed to a high degree, and his stuff hasn’t gotten any better, but instead it’s these adjustments he’s made that have allowed him to limit home runs, and that has essentially saved the Blue Jays staff.

One may point to his xFIP of 4.67 as a starter and say this is simply a period of unsustainable luck. That xFIP of 4.67 is actually higher than his 2014 xFIP of 4.25, yet his repertoire is different, his tactical approach towards hitters is different, his sequencing is different, the type of contact he’s generating is much different. xFIP assumes the pitcher has a league average HR/FB mark; however, the 2014 Marco Estrada didn’t seemingly have a chance of lowering to that league average mark, while the 2015 Marco Estrada, due to the adjustments he’s made, has a distinct shot at staying below it.

Controlling the flyball, and controlling balls in play is a skill. Yes, there is obviously a portion of luck involved that will effect stats like HR/FB and BABIP in either direction, but assuming those marks will automatically get closer to league average is underselling a pitcher’s ability to control contact. The adjustments Estrada has made has allowed him to control the type of contact he gives up to a greater degree, and that’s why I look at his xFIP with a grain of salt.

I do believe some regression is in order however, but regression towards his FIP of 3.78 is more likely than the 4.67 xFIP.

Estrada has made the necessary adjustments needed in order to make him a viable big league starter. These adjustments allowed him to succeed, and arguably put the Blue Jays rotation in a position strong enough to go out and acquire the pieces they needed to make a legitimate playoff run. Tons of credit to Estrada, but also to those who found a way for him to be a better pitcher, and to the two men calling the game for him.