Blue Jays 2015 Year End Awards: Best Pitcher

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In previous seasons, picking a Best Pitcher award for the Blue Jays has been akin to picking a favorite zit. Shawn Marcum should never come up in a conversation with that phrase, unless bragging about a self-imposed handicap in MLB: The Show 2010, at the head of a rotation with Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch, and Jeff Suppan. The pitching has come a long way in just a short time, and it’s no coincidence it resulted in a rise in the team’s fortune.

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In 2015, Toronto’s collective pitching staff posted a 3.80 ERA. It was the first time in seven seasons that the team had been below the American League average and the first time there has been a legit Cy Young candidate pitching for the Blue Jays since the days of Roy Halliday. Blue Jays fans could look at that day’s starting pitcher and confidently say they had a chance of winning, even when it was Drew Hutchinson on the mound.

Strangely, his name did not come up in the voting discussion for the Best Pitcher of 2015. In fact, only one name came up in the voting. It was another unanimous decision by the Jays Journal staff writers in deciding which pitcher would bring home that award, as well as a fat contract for his performance…

2015 Blue Jays Best Pitcher: Marco Estrada

No, 2015’s best pitcher was not David Price. Price did a remarkable job when he arrived from Detroit. A 9-1 record with a 2.30 ERA speaks for itself. The performance in the playoffs was a factor though. He gave up as many home runs in four games in the playoffs (4) as he did in 11 starts with the Blue Jays during the regular season. That coupled with the writing on the walls that spelled his departure from the Blue Jays in free agency didn’t leave a lasting impression in the fan’s minds either.

Instead, the nod went to a man who was not expected to be in the starting rotation at the start of the year. A man who was thought to be the other half of a salary dump. An afterthought. The best deal available for a first baseman who wanted out of town. When acquired for “malcontent” Adam Lind on November 1st, Estrada arrived as a pitcher who could throw well enough but had a major problem avoiding the long ball.

In 150.2 innings with the Brewers in 2014, Estrada gave up a league-leading 29 home runs, impressive considering he was pulled from the Brewers’ starting rotation in July. 27 home runs were allowed in three and a half months and he was heading to a park that was conductive to home runs. The math didn’t add up to success for Estrada.

Heading into Spring Training, Estrada was in a group battling for the fifth slot in the rotation behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison. He faced younger cheaper competition in Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris, as well as a rehabbing Cy Young winner in Johan Santana. In the end, Sanchez and Norris won out and Estrada headed into the bullpen. When Norris struggled to keep his pitch counts down and was sent packing, Estrada moved into the rotation as the fifth man.

Initial results following his return to starting status weren’t stellar, but they were encouraging compared to the Brewer days. The changeup that had flattened in 2014 and was getting all his other pitches battered returned to form. According to Fangraphs, Estrada’s changeup fell from being worth 12 runs above the average changeup in Pitchf/x tracking during 2013 to 5.9 in 2014, and as a result, all his other pitches were not as effective.

His changeup works so well because it looks exactly like his fastball, but when the velocity fails to drop enough, it gets hammered by batters looking for either pitch. 2015 saw the return of the peak changeup. The slowball was worth 13.2 runs above the average in 2015, and as a result, his fastball posted its first positive result in Pitchf/x in four years (6.9), and his curveball posted its best rating since 2010 (-0.4, but it’s better than -4.9 from the year before). Coupled with the fact that Estrada was working his cut fastball into the mix for the first time in four years, and all of a sudden, the Blue Jays had a pitcher who could show three different pitches to hitters with the same grip, and the shell game led to a career year.

Estrada pitched some true gems during the season, usually at the expense of the Tampa Bay Rays. In three starts, Estrada allowed two earned runs and just eight hits over 23.1 innings. The performance in the launching pad that is new Yankee Stadium on August 9th comes to mind, which allowed the Blue Jays to exert their dominance over the hated rivals. Breezing through the AAA team that the Atlanta Braves were trotting out, going eight shutout innings on 99 pitches is another. Estrada finished the season with a 13-8 record, with a 3.13 ERA (good for 5th in the American League) and a league-best 6.7 Hits allowed per nine innings.

It was in the postseason that Estrada showed just how dominant a force he had become. In regards to his performance, staff writer Jeff Goldenberg noted, “The fact that we debated Price or Estrada in the playoffs says it all.” Starting Game 3 against the Rangers, staring an embarrassing sweep in the face, Estrada turned in 6.1 innings of one run ball, holding Texas in check the entire evening. Game One against the Royals was not as successful, giving up three runs in five and a third. However, once again on the brink of the season’s end, Estrada pitched the Blue Jays to another day. He faced the minimum amount of batters over the first six innings, pitched a shutout over seven, and only a solo home run to Sal Perez could spoil the outing. The Blue Jays would lose the next game in Kansas City, but Estrada made sure that fans in Toronto would not watch the eventual champions celebrate on the RogerSkydome turf.

Next: Who was the Jays Journal 2015 Best Hitter?

At the end of the season, the player who was supposed to be an arm for a year was now a potentially devastating loss to the Blue Jays in free agency. However, the first contract signed under President Mark Shapiro was a friendly two-year deal worth $26M that will keep Estrada in blue for the foreseeable future. It gives him a prime opportunity to build on his 2015 performance, a performance that was good enough to earn a 2015 J.J. YEA over David Price.

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