Milwaukee, It's Time to Move on from Marco Estrada

Marco Estrada is having a disastrous season. It's time to replace him in the Brewers' rotation.

In 2013, Marco Estrada made 21 starts over 128 innings pitched. His earned run average (ERA) was a decent 3.87, and he won seven games for the Brewers. His 8.30 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (K/9) and his 4.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) were solid for a fourth starter, and he actually led Brewers’ starters in both categories last season.

With the addition of Matt Garza to the rotation for the 2014 season, the Brewers’ must have felt confident with Estrada as their number five hurler for the season. But after 89.2 innings pitched by Estrada this year, the confidence that the Brewers had in him may no longer exist. And it could be time for a replacement.

Waning Confidence

Estrada has the fourth-worst ERA in baseball at 5.22, and to make matters worse, his fielding independent pitching (FIP) is the worst in all of baseball – by over half a point – at 5.77. So what’s happened differently this year compared to his 2013 season? While some of his numbers are relatively the same as last year - he’s still striking guys out at a decent clip at 8.13 K/9 and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is actually a bit lower so he’s not getting unlucky - where he’s getting into the most trouble is giving up the long ball.

Estrada has already given up 24 home runs this season, which is the most in seven. This can be attributed to a decreased ground-ball percentage (GB%) and increased fly-ball percentage (FB%) from this year to last. His GB% has gone from 37.6% last season to 34% this year, while his FB% has gone up from 44.3% to 49.6%, which is the second-highest in baseball. Conversely, this has made his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) jump from just under 12% in 2013 to 18.5% this year, which, again, is second-worst in baseball. In most cases, a pitcher who gives up lots of fly balls is likely to also give up lots of home runs, and in Estrada’s case, this proves to be true.

Along with giving up a ton of home runs, Estrada has struggled with his control. To date, he has just one less walk this season than he allowed in all of 2013, and he’s pitched 38.8 fewer innings. He’s also averaging about a pitch and a half more per inning this year compared to last, and hitters are taking advantage of this (lack of) control. The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) for Estrada is down from 29.7% to 28.5% from 2013 to 2014, as is the total percentage of pitches a batter swings at (Swing%), from 47.2% to 44.9%. Long story short, batters are being more patient with Estrada this year, and when they do swing at one of his offerings, it tends to go a long way.

What Should the Brewers Do?

The Brewers currently have the best record in the National League (check out where they stand in our power rankings), and have a 4.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the division lead in the NL Central. If they didn’t have anything to play for this year, continuing to throw Estrada out there every fifth day would be easy to live with. Since they’re in contention though, handing the ball to arguably the worst pitcher in baseball every fifth day becomes a tougher pill to swallow.

Estrada is pitching for the Brewers tonight against the Washington Nationals, and he may have a good start - the Nats haven’t scored more than four runs in six straight games - but one good outing isn’t enough to keep him in the Brewers’ rotation. It’s time to call-up Jimmy Nelson.

Nelson made a spot start for the Brewers on May 25th this season against the Miami Marlins, replacing Yovani Gallardo who injured his ankle. He threw 5.2 innings, giving up five hits, no runs, three walks, all while striking out six. It was a solid performance, and good enough to earn him his first major league win.

He was sent back down to AAA after his start, and has been pitching well there ever since. In 90.1 innings in AAA this season, Nelson has 96 strikeouts to 27 walks with a sparkling 1.79 ERA. Nelson’s strikeout percentage (K%) is 27.0%, which is best in the Pacific Coast League for pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched. His walks plus hits divided by innings pitched or WHIP, is 0.95 and unlike Estrada, he’s not giving up the long ball (only three in his 90.1 IP). He’s dominating at AAA and he pitched well in the majors against a strong offensive team in the Marlins. Time for him to take over for Estrada.

Based on Estrada’s numbers in 2012 and 2013, he should be capable of being a back of the rotation starter in the majors. His ERA was 3.64 in 2012 and 3.87 last year, with a lower FIP than ERA in both seasons, and he showed the ability to strike hitters out while putting up low walk totals. Maybe the Brewers are looking at his 266.1 innings pitched over these two seasons and not his 89.2 IP this year when considering keeping him as a starter.

I generally always agree that examining a larger data sample is the way to go when evaluating talent, but Estrada’s numbers are so far in the negative extreme this season that his past performance should probably be ignored. The argument can be made that he’s not hurting the Brewers since they have the best record in the NL, but looking at his wins above replacement (fWAR), his rating of -0.8 actually is hurting them, and will only continue to do so if he stays in the rotation. Maybe the Brewers offense is good enough to help mask Estrada’s inefficiencies for the time being - they have scored 49 runs in his 6 wins this year - but they can’t be relied on to bail him out every time he’s on the mound.

Call up Nelson and move on from Estrada before he breaks Bert Blyleven’s record for most home runs given up in a season (50).