How Marco Estrada Is Having Success for the Toronto Blue Jays
While it may be a stretch to say that Marco Estrada saved the Blue Jays' season in their Game 5 win over the Kansas City Royals by a score of 7-1 on Wednesday night, you can certainly he is the main reason both teams are going back to KC for Game 6 on Friday night.
The Royals' lead in this best-of-seven American League Championship Seires is now 3-games-to-2 thanks mostly to Estrada, who went 7 2/3 innings and gave up just one earned run on three hits with five strikeouts and one walk. And that's coming off a regular season in which he went 13-8 with a 3.13 ERA in 181.0 innings. American League hitters batted just .202 against him, the lowest mark in the AL.
Estrada's season was a weird one, and it's continued into the postseason. He allowed a ridiculously low batting average on balls in play this year (.216 BABIP), far lower than the next closest pitcher, the Angels' Hector Santiago (.252). And his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.40 indicates he got lucky quite a bit in 2015.
And there's probably some truth to that. A .216 BABIP is extraordinarily low, much lower than the .257 and .262 BABIP he posted for the Milwaukee Brewers the last two seasons. It should also be noted, Estrada was a pretty terrible pitcher for the Brewers last year, with a 4.36 ERA in 39 games (18 starts), a 4.88 FIP and an fWAR of -0.1.
Yet now, Toronto manager John Gibbons is selecting Estrada to start Game 1 of the ALCS against the Royals over former Cy Young winner (and potential 2015 winner) David Price, cats and dogs are living together, and there is mass hysteria. And he just turned in a performance for the ages in Game 5.
How is Estrada doing this? After all, he does not have overpowering stuff.
According to Fangraphs, Estrada averaged just 89.3 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball this year, 33rd-highest out of 36 qualified American League starters. That's even down a couple miles per hour from when he pitched in Milwaukee, yet he still threw the pitch nearly 61% of the time this year. He also did not have a high strikeout rate this season, just 6.51 batters per nine, a career low. And he was about middle of the pack when it came to issuing bases on balls (1.19 per nine innings).
He was essentially a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his changeup 28% of the time, with his curveball being used 11% of the time. And you want to talk about living dangerously? Estrada was second among AL starters in fly ball percentage, giving up a fly ball in 52.3% of his plate appearances, second-most in the American League.
That's a tough way to play when you pitch in homer-happy Rogers Centre.
But when you look at Pitch Value and Movement data, you get an understanding why the guy has been so effective this year.
According to Fangraphs, Estrada saved 8.8 runs for his team over the course of the season with his fastball. The only American League pitchers who saved more runs with their four-seamer were David Price (19.4), Sonny Gray (16.8), Dallas Keuchel (15.5), and Scott Kazmir (9.5). And if you look at it on a per-100 pitch basis, he saved 0.58 runs per 100 pitches, fifth-best on the AL. Price, Gray, Keuchel and Jake Odorizzi were the only ones better.
His changeup was even better. He saved 13.0 runs over the course of the season with that pitch, second-best in the American League behind only Danny Salazar. And on a per-100 pitch basis he was fourth-best (1.59), behind Salazar, Erasmo Ramirez and Kyle Gibson.
Why were these pitches so effective? Vertical movement.
Again, according to Fangraphs, Estrada's fastball had a vertical drop of 12.0 inches, best among all qualified American League starting pitchers, and his changeup dropped 15.6 inches, once again, the best in the American League this year.
Hitters just could not get comfortable against either pitch, consistently hitting under or on top of the ball, resulting in a line drive rate of 15.5% that was the lowest in the American League. Estrada was tied for fourth in the AL in the number of softly-hit balls against him, (21.4%), and many of those softly-hit balls were grounders, with an average exit velocity at 84.82 miles per hour. That ranked the 27th slowest out of 161 MLB pitchers with at least 190 at-bats.
So, Estrada generated a lot of lazy fly balls and slowly hit grounders, which is why his opponents' batting average against and BABIP were so low.
And it's also why he was so darn good this year.