Marco Estrada: AL Contact Manager of the Year

Coming into the postseason, the Blue Jays were regarded widely as the favorites to win it all. A historically great offense, a souped-up roster fueled by the trading deadline acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price… what could possibly go wrong? Well, the vagaries of postseason randomness quickly paid them a visit, and within 24 hours from the first pitch of Game 1, they had found themselves Hanser Alberto-ed within one game of extinction.

Until Marco Estrada saved them, at least temporarily. A journeyman who turned 32 this summer and who, until this year, had never even pitched enough innings in a season to qualify for an ERA title. The same guy who this season nosed out the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Sonny Gray for AL Contact Manager of the Year honors.

Estrada has taken the road less traveled to his current position. Born in Mexico, Estrada went to high school in California, where he then bounced through Glendale Community College and finally Long Beach State University. He put up numbers at Long Beach State, where he was a Saturday starter. Tons of notable team officials saw him, as his shortstop was Tulowitzki, who would go 7th overall to the Rockies in the 2005 draft. However, he wasn’t even the first Dirtbag pitcher selected that year: lefty Cesar Ramos was selected by the Padres in the sandwich round. Both Estrada, by the Nationals, and Neil Jamison, also by the Padres, followed in the 6th round. Estrada simply lacked the height (he stands 6’0″) and raw stuff to impress the MLB masses.

And for a while, it appeared that the masses were correct. Estrada’s minor league career was pretty uneventful; he logged a 29-29, 3.89 mark with a 461/178 strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratio in 532 innings, and generally wasn’t one of the younger hurlers at each successive minor league level. Each year, I compile my own ordered minor league lists of top full-season-league position player and starting pitcher prospects based on performance and age relative to league and level. These basically serve as follow lists, with the orders then tweaked based on traditional scouting methods. Estrada snuck onto my list exactly once, way down at #147 in 2007, on the strength of strong K and BB rates as a 23-year-old at High-A Potomac in the Carolina League over 11 starts. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

What he always has had is a changeup, and that pitch is what got him scooped off of waivers by the Brewers from the Nationals late in the 2010 season. He pitched parts of the next five seasons in Milwaukee, swinging back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, generally performing at around a league-average level. His one glaring Achilles heel: vulnerability to the longball, which was particularly acute in 2014, when he was dropped from the Brewer rotation late in the season, and then dealt to Toronto for Adam Lind during the offseason.

Which brings us to 2015. In typical Estrada fashion, he began the season in the Blue Jay pen, not even making his first start until May 5. He never relinquished that spot, and now he’s the guy that saved the Jays’ season. How did he get it done this year? Let’s take a detailed look at his 2015 performance by examining his plate appearance frequency and production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. First, the frequency information:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequency
Metric % REL PCT
K 18.1% 89 32
BB 7.6% 99 63
POP 6.1% 191 99
FLY 46.2% 151 96
LD 15.5% 74 1
GB 32.2% 71 4

For most pitchers, success at the major league level goes hand-in-hand with better-than-average K and BB ratios. Not for the 2015 version of Marco Estrada. His 18.1% K and 7.6% BB rates were both a bit worse than MLB average; in fact, compared to his AL ERA-qualifying peers, Estrada’s K rate was in the 32nd percentile, and his BB rate was in the 63rd percentile. Both marks were the worst of Estrada’s career, as well.

A quick glance at Estrada’s ball-in-play (BIP) frequencies indicates clearly how he gets it done. In this day of the ground-ball pitcher, Estrada is an outlier in the other direction. He had the highest pop-up rate of any AL ERA qualifier; this marked his second straight season with a 99 pop-up rate percentile rank, and his fourth straight with a mark of 96 or higher. Very high pop-up rates generally run in tandem with high fly-ball rates. Indeed, his 2015 fly-ball percentile rank of 96 marked his fifth straight season of 80 or higher. In 2014, his fly-ball rate was the highest in the AL.

Obviously, huge pop-up and fly-ball rates mean low grounder rates; his grounder rate percentile rank of 4 in 2015 marked his fifth straight season at 15 or below, and his third in the least four years of 4 or below. However, it doesn’t necessarily correlate with a low liner rate. Line drive rates fluctuate much more from season to season than those of other BIP types; it is the rare hurler who possesses a true talent with regard to line drive suppression. That said, Estrada just might possess that talent. While his 2015 liner rate of 15.5% is off-the-charts low, for a 1 percentile rank, it did mark the third straight season Estrada posted a liner percentile rank of 16 or below. Hitters really struggle to square up the baseball against him.

So that’s a pretty nice picture: tons of pop ups, very few liners… but the devil can sometimes be in the details. BIP authority is the other piece of the puzzle that must be taken into consideration, and it’s the one that has often gotten Estrada in trouble in the past. Let’s check out his production allowed by BIP type to see how Estrada fared in this regard in 2015:

Production Allowed by BIP Type
FLY 0.168 0.538 92 72
LD 0.594 0.991 89 101
GB 0.212 0.240 70 89
ALL BIP 0.251 0.450 70 74
ALL PA 0.202 0.263 0.361 73 76 3.13 2.90 4.40 3.02

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.

The first thing that jumps out about Estrada’s profile is that virtually every number in the REL PRD and ADJ PRD columns are 100 or below, meaning less than league average production. In the past, he has been hurt in the air, due to a combination of his extreme fly ball tendency and the stealthily hitter-friendly nature of his previous home park in Milwaukee. Toronto also has a hitter-friendly reputation, but that is more attributable to the fact that it is one of the few parks out of which one can legitimately send a line drive. Lazy flies can drift out of Miller Park.

Estrada’s unadjusted fly ball Contact Score of 92 is actually adjusted downward to 72 for context. Estrada took full advantage of what I call the fly ball “donut hole” between 75 and 94 mph. MLB hitters batted a lusty .605 AVG-2.189 SLG on fly balls over 100 mph this season, but a puny .041 AVG-.084 SLG in the “donut hole.” Just over 65% of all fly balls allowed by Estrada this season were in that hole, compared to the overall MLB average of 59.0%. Yes, this is the head of a pin one which an extreme fly ball pitcher like Estrada must live, but he did live quite well this season.

In addition, while Estrada doesn’t yield many grounders, the ones he does allow are hit more weakly than the MLB average. Though his .212 AVG-.240 SLG (70 Unadjusted Contact Score) is adjusted a bit upward for context, the resulting 89 Adjusted Contact Score on the ground is still quite good. On all BIP combined, his Unadjusted Contact Score of 70 was fractionally behind Gray for the AL lead, and his Adjusted Contact Score of 74 paced the AL.

Add back in the Ks and BBs, and it bumps up Estrada’s “tru” ERA slightly to 3.02, right in the same ballpark as his actual (3.13) and calculated component ERAs (2.90). FIP really blows it on Estrada. His 4.40 FIP gives him absolutely no credit for his miniscule liner rate and all of those “donut-hole” fly balls. In his particular case, ERA much more actually portrays Estrada’s true talent.

Where does Marco Estrada go from here? Well, the track record of recent thirty-something first-time ERA qualifiers is mixed. On the positive side, we have R.A. Dickey, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Colby Lewis. On the negative, Eric Stults and Jerome Williams. In between, we have Alfredo Simon and Ryan Vogelsong. While Estrada might not possess the durability of the more successful group, I would argue that he has the best BIP profile of any of those pitchers. Right on cue, Estrada hits the free agent market for the first time this offseason, and might just be one of the better bargains available if he can be had a for say, a two- or three-year deal around $7-8M per season.

Yes, Marco Estrada does live on the head of a pin. The slightest deterioration in his calculus, a mph or two off of his fastball, the slightest change in the arm speed on his changeup, could add a few mph to the exit speed of the fly balls he allows, and suddenly those cans of corns would start landing over the wall. A .000 AVG-.000 SLG becomes 1.000 AVG-4.000 SLG. Right here, right now, however, this is one pretty good, under-the-radar starting pitcher. If I’m a contender, I’d have no problem entrusting 180 innings per season to Marco Estrada over the next two or three years.

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Matt Williams
Matt Williams

Congratlations Marco. Just know that winning one year doesn’t mean job security for the next.