Estrada is 32 years old and coming off a career-best season, but also had just ~$10 million in combined career earnings before this offseason, and would have entered the market with draft pick compensation tied to him in a rich free agent class for starting pitching.
The move feels like a win for both sides. Estrada takes something of a middle ground between the risk of accepting the qualifying offer in lieu of guaranteed years and testing the market in hopes of cashing in on his 2015 with a long-term deal. In making the decision, Estrada likely considered the recent situations of similar pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Ervin Santana who went unsigned until March after being extended a qualifying offer and ultimately chose to avoid that possibility by staying with a team that should contend for both years of his contract, while getting to throw to Russell Martin, one of the game’s best catchers and one with whom he’s already familiar.
From the Blue Jays’ perspective, they return their most consistent pitcher from 2015 to a mostly depleted rotation, and fill one of potentially three open spots with a short-term deal at a completely reasonable price, leaving room for a higher-profile pitcher to slot above Estrada.
Zooming in just on Estrada, there seems to be a perception among some that, had any team signed him to a multi-year deal, they’d be taking a risk. After all, he’s still just one year removed from a replacement-level season in Milwaukee, and for a 32-year-old, he doesn’t have much of a track record to stand on. To the Estrada naysayers, his 2015 season was a fluke, propped up by a historically low BABIP and a career-low HR/FB% that helped hide his ever-declining strikeout rate.
However, I’m not so sure that’s the case.
I mean, yeah, it wouldn’t be wise to bet on Estrada running a .216 BABIP again, but since becoming a regular in 2011, he’s suppressed production on balls in play better than any pitcher in baseball, and his four-year BABIP of .254 makes this year’s outlier figure look a bit less like an outlier. Since 2013, that number is .242. You don’t ever want to bet on someone repeating a .216 BABIP, but if you had to bet on anyone, Marco Estrada might be your guy.
Then there’s the track record. You’ve heard folks refer to him as a one-year fluke, which probably isn’t incorrect. In fact, Estrada has had a fluky season, where his year-end production stuck out from the rest. Only thing is, that year wasn’t this year. It was 2014. Consider Estrada’s yearly ERA’s as a starter since 2011:
- 2011: 3.70
- 2012: 3.76
- 2013: 3.87
- 2014: 4.96
- 2015: 3.28
It’s easy to spot the outlier, the “fluke season” if you will, and it wasn’t this most recent one. Four out of five years, Estrada’s turned in an ERA that begins with a three, and he’s done so each time pitching in extreme hitter’s parks.
This being FanGraphs and all, you might be inclined to scoff at ERA and compare it to Estrada’s FIP, finding that these last two years it’s been at an all-time high and among the worst in baseball. However, Estrada’s unique profile lends himself well to being one of those pesky guys who makes a living beating their peripherals, and while FIP is a great tool for evaluating most pitchers, no one around here is going to pretend like it’s perfect. For some guys, FIP just misses, and Estrada and his extreme pop-up inducing, high-rise fastball appears to be joining ranks of the Chris Youngs and Jered Weavers where you can essentially throw the fielding independent numbers out the window, because contact management is their game and they’re sticking to it.
And this is why the four-year decline in strikeout rate isn’t as concerning as others might be. In those first couple seasons, Estrada was striking out nearly a quarter of the batters he’s faced. The next two, that rate dropped to the low-20s. This year, it was just 18%. Would Estrada be more appealing if he were still striking out a quarter of all batters? Of course he would. But the reason we usually grow concerned with declining strikeout totals is because many pitchers live and die with the strikeout. Estrada is not one of those guys. For Estrada, the strikeouts are just a bonus.
If the declining strikeout rate gives you any pause, consider the fact that the biggest part of Estrada’s game comes from contact management, and in that area, the trend is headed in the opposite direction. The direction that’s a big plus for Estrada:
Hard contact rate allowed, by year
- 2012: 37%
- 2013: 36%
- 2014: 34%
- 2015: 27%
It’s probably not a coincidence that, as Estrada’s career progressed and he missed fewer and fewer bats, he’s also caught fewer and fewer barrels. As time’s gone on, Estrada has reinvented himself as a pitch-to-contact guy, rather than a swing-and-miss guy, and this season, he finished the year as a top-10 pitcher in generating soft contact.
It isn’t the sexiest signing in the world, but it comes with relatively low risk, and could provide great value if Estrada continues to prove that it was actually 2014 and not 2015 that was the fluke, posting an ERA in the mid-to-high 3s like he has throughout his career as a starter. The Blue Jays were going to have to go get someone like this to fill out the middle part of their rotation anyway, so why not go with the guy with whom you’ve already had success in the past? Estrada comes with one of the game’s best changeups, a penchant for soft contact and low BABIPs that are unmatched by nearly any other pitcher today, and a track record that’s better than you might expect.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.