Marco Estrada on Spin, Speed Differential, and Simplicity

Marco Estrada is notable in several respects. The 32-year-old Blue Jays right-hander has elite spin rate and perceived rise on his four-seam fastball. He also has a bugs-bunny changeup; last year, the speed differential between his heater and his change was the most extreme among qualified pitchers. His BABIP is routinely well below average.

He’s also coming off a career-best season. Estrada made 28 starts for Toronto in 2015 and logged a 3.13 ERA. If the W-L column interests you, he finished 13-8.

The erstwhile National and Brewer has made a pair of starts so far this season, both against the Red Sox. He discussed his signature offerings, and his keep-it-simple approach, following the second of the two outings.


Estrada on emerging as a front-line starter: “I added a pitch — I added a cutter — and I think that’s helped me out a lot. My mindset has completely changed. But… I get that all the time. People act like I’ve never done this before. If you look back to 2011, 2012, 2013, those were good seasons. Everybody seems to remember 2014, which was my worst season. Then I followed that up with my best season.”

On his cutter: “In years past, when I didn’t have a cutter, I’d fall behind and throw a 3-0 or 3-1 88-mph fastball and get crushed. Now I can fall behind — not that I want to fall behind — and don’t have to throw a four-seam fastball. I can go with something that looks just like it, but has some movement. I can get some swings and misses, or some ground balls or pop ups.”

On elevating his four-seam fastball: “Yesterday I had trouble elevating the ball for some reason. When [Xander] Bogaerts hit the home run, I was trying to elevate — the pitch was also supposed to be in — and it ended up being center cut. I left it middle-middle.

“I’ve heard about my spin rate, but I don’t know why it is that way. I just know that I need to elevate. It’s a big part of my game. I’ve learned that working down isn’t me. Back in the day, I used to think that way. It was, ‘You’ve gotta work down, you’ve gotta work down.’ Then I started to elevate a little bit here and there. The next think I know, I’m telling myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to pitch up.’

“You can’t go thigh to belt. That’s the danger zone. You have to go above the belly button to the letters. That’s the safe zone. If you go above that, no one is ever going to swing.”

On velocity and command: “When I was with Washington, in the minors, they would tell me, ‘Speed doesn’t matter; we’re not going to have radar guns out there.’ I said, ‘Awesome.’ So I’d sit at 90 and just try to locate. I was getting outs, but then they got mad at me, because they knew I had more in the tank. I’m like, ‘Wait. I thought you guys didn’t care about velocity. I’m getting outs, so what does it matter?’

“In college, I used to look up at the radar all the time. I tried to throw harder, and all that stuff. When I first signed, that wasn’t working. I was overthrowing and not hitting my spots, and I got hit around a little bit. I remember telling myself to slow it down a little, to concentrate on locating.

“I’ve never thrown a two-seamer. I want to keep everything spinning the same way and looking like a four-seam. The spin on my curveball is four-seam, and the four-seam [fastball] obviously spins up and down. My changeup is basically the same thing.”

On his changeup: “I don’t really read into [the speed differential] too much. It is what it is, I guess. It wasn’t good yesterday, though. I had trouble just holding onto the ball, maybe because it was cold. Balls get like that at times. It felt like a cue ball to me.

“Normally, my changeup comes out at the same point as my high fastball, then goes down at some point. At least that’s what I think. I’ve never really talked to a hitter who has faced me before. I probably should. After live BP, they’ve told me, ‘Your changeup is nasty,’ but that’s about all the feedback I’ve gotten. I don’t ask. I should ask.

“The grip is just a normal four-seam circle. There’s nothing unique about it. People ask me all the time how I hold it, and the thought process behind it, and when I tell them they look at me like, ‘That’s it?’ I don’t know what else to tell you. I grip the pitch, I throw it, and try to keep it down. I think it’s probably the arm speed [that makes it good].

“The changeup didn’t come into play for me until my first full season of pro ball. I had a changeup in college, but I threw maybe one a game. It sucked; it wasn’t very good. Once I got into pro ball and got hit around a little bit, I asked one of the guys — Clint Everts, who had a really good changeup — if he could show me his grip. He did, and I used it in the very next game I pitched in. I’m still using that same grip.”

On his mindset: “When I go out there, I’m not thinking about anything. Basically, I like to see which pitch is called and be committed to it. I never shake off. That’s something I picked up from [Mark] Buehrle. I asked him what his thought process was behind that. He told me, ‘Listen, if I hit the glove, it doesn’t matter what pitch it is. ’ I told myself, ‘Well shoot, maybe I should try that.’

“That’s part of the mindset that has changed for me — going out there with a clear head, seeing the glove, and trying to hit it. That makes this game… not that it’s easy — it’s a really hard game — but it makes it just a little bit easier if you’re not worrying about anything. You don’t want to think, ‘This guy is really good on changeups, so maybe I shouldn’t throw any changeups.’ No. Go out there and make your pitch.

“I trust my catcher. If I’m struggling with a certain pitch, I might tell him we could maybe lay off it a little bit. Other than that, I’ll just compliment him. If I like a pitch sequence he called, I’ll let him know, ‘Hey, that was awesome; it’s exactly what I wanted to do.’ If it’s not, I try to convince myself that it’s the right pitch, and I have to execute it. Like I said, as simple as possible.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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I’ve never really talked to a hitter who has faced me before. I probably should. After live BP, they’ve told me, ‘Your changeup is nasty,’ but that’s about all the feedback I’ve gotten. I don’t ask. I should ask.

.This is kind of amazing. I mean, I understand that guys can be successful without thinking about what the guy on the other end of the pitch is thinking — there’s the story recounted by Halberstam in “Summer of 49” in which a young Ted Williams, muttering to himself after striking out, is overheard by a Red Sox reliever in the Fenway bullpen who asked him what Williams thought a pitcher facing him would do — which came as something of a revelation to the rookie Splinter.

So I get it. But the point of that story was that it was that kind of revelation that made Ted Williams into the hitter he became. And sure, it doesn’t work with everybody: overthinking is a thing. But really, it’s kind of amazing someone can operate at the highest level without really knowing what the guys at the other end of the process are seeing. You know, Mr. Estrada, you do have some pretty good major league hitters on your own team. You might just ask them.