Following a strong finish to the 2013 season–his first as a full-time starting pitcher in the majors–the Brewers are expecting an even-better campaign from the pitcher penciled into either the fourth or fifth slot in the rotation. He struggled in keeping the ball in the park at times and when teams scored on him, they seemed to score on him in bunches. Despite this, his development over the course of the season was praised.
And even though all of that may ring true for Wily Peralta, I’m talking about Marco Estrada.
A quick glance at Estrada’s 2013 splits shows that, at surface level, they match the sentiment of “Oh yeah, Marco Estrada exists” that baseball fans both in and out of the Milwaukee market seem to have surrounding the 30-year-old right hander: 21 starts, 7-4 record, 3.87 ERA, 1.078 WHIP, 128 innings. In that, you have a high-end fourth starter/lower-tier third starter, right?
Estrada, more than any other starter on the Brewers roster, is a high strikeout-low walk pitcher–a breed that is becoming more and more uncommon in a league focusing more and more on OBP and just “getting on base”. It’s because of this that it’s completely possible he could become a high-end third starter or better in 2014.
In 2013, the league average BB/9 for pitchers was 3.02. The K/9 was an all-time high of 7.57, the sixth straight year the record has been broken. Estrada strikes batters out without giving up walks at an uncommon rate that puts him in the same category as the best pitchers in baseball. Below are the five pitchers that have a K/9 greater than 8.8 and BB/9 less (minimum 250 innings) over the past two seasons.
The trouble that Estrada runs into isn’t hidden: his fastball barely touches 90 mph, he gives up a lot of homers, and pitches in a homer-friendly park. In 2013, the majority of his poor starts came at home and, for this reason, his home/road splits draw your attention–and not for good reasons. Against 222 batters faced at Miller Park, he gave up 14 home runs, a 6.3 percent HR% and 2.50 HR/9; on the road, it was a completely different Marco, as 5 of 290 (1.7 percent) of hitters took him deep, for a below league-average HR/9 of 0.58. Because of his tendency to give up home runs at home, he had a FIP of 5.39 at Miller Park compared to a 2.87 mark when pitching on the road.
Despite the large run differential between home and road, Estrada didn’t actually pitch significantly worse at home. His K% was 23.9 and BB% was 5.4 at home, compared to 22.4 and 5.9 on the road. His home runs allowed were significantly higher at home, but he wasn’t at all helped out by luck, exampled by the .348 BABIP and 21.5 HR/FB (compared to his career mark of 10.3).
FIP, in a far better context than standard ERA, assesses a pitcher’s performance using the things he can control: walks, hit by pitches, strikeouts, and home runs. It serves as a much more reliable predictor of a pitcher’s future performance than ERA. In three of these categories, Estrada excelled, but what hurt his value was the long ball.
The optimistic approach to predicting Estrada’s performance is taken through buying into xFIP. Like FIP, it takes into account what a pitcher can control. It is calculated in the exact same way, except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with the league average expectancy for how many home runs he should have given up.
Disregarding his high home run numbers at home and focusing on his higher strikeout totals and smaller BB%, Estrada’s 3.54 xFIP at home last season bests his 3.68 road xFIP. If you buy into the belief that his high home run rates were a strong deviation what to expect, then there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about Estrada. Strikeouts and walks are typically things about a pitcher that don’t fluctuate too much from year-to-year because they’re the two most controllable parts of pitching. Estrada, as we saw in the chart, is elite in these regards. He’s not an upper-tier starter yet, but I’m cautiously optimistic enough to say that he’s close.
In the second half last season, Estrada started putting everything together. His K% went up and his BB% and HR% went down–three signs that he is ready to emerge as a reliable, season-long option for the Brewers. Not only does he have the chance to be one of the most improved pitchers in 2014, but he also could finish with one of the best changeups in all of baseball.
Last season, according to Fangraphs, Estrada’s change was the sixth-most valuable in baseball, being worth 13.1 runs. It’s a good one and the key to his success. Take a look at the whiffs/swing on his change from last season, per Brooks Baseball.
Take a look at the bottom of the zone. Even on changeups in the zone at the bottom third had whiff percentages well above league average for pitches out of the zone.
In September–Estrada’s best month–he increased his changeup usage and his whiff percentages were the highest of any month for all his pitches combined. The majority of swings on changeups came on pitches down in the zone, which is just what he wants. Only 0.6 percent of the changeups he threw left the park. 22.77 % were whiffs and only 22.57% were put into play, of which nearly 10% were ground balls.
Where Estrada ran into trouble last season was with his fastball. If he can cut down on the 14 home runs and 12.96 HR/(FB+LD) on his fastball, who knows how good Estrada can be?