If Marco Estrada starts 31 games after 2012, he will sit among rare company in the last decade of MLB pitchers. A lot of Brewers fans question Estrada’s expected production in 2012, and with good reason: first and foremost, very few MLB pitchers are successful swingmen, and then successful starters; even moreso, very few MLB pitchers break 100 IP for the first time during their age 28 season. In fact, if my math and eyes are correct, in the last decade, only ten MLB pitchers worked their first 100+ IP season at age 28. Of those 10 pitchers, only two boast more than 30 GS after their age 28, 100+ IP season.
We sure could spin a web of stories with R.A. Dickey, Alfredo Aceves, Jeremy Guthrie, Phil Coke, Tony Pena, D.J. Carrassco, Cha-Seung Baek, Philip Humber, Chris Narveson, and of course, Marco Estrada. These are the guys that stand at the fringes of MLB rotations, they’re the swingmen, they’re the guys that go from organization to organization, trying to find success. Sometimes, the success stories happen — Dickey is a one-of-a-kind pitcher if there ever was one, Guthrie and Humber are arguably examples of successful starters out of this group, and one could argue that Narveson might have been on his way to improvement after working a couple of seasons in the big league rotation. Marco Estrada, the 2012 Brewers’ pocket ace, is different from all of these guys.
Before age 28 (3 yrs): 59 G, 5 GS, 126 IP, 87 K/30 BB/15 HR; 142 ERA+
During age 28 (2011): 55 G, 4 GS, 114 IP, 80 K/42 BB/8 HR; 165 ERA+
After age 28 (1 yr): 69 G, 0 GS, 84 IP, 75 K/31 BB/11 HR; 81 ERA+
Before age 28 (3 yrs): 158 G, 1 GS, 139.3 IP, 116 K/48 BB/12 HR; 118 ERA+
During age 28 (2011): 48 G, 14 GS, 108.7 IP, 69 K/40 BB/5 HR; 93 ERA+
After age 28 (1 yr): 66 G, 0 GS, 54 IP, 51 K/18 BB/5 HR; 106 ERA+
Before age 28 (4 yrs): 244 G, 67 GS, 258.7 IP, 191 K/76 BB/26 HR; 116 ERA+
During age 28 (2010): 52 G, 3 GS, 100.7 IP, 56 K/45 BB/10 HR; 84 ERA+
After age 28 (1 yr): 17 G, 0 GS, 20.3 IP, 17 K/10 BB/2 HR; 71 ERA+
Before age 28 (4 yrs*): 26 G, 5 GS, 56.3 IP, 58 K/21 BB/8 HR; 106 ERA+
During age 28 (2010): 37 G, 28 GS, 167.7 IP, 137 K/59 BB/21 HR; 81 ERA+
After age 28 (2 yrs): 32 G, 30 GS, 170.7 IP, 131 K/69 BB/19 HR; 86 ERA+
Before age 28 (2 yrs): 80 G, 2 GS, 115.7 IP, 79 K/55 BB/13 HR; 101 ERA+
During age 28 (2005): 21 G, 20 GS, 114.7 IP, 49 K/51 BB/11 HR; 92 ERA+
After age 28 (5 yrs*): 189 G, 2 GS, 263.3 IP, 187 K/93 BB/21 HR; 102 ERA+
Before age 28 (3 yrs*): 27 G, 23 GS, 138.7 IP, 92 K/38 BB/17 HR; 91 ERA+
During age 28 (2008): 32 G, 21 GS, 141 IP, 92 K/43 BB/18 HR; 81 ERA+
After age 28 (0 yrs): DNP
Before age 28 (5 yrs): 26 G, 2 GS, 51.3 IP, 35 K/24 BB/7 HR; 83 ERA+
During age 28 (2011): 28 G, 26 GS, 163 IP, 116 K/41 BB/14 HR; 116 ERA+
After age 28 (1 yr): 26 G, 16 GS, 102 IP, 85 K/44 BB/23 HR; 68 ER+
Before age 28 (4 yrs): 65 G, 9 GS, 124 IP, 120 K/44 BB/19 HR; 80 ERA+
During age 28 (2012): 29 G, 23 GS, 138.3 IP, 143 K/29 BB/18 HR; 113 ERA+
After age 28 (???)
Before age 28 (3 yrs): 16 G, 1 GS, 37 IP, 24 K/23 BB/5 HR; 74 ERA+
During age 28 (2007): 32 G, 26 GS, 175.3 IP, 123 K/47 BB/23 HR; 125 ERA+
After age 28 (5 yrs): 162 G, 156 GS, 989.7 IP, 580 L/284 BB/140 HR; 101 ERA+
Before age 28 (1 yr*): 4 G, 0 GS, 12 IP, 4 K/7 BB/3 HR; 71 ERA+
During age 28 (2003): 38 G, 13 GS, 116.7 IP, 94 K/38 BB/16 HR; 99 ERA+
After age 28 (8 yrs): 196 G, 126 GS, 930.7 IP, 641 K/282 BB/105 HR; 107 ERA+
There was this feeling of anticipation, every time I listened to an Estrada start this year, that he was destined for better things. I can’t explain it; surely, there are better pitchers on the Brewers’ staff. Look at Yovani Gallardo, the franchise starter and one of the most consistent in the Senior Circuit. Gallardo is my favorite pitcher, but I don’t feel this true sense of anticipation when he works — I know Gallardo’s exhaustive, stubborn, and successful style, not giving in to batters, insisting on his pitch, and of course, working consistently better-than-average seasons for the better part of four years. No, this Estrada feeling was one of potential — a feeling that we had yet to see his best. Something like the electricity of a Zack Greinke start; surely, I’m not saying Estrada is better than Greinke, but I am saying that the feeling when they start is the same: there’s this sense that we’ve yet to see the best from either starter.
It clicked. After a few starts where Estrada would roll along, only making mistakes here and there, the Brewers’ unassuming righty stepped right in after the Brewers traded Greinke to the Angels. In fact, it’s almost fitting to link these starters together, for after Greinke left, Estrada went on a hot streak for the ages. Armed with an apparent mechanical adjustment, Estrada went on a near-60 IP stretch from the end of July through mid-September, allowing 20 runs. On Tuesday I linked Fiers’s rough stretch to a series of 10 starts in which he switched his pitch selection resulting in a somewhat different release point; 10 is the magic number for Estrada’s 2012, too. In 10 starts from July 30 through September 19, the Brewers’ pocket ace worked 58.7 IP, striking out 54, walking 12, and allowing two homers. Dominance, working all three pitches: fastball, curveball, change up. POUNDING the strike zone with more than 64% strikes for each pitch selection.
One of a Kind
This stretch leads to a rare feat for Estrada. Of the starters that first cracked 100+ IP in their age 28 season, Estrada is the only one to strike out more batters than innings pitched; he’s the only one to walk fewer than 30 batters; he’s one of only four to pitch above average seasons in his first 100 IP season (Humber, Aceves, and Guthrie were the other three above average starters from this small, bizarre group; Dickey was just about average, so toss him in there if you like, too).
You might be shaking your head about this; surely, this group of starting pitchers does not instill confidence that there is a general rule about these pitchers succeeding. In fact, we’d probably be inclined to look at the data and argue that there’s no way Estrada is going to continue his improvement into 2013. But that’s defeatist, and here’s why: Estrada remains one of the best starters in this group, and he is certainly an outlier with his strikeout and walk performance. While most other pitchers in this group hung around in bullpen or swingmen roles, few remained in the rotation, and for good reason: hardly any of these pitchers maintained 2:1 K:BB ratios, let alone ratios near 5:1; even during his swingman campaign and previous seasons, Estrada maintained a strong strike out and walk performance.
If one is inclined to argue that Estrada’s 2012 season is an outlier, well, his earlier peripheral performance remains stronger than other pitchers in this group. Of course, this whole gang of starters are outliers, so this doesn’t necessarily give us a case that Estrada is a slam dunk to succeed in 2013. However, it does allow us the opportunity to argue with even more evidence that Estrada is quite a rare pitcher. In 2011, he was that rare pitcher that serves as a quality swingman; in 2012, he grabbed an open rotation spot and pitched a great, if rare, season at age 28.
Estrada did not get his start in his mid-20s, with great workloads and opportunities, and this fact largely determined the course he took from the Nationals to the Brewers organization. You don’t usually get to make your first 100+ IP season at age 28 because your first organization believes in you; and it’s amazing just how many starters, good and bad, get their first real chance to prove themselves in their mid-20s (even if it’s not their first organization). Starters ranging from Sidney Ponson or Jason Marquis to Wandy Rodriguez and John Lackey start working in their early-to-mid-20s, amassing 100+ IP seasons from then on. Estrada falls outside of this typical group of starting pitchers, but that doesn’t mean we should pile arguments against his chances of success in 2013.
Now, I’m just going to pile it on. Here goes: I think we, as Brewers fans, should jump on the bandwagon of Estrada’s 10 start stretch from July 30 through September 19. That performance, from an apparent mechanical adjustment after his injury, showed flashes of brilliance. Even when we look beyond those 10 starts, and consider his other 183.7 IP in Milwaukee, we find a pitcher with a 190 K/52 BB/29 HR record (and 100 runs allowed). Those 100 runs don’t look excellent, but they also represent approximately 11 more runs allowed than one might have expected Estrada to allow. Given that record, even in his less than average games in Milwaukee, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Estrada put it together and dominated at the end of 2012. If Estrada’s first 100 IP season was something out of the ordinary, if his previous seasons’ peripheral performance was out of the ordinary, if he thrived at the chance to work for an open spot in the rotation; I think Estrada deserves our benefit of the doubt. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to see a pocket ace hiding in the middle of the Brewers’ rotation?
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
IMAGE: Jeff Curry, Getty Images: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/fCa9UM_TAhP/Milwaukee+Brewers+v+St+Louis+Cardinals/r5vSRtUaeQY/Marco+Estrada