I’m going to go ahead and start by introducing myself to the Disciples of Uecker audience, for all those readers out there who are unfamiliar with the name under the post headline. I’ve been a writer at Brew Crew Ball for a a bit more than 2 years (here’s my post archive over there). I actually started writing there to collect community projections in a joint project with Jack before the 2009 season. I’m a UW-Madison Economics and History double major, and I’ll be a sophomore there in the fall. My SBNation blog linked above should be a pretty good indicator of what I’ll bring to the table here– saber stats-based analysis, but not too math-heavy because that’s not my strongest suit. I’m also interested in pitch f/x analysis. If you have a burning desire to follow me on Twitter, here you go. I’ll be posting my thoughts on here on a pretty regular basis, and you may be seeing some other new names around here soon as well.
Enough about me, though. Often my baseball writing is just an explanation of an investigation into something that interests me, and today that something interesting is Marco Estrada. He’s thrown 32 innings with a 3.94 ERA and a 3.44 FIP, and it’s mid-May and he’s already been an effective fill-in starter and trusted setup man. It’s fairly clear we haven’t uncovered a future ace here, but I wanted to look back at his past and see if there’s anything to give us a hint about what the future holds for this guy.
The oldest scouting report I could find comes from the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, 2008:
…he came on strong in Hawaii Winter Baseball, where he was the No. 10 prospect. Estrada’s best pitch is an above-average curveball that he uses to put hitters away, and he has good feel for a changeup. His fastball is underwhelming, sitting at 88-90 mph and occasionally bumping 92 when he needs it. He needs to cut down on his walks. With a slight build, Estrada will never dominate, but he could be a No. 4 starter in the majors.
Estrada’s numbers throughout the minors were quite good, and you get the impression that if he threw a few miles per hour harder and struck out maybe 1 more man per 9 innings he would have been one of the Nationals top prospects. His walk rate went down through his progression through the minors, from 4 per 9 down the 3 and then 2 in his time in AAA. The strikeout rate fell throughout the minors as well, from 9 per 9 down the 7 per 9 range. Between 2008 and 2009, he threw about 200 innings at the Nationals AAA affiliate, posting a 3.40 FIP with an ERA to match in his age 25 and age 26 seasons. Estrada’s downfall in Washington was getting blown up in his limited time in the majors: in 20 innings over 2 seasons his ERA was over 7. You’d think he’d have been given a longer leash and more than 1 start with the big club (in which he gave up 5 runs in 2 1/3 innings), but he was quickly considered expendable to that organization, which didn’t exactly have much starting pitching depth at the time.
Doug Melvin added Estrada as a backup plan before the 2010 season. He threw about as well as could be expected in 40 innings at AAA, but was ineffective in a brief appearance in the majors. Same old story. I don’t need to refresh you on the story this year, but the question really is: is he doing anything different?
The results so far have definitely not been sheer luck. He’s limited the walks and struck out a healthy 7.9 per 9. He’s also getting a lot of groundballs. Batters are hitting a normal amount of line drives against him but 45% of the balls in play have been grounders. That’s better than Zack Greinke’s career rate and on par with Yovani Gallardo’s. The BABIP is at .274, that’s most likely going to rise, but this isn’t a situation in which an analyst can easily point and say “this guy’s been really lucky!”; Estrada has unquestionably pitched very well so far.
Going forward, I think the ZiPS projection for the rest of the season is pretty reasonable: 79 innings between starting and relieving and a 3.85 FIP. As long as he keeps up his current rates and limits the home runs, he should be a solid option as a fill-in starter. I’ve also long been a believer of playing the hot hand in relief pitching (the opposite of the way I feel about the everyday lineup). Roenicke shouldn’t hesitate to use Estrada in the way he did this weekend, getting a couple of innings in some higher-leverage situations. Inevitably he’ll have some tougher outings when some ground balls get through, and that’s when he’ll get shuffled back into the back end of the bullpen with the ability to be a solid long man and primed to fill in if any of the starters go down (fingers crossed).
Bottom line, it sure seems like the Nationals let one get away by letting go of Estrada. He doesn’t have top-of-the-rotation potential, but then again who does? There’s danger in assuming too much from just 32 innings in 2011, but his body of work suggests that his performance isn’t much out of line with what could be expected from him going forward. I have to give Doug Melvin plenty of credit for finding him. Estrada’s no world-beater but he’s a nice weapon to have available, and having a solidly above replacement level option for the back of the bullpen and rotation is not something many teams have.