Aside from a stellar debut from right-hander Kyle Lohse, the Brewers’ starting rotation did not enjoy a successful first week of the regular season. It resulted in a five-game losing streak and an overtaxed bullpen, which is saying something considering the 13-man pitching staff.
The club needed a starter to go deep into the game on Monday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs, and Marco Estrada rose to the occasion with seven effective innings. The only damage came on a two-run home run by Wellington Castillo — and even that was wind-aided to center field. Estrada struck out six, walked one and only needed 100 pitches to do so.
All in all, it was exactly what the Brewers needed from their starting rotation, yet in many ways, Estrada doesn’t profile as the type of pitcher who would thrive on a windy day at Wrigley Field. He’s a fly ball pitcher (36.1% GB) and has seen his average fastball velocity drop from 90.2 mph last season to 89.1 mph through his first two games.
He’s what some would label a “soft-tosser,” yet he was a three-win player in 2012 and posted a 3.64 ERA (3.35 FIP). He clearly possesses the ability to find significant success at the major-league level. But how does he do it?
It’s a combination of stuff and command.
In Monday’s game against the Cubs, Estrada surrendered a leadoff double to Starlin Castro in the sixth inning. The right-hander was navigating the meat of the Cubs’ batting order for the third time, which is traditionally a danger zone for most pitchers. He escaped the jam without the Cubs scoring a single run, though, getting Anthony Rizzo to ground out and Alfonso Soriano to fly to shallow center for the key outs of the inning.
If we focus on a pair of pitches to Anthony Rizzo, we can get a solid grasp of how Marco Estrada finds success on the mound with below-average velocity on his fastball.
Estrada got ahead of Rizzo with a fastball and subsequently turned to his best pitch, his changeup.
That pitch completely fooled Rizzo, diving down-and-away with tremendous velocity differential. Estrada generally throws his changeup in the low-80s, but he took off a little more on this 0-1 changeup to the Cubs’ slugging first baseman.
Estrada’s changeup is nasty, but the right-hander also knows how to work off his changeup. On the following pitch, he took advantage of Rizzo diving at the previous changeup by busting him on the hands with a fastball on the inside corner.
Rizzo had no chance and did well to fight it off. He was forced into taking a defensive swing on a fastball that didn’t even reach 90 mph because Estrada located it well and sequenced his pitches effectively. On the next pitch, Estrada went back to the changeup and got Rizzo to weakly ground out to third base.
The at-bat to Anthony Rizzo in the sixth inning serves as an example of why Marco Estrada is able to be effective without overpowering stuff. He locates his pitches well and has a very good understanding of who he is as a pitcher and how to sequence properly. If he can author a repeat performance of last season’s numbers, the Brewers will potentially have three above-average starters in Gallardo, Lohse and Estrada — which would be huge for their admittedly-small postseason hopes (currently 13.1% via Baseball Prospectus).