What To Do With Marco Estrada? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The Milwaukee Brewers got a much needed solid bounce-back start from Wily Peralta in their 3-1 win Wednesday night. After allowing four runs in five innings last time out against the Twins, Peralta shut down the Mets for 6 1/3 innings, throwing 57 of his 92 pitches for strikes. He only struck out three batters, but walked just one and induced eight groundouts against five flyouts.

Peralta’s ERA dropped to a tidy 2.90. While his FIP (4.02) and xFIP (3.52) suggest some regression may be on the way, it’s important to remember we’re still talking about a pitcher improving his understanding of how to pitch at the major league level at this point.

Still, all is not well with the Brewers rotation. As our own Jonathan Judge wrote on Wednesday:

In April, Brewers starters shut down the league with a sparkling 3.01 ERA.  In May, though, they regressed significantly, posting a 4.08 ERA, which was good for only 19th in the league.  Over the first 10 days of June, they’ve been even worse, providing a 4.56 ERA.

That last number obviously dropped on Wednesday night, but the overall issue remains. The Brewers starters haven’t been nearly as good since April as they were then. On one hand, this really should have been expected. The Brewers starters aren’t a collection of “aces” like the 2011 Phillies or the Braves of the 1990’s. They’re a solid group that can rack up quality starts (their 43 is second in MLB this year, behind only the Braves), but hardly built to dominate.

Understanding their basic nature as inning eaters (they lead MLB in starters innings with 410 1/3) doesn’t mean we have to just accept it, though. If there is a way to potentially upgrade, it should definitely be explored. A couple weeks ago I looked at Jimmy Nelson‘s run of success for Nashville and suggested it might be time to give him a look at the big league level. Since then, he did make his first big league start and then promptly returned to AAA, where he’s continued to dominate the competition.

That’s all well and good, but there currently isn’t a place for him to start in the Brewers rotation. Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza all have track records, big contracts and obviously aren’t going anywhere. As Steve Garczynski pointed out on the latest episode of the Disciples of Uecker Podcast, the Brewers have invested too much in Wily Peralta to pull him from the rotation, and he’s been one of the better starters this year anyway.

That leaves us with Marco Estrada, who currently leads MLB in home runs allowed with 20. The next closest has only 15, and Juan Nicasio pitches in Coors Field. That’s a big number, and it’s hard to imagine him sustaining the round-tripper pace that he’s on. He’s always been homer-prone, though, and this is the sort of thing that sometimes happens when a player gives up a lot of long, hard contact.

Early on this year, he “got away” with a lot of the homer problems. Of his first 17 homers allowed, 13 of them were solo shots. The other four were one-run homers. That seemed pretty lucky, but after looking at it more closely, the frequency of the home runs actually matched up pretty well with the frequency he faced a given number of runners:

PA % of overall HR % of overall
Overall 272 17
Bases Empty 189 69% 13 76%
1-Runner 63 23% 4 24%
2-Runners 18 7% 0 0%
3-Runners 2 1% 0 0%

Since then, Estrada has allowed three home runs with runners on, giving up a total of nine runs, including a grand slam on Tuesday. Just a momentary run of bad luck, or is something deeper going on here?

The answer at least partly lies in Estrada’s splits. Namely, how batters do against him each time through the lineup:

1st time through: .180/.222/.396

2nd time through: .262/.319/.524

3rd time through: .286/.396/.584

The first time through the order, Estrada dominates while allowing the occasional homer to push up his slugging percent. The second time through, batting average jumps 80 points, on-base percent jumps almost 10o points and hitters hit for even more power. Third time through, Estrada is basically getting crushed.

This actually presents problems on a couple of different levels. Besides the obvious issues it leads to in successfully finishing off starts, it also means that he’s going to be more likely to give up multiple run homers later in games. The deeper he goes, the more likely he is to put runners on and then give up the big fly. Given this, the fact that he was avoiding the multiple-run homer for so long once again looks somewhat fluky.

The other concerning issue with Estrada is how his strikeout rates has fallen from 23.5% in April to 16.7% in June while his walk rate has risen from 5.0% to 13.0% in the same time. Giving up homers when you’re not walking anyone is one thing, but it gets quite a bit more damaging when there are baserunners on.

Add all of this up and it’s at least got to raise some eyebrows as to what the future might hold for Estrada. If he can cut down on the homers and walks, he can be a reasonably above-average, back-end starter again. If not, then the Brewers probably will have to try and find a replacement for him. Whether or not that might be Jimmy Nelson will depend on whether anyone else gets hurt and also on how he’s doing at the time the decision needs to be made.

The Brewers have a five game lead over the Cardinals right now, but the odds are better than not that this race will tighten up again before the year is over. Every game matters, so getting the best possible roster assembled, and quickly, can make all the difference in the world in terms of winning the playoff race. Right now, there are quite a few indicators suggesting that might well be Marco Estrada in the bullpen and Jimmy Nelson in his place in the rotation.

If things keep on like they are, chances are good they’ll have to make the switch eventually. The best case scenario is that Marco Estrada starts a run of success the next time he’s on the mound. The worst case, though, isn’t just that Estrada continues to struggle, but that the Brewers wait too long to do anything about it. The time may not be now to make this move, but it’s been getting closer and closer. If something doesn’t change soon, it may be impossible to put off any longer.

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