There are worrying trends for Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada
|Toronto Star 13 Sep 2016 at 16:34|
After serving as arguably the top rotation in the American League through the season’s first half, the Blue Jays’ starting staff has looked more wobbly of late. No pitcher reflects their recent inconsistency more than Marco Estrada, who after being named to his first all-star team in July has struggled to replicate his first-half success.
Estrada had a 2.93 ERA before the all-star break, leading the majors with a stingy .172 opponent’s batting average. In nine starts since then he has a 5.32 ERA, while hitters are tagging him to the tune of a .285 average. Estrada’s four worst starts of the season have come in his last five outings.
A finesse pitcher who relies on maintaining the “feel” of his changeup and curveball — while precisely locating his fastball — Estrada was clearly the most adversely affected by the team employing a six-man rotation last month. He has been far more successful this season when pitching on regular rest.
But that doesn’t explain all of his recent struggles. Earlier this month he was pitching on regular rest when he allowed five runs over five innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, whom he is set to face again Wednesday afternoon — on regular rest — as the Jays play a matinee game before heading out west for a week-long swing through Anaheim and Seattle.
But beyond the relative effects of more or less rest, there may be more cause for concern regarding the 32-year-old right-hander, who was arguably the Jays’ best pitcher in the post-season last year.
Mike Sonne, an ergonomist by trade and baseball analyst by hobby, developed a statistical metric to measure a pitcher’s “stuff” — the phrase most often used to describe a pitcher’s combination of velocity and movement.
Sonne crunches publicly available pitch data to calculate “stuff” by looking at the interaction between a pitcher’s peak velocity, the horizontal and vertical break of their pitches, their ability to change speeds and the separation between their secondary pitches and their fastball.
In essence, he is trying to quantify the degree of difficulty an individual pitcher’s arsenal presents to an opposing hitter. Aaron Sanchez, for instance, has the best “stuff” on the Jays’ staff primarily because he combines a high-velocity fastball with a nose-diving curveball. It doesn’t hurt that Sanchez’s fastball also has great movement.
The bad news for Estrada is that Sonne’s stats show a dramatic decline in his “stuff” beginning in mid-June.
“What we saw with Estrada was kind of the telltale sign of a pitcher who has suffered an injury or is fighting through an injury,” Sonne said in a phone interview.
Estrada has spent two stints on the disabled list this season due to a recurring back injury and has complained at times this season of not being 100 per cent.
“His velocity has decreased by a full mile per hour over the course of the season. At the same time his breaking-pitch velocity has actually gone up,” Sonne said.
The decreased separation between his pitches has made it easier on opposing hitters by shrinking the margins for which they have to be responsible at the plate.
The decline in his “stuff” has also coincided with a decrease in his curveball usage, but that may have been due to a lack of feel for the pitch during his starts on extra rest.
In addition, Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently pointed out a sharp decline in the spin rate of Estrada’s fastball, which may make it easier for opposing hitters to recognize the pitch. The high spin rate of Estrada’s fastball is part of what makes it hard to distinguish from his changeup, which is 10 m.p.h. slower.
“Now those hitters who at one time were having a hard time deciphering whether it was a rising fastball coming towards them or a changeup — and you’re getting a lot of those really silly swings and misses — now they’re able to cue into what’s coming a little bit faster,” Sonne said. “When you’re only throwing about 88 miles an hour, those guys are able to really sit on it and crush the ball.”
Sonne says he thinks the decline in Estrada’s performance is “directly tied” to his back issue, but he’s also noticed that he’s starting to use his curveball again and his velocity is showing hints of ticking back up. “I have hopes that he’s going to be able to regain some of that early season form.”
Dioner Navarro, the Jays catcher who often works closely with Estrada, said he thinks his recent struggles are due more to bad luck than anything else. In his last start against the Red Sox, Estrada didn’t get any favours from his defence.
“He’s going to be fine,” Navarro said. “He’s been here before. He knows how to deal with it. Hopefully he has a good outing tomorrow and we’ll be good.”