Toronto Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada: Top 30 Starting Pitcher

 

Jays From the Couch takes a close at how good Marco Estrada has been with the Toronto Blue Jays, and how he stacks up across MLB.

 

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Since the start of the season, most of my posts have revolved around convincing Jays fans that the Jays aren’t as terrible as they’ve seemed. Today, I’m lucky enough to make the case that a Jay might actually be one of the very best in his position: Marco Estrada.

 

Around these parts, Marco is viewed as a postseason hero. Game 3 vs. Texas. Game 5 vs. Kansas City. Game 1 vs. Texas. But even Jays fans might not put Marco among the top tier of pitchers in baseball. Now, “top tier” can mean different things to different people, so let me be clear on my use of the term. There are 30 teams in the majors, with starting rotations of five pitchers each. As such, if a starter ranks in the Top 30 in a number of key statistics, a reasonable case could be made that they are a bonafide #1 pitcher in the MLB. Is he competing for Cy Youngs with Chris Sale? Probably not. But most of the other #1’s aren’t either.

 

A legit #1 pitcher is worth their weight in gold. If a prospect has a good chance to be a #1 pitcher, they are given a 70-80 overall grade and find themselves at the very top of league-wide prospect lists. For perspective, Eric Longenhagen didn’t give out any 70+ grades to pitchers and gave only one pitcher, Alex Reyes, of the Cardinals, a 65 overall grade. This means that Reyes is expected to become a #2/3 starter.

 

This post will focus on establishing Marco in the Top 30 of starting pitchers. Others have written great articles on what makes Marco good, so I’ll leave that to them. In a nutshell, his fastball and changeup resist gravity better than most due to a high spin rate, which fools hitters. The ball is higher than their brain expects it to be. Also, he has amazing command. This is how a guy with a sub-90mph fastball can be one of the Top 30 starters in baseball.

 

Marco does things his own way, which contributes to his underrated-ness. He’s firmly middle-of-the-pack in the key statistics that are focused on when analyzing pitchers. He doesn’t strikeout ungodly numbers of hitters (his 2015-17 strikeout rate of 20.8% is 69th among 159 starters with 160 IP), he allows walks more than most (his 8% walk rate over that time is 110th lowest) and gives up fly balls half the time contact is made (his 50.3% fly ball rate is 2nd highest). Put this all together and you have a fairly average (seeming) starting pitcher (his 4.15 FIP is 85th lowest).

 

But Marco is special. And sometimes it’s necessary to think about special people in special ways. In particular, Marco is closer to a knuckleball pitcher than a typical starting pitcher. As such, typical metrics might not suffice. One suggestion Fangraphs makes for knuckleballers is to use RA9-WAR (based on actual runs against) in place of their standard WAR metric (based on FIP).

 

Given his proximity to knuckleballers, Marco’s RA9-WAR might be a better indicator of his quality than his WAR (nevertheless, his 5.7 WAR is solidly 36th in the majors among starters). Indeed, Marco has had a Top 30 RA9-WAR in each of his last three seasons (2017 included). In the same vein, while his 4.15 FIP is roughly average among regular starting pitchers, his 3.29 ERA is Top 30. His ERA- and FIP- produce similar differences.

 

 

Marco has shown a consistent ability to help his team win. His win probability added ranks 12th among this group of starters over 2015-17, while he has never dropped below 20th in any individual year. This ability to help the Jays win comes from his aforementioned fastball and changeup. Over the last three seasons, each pitch has generated more than 20 runs above average, both in the Top 10. And this is not simply because he uses the two pitches so much, as his wFA per 100 pitches (0.71) and wCH per 100 pitches (1.25) are both in the Top 30.

 

Statcast can help us shine further light on Marco’s ability to limit hits and good contact. In terms of regular old batting average, Marco is incredible, with the 6th lowest mark in the majors (among 181 pitchers who have been a part of 500 AB from 2015-17). In terms of Statcast’s expected batting average, Marco is a Top 15 hit preventer. The disparity between his BA and xBA is likely due to the Jays’ amazing defence in recent years. This season, Marco is experiencing his own version of the bad luck sweeping the rest of the Jays. While his BA is higher than 2015/16, his xBA is actually markedly lower.

 

 

We can conclude by shifting focus towards the overall quality of contact Marco gives up. In terms of the outcomes he allows, his wOBA consistently ranks among the Top 20 in baseball. His lower 2017 ranking has more to do with other starters starting off the season on a lucky streak than his own decline in performance. On the other hand, xwOBA captures a pitcher’s expected outcomes based on the contact he gives up. In Marco’s case, as with BA and xBA, his xwOBA typically lags slightly behind his wOBA, likely due to good defence. Nevertheless, Marco’s xwOBA over the last three seasons is…Top 30. So far in 2017, he’s surpassing even his stellar 2015/16 performances, with an xwOBA in the Top 10, behind names like Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard, but ahead of names like Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner.

 

I know I don’t need to convince Jays fans that Marco is a good pitcher. But I don’t think it’s said enough just how good Marco is. Since coming to the Jays, he has made huge leaps forward. Objectively, he ranks among the best starters in terms of hit-prevention, good contact-prevention and run-prevention. He is a Top 30 starting pitcher. He is an ace.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) – UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.