Jays From the Couch looks at the turn around that Toronto Blue Jays’ starting pitcher, Marco Estrada, is enjoying lately
I have an apology to make to Blue Jays fans and, most importantly, to Marco Estrada. I think I jinxed him.
After Marco’s scintillating start to 2017, I wrote about the fact that he had established himself as one of the best 30 starting pitchers in the majors. Over the course of 394 innings from Opening Day 2015 to May 1st, 2017, Marco:
- accumulated the 18th most RA9-WAR (9.4) and 36th most WAR (5.7)
- had the 24th lowest ERA (3.29)
- had the 6th most valuable changeup (22.7 wCH) and 9th most valuable four-seamer (21.8 wFA)
- limited hits (6th lowest BA, .208) and the type of contact that leads to hits (11th lowest xBA, .218)
- limited productive at-bats (16th lowest wOBA, .282) and the type of contact that leads to productive at-bats (27th lowest xwOBA, .290)
And then things went very sideways for him. Over the course of 14 starts (72.1 innings) from May 6th to July 21st, Marco had some of the worst numbers in baseball. While he didn’t exactly have 14 terrible starts, only 4 can be considered “quality starts” (3 ER or less in 6 or more IP). He gave up homers in all but three games.
Posts by Andrew Stoeten and Dylan Svoboda highlighted reduced effectiveness of Marco’s changeup and curveball as key issues for him over that stretch. Stoeten particularly highlighted the idea that Estrada’s horizontal release point had shifted about six inches towards first base. This echoed Marco’s own comments that he was falling towards first base (unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find specific quotes).
Fortunately, since July 26th he’s put together a run of four strong starts (the last three of which were quality starts). In fact, “strong” is probably an understatement. In (a small sample size of) 26 IP, Marco has pitched even better than the Top 30 starter I highlighted back in May.
Marco’s ERA paints the picture well. It went from a very good 3.29 to an astronomical 7.09 for three months down to a very, very good 2.08 over the last couple of weeks. For some perspective, Marco’s 81 career Blue Jay starts can be broken into 78 four-game stretches. Marco produced a sub-2.08 ERA in only five of those stretches.
Together, the Fangraphs and Statcast data shed some light on these fluctuations. If we ask the question, “were Marco’s troubles due to poor performance or bad luck?”, the most accurate answer seems to be “yes!”
On the one hand, during the 14-start stretch, Marco’s xBA and xwOBA jumped noticeably, moving him from the front of the pack (11th and 27th best) to the middle (72nd and 123rd best). His K/BB fell somewhat as well. These observations suggest that his performance worsened over this stretch of games.
On the other hand, Marco’s BA and wOBA jumped by a much greater amount than his xBA and xwOBA. His HR/FB% soared, as did his BABIP. And Marco actually generated more infield flies per batted ball (True IFFB% = FB% x IFFB%). These observations suggest that Marco was the victim of some bad luck as well. In fact, over the entire 2017 season, Marco has had the 12th lowest xwOBA-wOBA and 16th lowest xBA-BA (among 165 starting pitchers who have faced 200+ batters).
Over his last four starts, all of these numbers have moved in a positive direction. Not only has his ERA, BA and wOBA fallen considerably, his xBA and xwOBA have as well. In fact, his xwOBA-wOBA and xBA-BA have remained well into negative territory over these recent starts. Put together, these numbers suggest that Estrada’s underlying performance has improved dramatically and that, with better luck (or perhaps better team defence behind him), his recent results would have been even better.
Even before his recent resurgence was fully obvious, rumours emerged that the Jays front office was interested in resigning Marco. The logic of a new deal is pretty obvious. In spite of a down year, Marco has produced 2.1 WAR (1.6 RA9-WAR). Even if we use the lower of the two, Marco has so far been worth $14.4 million (1.6 WAR x $9 million per WAR). His 2017 salary is…$14.5 million.
In my opinion, Marco will be a Blue Jay in 2018. From his perspective, Marco appears quite happy and settled in Toronto. From the team’s perspective, Marco would very likely be fair value for another two-year deal worth $26 million. At that price, the team would be happy if he generated 2.9 WAR over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. That seems very doable—as a Blue Jay, he’s averaged 2.6 WAR per season.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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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.