108: There should be no reluctance to call Estrada “ACE”

Everyone knows Estrada has been good, but is it possible he's still underrated? (photo: SPORTSNET.CA)

Everyone knows Estrada has been good, but is it possible he's still underrated? (photo: SPORTSNET.CA)

By: Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

By now you’ve probably heard it being whispered. Not always, but sometimes - finally. And even today it’s spoken only softly, as if in secret.

But it is true, Jays fans, and there’s no reason to remain silent about it any longer; no reason to feel confused. 

So go ahead and admit it already: Marco Estrada is the Blue Jays’ ace.

That’s right - the Jays’ ace is a 32-year-old who’s fastball can barely touch 90 and whose career ERA sits at 3.81. Two years ago, who would’ve thought?

I’m sorry to say it but this must mean that Marcus Stroman is not the ace, not yet at least, even though he was for all intents and purposes anointed to ace-hood before he even threw a pitch in 2016. 

I suppose we can all be forgiven for having such lofty expectations of Stroman, whose ascension to elite-status seemed impending if not certain after a great breakout year in 2014 and, upon return from injury, a very ace-like end to 2015. He posted a 1.67 ERA in his four starts down the stretch last season.

But the truth is the “Stro-show” - a real ace-worthy nickname if I do say so - hasn’t been as attractive so far in 2016. He’s been mediocre at best. Lately, he’s probably been closer to downright bad. 

Any way you look at it, his 4.82 ERA through 12 starts certainly doesn’t bode well for the title of “ace”.

Stroman’s season looks even more paltry when compared to that other young arm in the Jays rotation - the one who happens to be two years younger and seven inches taller than the 25-year-old, 5-foot 8-inch Stroman.

Yes, a case can definitely be made that Aaron Sanchez is pitching like he’s the team's ace (and after his last start where he took a one-hit shutout into the ninth indeed that case was made, I must admit quite convincingly). But it’s a case I personally can’t and won’t defend, simply because I feel there’s a stronger claim to be made.

No offense to R.A. Dickey or J.A. Happ (I had to save my word count), but that leads me to the incredible case of Marco - “I’m 30 now so I guess I’ll start trying” - Estrada ...

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If the old saying is true and the numbers do in fact “speak for themselves” then when they talk about Estrada, they’re clearly saying “ace”.

But before I rattle off some of Estrada’s most recent statistical accolades, just recall for a moment that he wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the Jays roster coming out of spring training last year. And even after making the team he wasn’t moved into the rotation until May 5. I bring this up for no other reason than to emphasize the sheer impossibility of what follows:

In 2015, the soft-throwing Estrada had the fifth best ERA (3.13) among American League starters. That was better than Chris Archer, Chris Sale, and Felix Hernandez - all of whom happen to be the ace of their respective teams - just to name a few . 

Furthermore, Estrada’s WHIP of 1.04 was second only to Dallas Keuchel ... who won the Cy Young last season.

And speaking of the 2015 Keuchel (as distinguished from the 2016 Keuchel, who has been “no bueno”), Estrada actually had a lower opponent’s batting average than the Houston Astro’s ace. Opponents hit just .203 off Estrada last year, which wasn’t only the lowest average in the AL, it was the lowest by 14 points. Keuchel finished second at .217.

Estrada only allowed 134 total hits over his 181 innings of work - the lowest hit total for any pitcher who threw more than 160 innings.

Of course, all that success made it very tempting to dismiss last season as a fluke -  especially considering Estrada had done nothing close to that throughout his previous seven years in the big leagues. 

But, thankfully, the Jays took a chance and signed him to a two-year, $26-million-dollar deal, and now we're debating his place among the league's best. Whether you agree that he's the Jays' ace or not, surely there has to be consensus that the deal is looking like a steal.

Despite having just four wins this season, Estrada currently has the fourth lowest ERA in the American League (2.41). He’s also posted a WHIP of 0.98, which is second only to Sale.

It should also be noted that all four of his wins have come on the heels of a Blue Jays loss ... (NEW NICKNAME: “El Stoppo part dos”!?)

And remember that .207 opponents average I just mentioned - the one he led the AL with in 2015? Well this season opponents are hitting just .167 against Estrada. 

One. Sixty. Seven. 

That is - I hope somewhat obviously - the best opponents average among all MLB starters. It’s better than Clayton Kershaw; better than Jake Arrieta; better than everyone in the American League ... by 34 points.

Estrada also currently holds the AL’s lowest opponent OBP (.249) and OPS (.542). And of all pitchers who’ve thrown more than 60 innings, he’s once again allowed the fewest hits (44) - tied with Danny Salazar of the Cleveland Indians and Jason Hammel of the Chicago Cubs.

So I guess the logical question to ask is, why aren’t people outside of Toronto (and, actually, more people in Toronto) talking about him?

I suppose the first thing that scares people away is his record. He’s won just 17 games since the start of 2015, which doesn't exactly scream "ace". But everyone knows - or at least they now say - wins and losses are a finicky thing not to be trusted, albeit less-so when taking about an ace, who’s job it is to not only win but to be expected to win. An important distinction.

Perhaps the other reluctance people have regarding Estrada could simply be related to his ... how should I put it ... lack of flare?

Let’s face it. Estrada is not an imposing figure on the mound. He’s short, maybe even a bit awkward. He throws the opposite of hard. He doesn’t beat his chest, rarely pumps his fist, and never hashtags cool things on Twitter.

Which, in a way, kind of mimics his pitching style to a tee, no?

Unlike a more traditional ace, Estrada has never been overpowering. He was 34th in the AL in total strikeouts last season and averaged just 6.51 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s averaging 7.59 strikeouts in 2016 - which may be an improvement but is still 29th in the AL (for point of comparison, Sanchez has averaged 8.51). That being said, he finds a way not to get hit, and isn’t that what matters?

So you can call it ‘stuff’. You can call it poise. You can call it a nasty changeup.

However he gets it done, you can call Estrada "ace".

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @TylerJoseph108