By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
In order for any team to truly make a run at the post season, it’s going to need a couple of welcome surprises along the way, and in 2015, few teams have experienced this trend more than the Toronto Blue Jays.
Be it the raw power of Liam Hendriks once relegated to a bullpen role earlier this spring, Chris Colabello’s dominance, Marcus Stroman’s miraculous return or the ice in the veins of Toronto’s 20-year-old closer Roberto Osuna, the Jays have benefited greatly from relatively untapped sources in 2015.
Although the aforementioned names have all played pivotal roles in key spots for Toronto this season, none have had the type of impact Marco Estrada has provided since sliding into the starting rotation.
Traded from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for long-time Blue Jay Adam Lind last November, Estrada, 32, joined the Jays a month removed from posting polarizing numbers over 39 appearances with the Brewers in 2014.
In 18 starts for the third-place Brew Crew last season, Estrada pitched to an ERA of 4.96 over 107 innings. During those starts, the Sonora, Mex. native surrendered 27 of the 29 home runs he allowed on the campaign, perhaps hinting at the fact that fatigue provided a general hindrance for the former sixth round draft pick.
Adding to this much debated narrative was the fact that in 21 appearances as a reliever, Estrada had yielded only a pair of big fly’s while holding his opponents to an ERA of 2.89 across 42 and a third innings of work.
Of course, entering a new league, not to mention the less than friendly pitching confines of Rogers Centre, produced it’s share of questions regarding the Blue Jays decision to target the homer-friendly hurler, and Estrada’s spring did little to ease the minds of those questioning the move.
In seven appearances during Grapefruit League action last March, the newest Jays hurler surrendered 10 earned runs, three of which were on home run balls.
With Daniel Norris appearing ready to take the reigns as the clubs fifth starter out of the gate, Estrada, given his questionable spring totals, was viewed to be best suited for a relief spot on Toronto’s 25-man roster at the time of Opening Day on April 6th.
When Norris faltered and was subsequently sent to the minors in search of further seasoning, Estrada stepped into the rotation, and, despite getting rocked in his starting debut against the New York Yankees on May 5, stepped up for his new club in a big way.
Working almost exclusively with backup catcher Dioner Navarro, Estrada, under the watchful guidance of a new coaching staff, made an adjustment to his off speed heavy approach on the hill, factoring in an effective cutter in which he’s been using to help hold lefties to an opponents batting average that’s hovered around the .200 mark for most of the season.
For reference sake, left-handed hitters clipped the former Brewer to the tune of a .226 OBA a year ago. A marginal improvement, but an improvement none the less.
With regards to OBA, having three-hit the Atlanta Braves across eight innings of scoreless ball in his last appearance in Atlanta, Estrada enters his Tuesday’s start facing the Yankees having posted an AL best .206 to date this season.
Humbly, Estrada equates a lot of the success to his receiver behind the plate.
“He puts down great fingers” Estrada told reporters of his catcher following his latest start. “He’s been doing it all year. The way he catches back there, he’s one of the best”.
All told, the numbers can certainly back up the hurlers claim.
In 17 starts in which the tandem has been paired together in 2015, the Blue Jays righty has posted an ERA of 2.55 across 99 innings of work. Compare this to Estrada’s 4.11 mark when Russell Martin has caught him this season (61 1/3 innings), and you can build a strong case for the two’s effectiveness as battery mates.
Always one to get the best out of his pitchers, Navarro understands that Estrada’s most potent weapons is arguably one of the most effective changeups in the league, a pitch that he’s used roughly 30 percent of the time in 2015. This figure good for third most amongst qualified ML pitchers this season.
Speaking of qualified starters, Estrada’s ERA of 3.14 currently ranks him fifth in the American League ahead of such standouts as Chris Sale, Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez and 2014 AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber in that category.
“I’d hate to think of where we’d be without him” said Jays manager, John Gibbons told reporters following Thursday’s game inside the Atlanta Chop House. “He’s always efficient. He’s shown over and over that he can go late into games giving up few hits.”
To this point in the season, Estrada has allowed a mere 120 hits. Easily good for fewest allowed amongst qualified AL starters in 2015.
Having already established career highs in starts (25), wins (13) and innings pitched (160.1), Estrada, whose allowed only 22 earned runs across 73 and a third innings since the All Star break, looks to keep the good times rolling as the Jays attempt to further expand on their lead over the Yankees on Tuesday night.
Impressive stuff from a guy who, when camp broke last April, was ticketed for a role in long relief on a club that was vying their first taste of post-season action since 1993.
Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)