Estrada has become the Jays quiet ace

By Bob Elliott

BALTIMORE _ As trades go in the Alex Anthopoulos era it was a few rolls of news print south of the arrival of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki or David Price. 

Nov. 1, 2015 _ The Blue Jays trade Adam Lind to the Milwaukee Brewers for Marco Estrada.

The American League East axis did not tilt that day.

Yet, the Blue Jays rotation, the one with the magic number of two, before etched-in-stone talk about a post-season rotation, has.

Now, front runners to grab starts if the Jays begin play Oct. 8 are David Price, Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey and Estrada, who didn’t join the Jays rotation until Mat 5.

It would not be a surprise if neither Mark Buehrle (14-7, 3.76 ERA in 30 starts) nor Drew Hutchison (13-4, 5.33 in 27 starts) get post-season starts.

A year ago Russell Martin was with the Pittsburgh Pirates facing Estrada of the Brewers.

“We didn’t see him that much,” said Martin, “but he’s locked in right now, very polished and pitching with confidence.

“He’s quietly become an ace.”

Ace Estrada.

That was a term Brewers fans didn’t use as Estrada led the National League in home runs allowed last year: 29 in 18 starts as he worked 150 2/3 innings.

Estrada allowed his 22nd homer this season when Ryan Flaherty hit a three-run homer to left in the second Monday. That was all Estrada allowed as he pitched 7 1/3 innings (making it a career high 174 1/3) as the Jays won with three in their final two at-bats for the win.

The most common question visiting scouts ask is “how is Estrada doing it?” even on a wet night in Maryland.
(No. 2 is when will Tulowitzki be back?)

How is Estrada doing it?

_ He is elevating the ball more.

Pitching coach Pete Walker and Anthopoulos spoke with the right-hander in mid-May at the Rogers Centre after he joined the rotation. They suggested he pitch up in the zone more like Tyler Clippard, now of the New York Mets, or Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Tillman.  

“It’s an important part of his game,” said Walker. “He did it before, but not often enough.”

Throwing his fastball up and on the same plane as his breaking balls results in swings and misses. The fact his fastball runs straight means it plays better up in the zone, even though most pitching coaches say pitch down. He will still give up homeruns but he should be more effective was their rationale.

_ A different arsenal.

A year ago 56.6% of Estrada’s pitches were fastballs, this year the number is 53%, according to Fangraphs. He’s roughly the same on change ups with 30% last year to 28.2% this season. He’s gone from throwing 13.5% curve balls to 10.9%. And 8% of his pitches are cutters, a pitch he did not throw last season.

Walker says the Fangraphs number on the cutters is low. From his numbers he guesses the number is roughly 11%.

_ Deception. 

“He does an excellent job at hiding the ball, he averages 89-90 mph and look at his numbers,” said one scout.

Estrada is 13-8 with a 3.15 ERA, but more important, more impressive than that, he has limited opposing hitters to a .206 average, lowest in the AL. 

_ Health.

“I had a few issues last year,” said Estrada, “I understand basically what’s happening. For sure it’s my best year, but I had a good year in 2012, I threw harder, located better and had a lot more strikeouts.”

That year he was 5-7 with a 3.64 ERA appearing in 29 games making 23 starts striking out 143 in 138 1/3 innings. This year he's not reading the Brewers' fan blogs as he did a year ago.

Who knows what would have happened had Estrada not rolled his ankle in Dunedin and not lost out for the fifth starter’s job to Aaron Sanchez? 

“This team gave me an opportunity to start, I ran with it,” said Estrada, who has one more start on the weekend at Tropicana Field. Then he’ll think about post-season assignments.

And then what’s next for the free agent?

“I love this team,” said Estrada. “it’s a great offence to pitch in front of, an excellent offence and it’s going to be around a long time. I haven’t sat around and discussed it yet with my wife. 

“But I love this team.”

Even on a soggy night in Baltimore, a whole bunch of Canadians felt the same way.  

Lowest Opposing batting averages in the American League
Player Team W-L ERA G-GS IP H R ER AVG

1 Marco Estrada, Jays 13-8 3.15 33-27 174.1 131 65 61 .206
2 Dallas Keuchel, Astros 19-8 2.47 32-32 226.0 179 66 62 .215
3 Sonny Gray, A’s 14-7 2.73 31-31 208.0 166 71 63 .217
4 Chris Archer, Rays 12-13 3.26 33-33 207.0 170 84 75 .219
5 Carlos  Carrasco, Indians 14-11 3.44 29-29 180.2 149 70 69 .225
6 Hector Santiago, Angels 9-9 3.52 32-31 176.2 151 75 69 .226
7 Danny Salazar, Indians 13-10 3.51 29-29 179.2 152 78 70 .227
8 Erasmo Ramirez, Rays 11-6 3.65 33-26 158.0 135 69 64 .229
9 David Price, Jays 18-5 2.45 32-32 220.1 190 70 60 .230
10 Scott  Kazmir, Astros 7-11 2.97 30-30 178.2 155 71 59 .233