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Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Pete Walker Talks About Marco Estrada’s Struggles

“There’s no chance he’s coming out of the rotation,” Pete Walker said in regards to Marco Estrada, per Rob Longley of the Toronto SUN.

I had no idea that this was actually a consideration, but alas, there’s your confirmation that the struggling Estrada will be given the opportunity to work through his issues in the starting rotation.

As we’ve seen due to the myriad of injuries experienced by the Blue Jays’ pitching staff throughout the season, the team doesn’t have many options beyond its chosen five to fill the rotation. Nine players have made starts for the Blue Jays this season. Two of them, Mat Latos and Casey Lawrence, aren’t in the organization this season. Joe Biagini has transitioned back to the ‘pen after an up and down introduction to life as a big league starter. Mike Bolsinger has been effective in a swingman role, but wouldn’t be an improvement over Estrada. There aren’t reinforcements in Triple-A either. T.J. House, Brett Oberholtzer, and Jarrett Grube all have ERAs over 4.00, making Cesar Valdez, who the Jays claimed on waivers a while back, the best option of the bunch.

So it’s ride or die with this group.

It’s weird to see Marco Estrada struggle. Since coming to Toronto in a somewhat unexpected one-for-one swap with Adam Lind back in 2014, Estrada entrenched himself as a key piece of the Blue Jays rotation. He provided the team with consistently good starts, highlighted by his incredible clutch starts in the playoffs. He was so excellent that he was named this season’s Opening Day starter.

And his start was right in line with what you’d expect from the team’s ace. Through his first 11 starts, Estrada had a 3.15 ERA and had seen an uptick in strikeouts from what we had seen the previous two seasons. All told, over that stretch, Estrada 68 2/3 innings, allowed 59 hits, 17 walks, struck out 78, and held opponents to a .226 batting average.

Since then, though, the wheels have fallen off. Estrada has made seven starts since June 1 and has made it past the fifth inning just twice. Over that span, he’s tossed 36 innings, has a 9.50 ERA, and has surrendered 52 hits, 26 walks, eight home runs, and has just 37 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .344 against Estrada over those seven games.

Arbitrary dates be dammed, what’s happened here?

Using information from Brooks Baseball, I compared Estrada’s good 11-game stretch to his bad eight-game stretch. When things were going well, he threw the fastball 48.8% of the time and the changeup 37.4% of the time. Since then, he’s upped the fastball usage to 56.1% and the changeup has decreased to being used 27.5% of the time. For the sake of comparison, in 2016, Estrada tossed the fastball 50.5% and the changeup 28.8% of the time in 2016.

The big issue with pitch results from the first half to the second seems to be command, which is pretty evident when you watch Estrada’s recent starts. In the past, we were used to seeing him paint the corners with the fastball and use the changeup as a strikeout pitch. But his fastball thrown for strike percentage has dipped from 32.1% to 21.8% in the second half of 2017, which could be the driving factor in Estrada using his changeup less frequently. The changeup, despite being used less frequently, is still effective. In the first half, it was generating a 19.8% whiff percentage, and in the second half it’s being whiffed at 19.1% of the time.

That would go in line with what Walker said about Estrada’s struggles.

“There was a mechanical issue that he’s worked on,” Walker said. “I do think he’s had some tough luck where innings have spiralled or gotten out of control quickly, where in the past couple of years he’s found a way to nip that in the bud and get a big out. It’s just a tough stretch. We’re not blind to it but we don’t want to look into it too deep or make too many adjustments either. I think it comes down to him commanding his fastball consistently, getting his mechanics back under control.”

Many have suggested that the league has figured Estrada out. I don’t really buy that. If that was the case, Estrada’s changeup, his bread and butter pitch that has led to so many hitters looking like amateurs over the past couple years, would be getting hit. It isn’t. Like I said, it’s still being whiffed at, it’s still generating low contact rates, and the only difference is that it’s being thrown with less frequency. The issue has been Estrada’s fastball command, which sets the table for the changeup.

The trade deadline is just two weeks away. It’s hard to say where the Jays are at despite the fact the front office has suggested the team isn’t really interested in selling. As of right now, the team is four-and-a-half games out of the second Wild Card. That isn’t that daunting. The issue is jumping over the Yankees, Rays, Twins, Mariners, Royals, Rangers, Angels, and Orioles.

But a good Marco Estrada would be huge for this team’s pursuit of an unlikely playoff spot. For the first time since early April, the rotation is actually healthy. Marcus Stroman is rolling, J.A. Happ has been strong since coming off the disabled list, and Aaron Sanchez appears to have his blister issues behind him. Francisco Liriano is, of course, a  bit of a wild card, but Estrada going like he did in those first 11 games could seriously help the Jays climb up the standings.

Another thing to consider with Estrada is where his future with the organization stands. While this cold stretch has certainly guttered his value as a rental piece at the trade deadline, it’s also likely decreased the price tag on his next contract. The Jays are in an odd spot going into 2018 because, despite virtually everything other than Justin Smoak, Roberto Osuna, and Marcus Stroman going sideways this year, they still have the makings of a group that can be competitive.

The Jays have Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and Aaron Sanchez as locks for next year’s rotation — unless, of course, they randomly blow the team up between now and then — leaving two more spots for starters. Joe Biagini could fill one, but he might be best suited for the ‘pen long-term, and Conner Greene, Sean-Reid Foley, and Jon Harris haven’t shown enough in Double-A Dunedin to warrant much consideration at this point.

Estrada on a one-year, buy-low contract could be an ideal fit for the 2018 Blue Jays. That would give them an impending free agent crop of him, Happ, and Josh Donaldson at next year’s deadline if things go to hell once again.

  • Jays of Thunder

    This is definitely a bit vexing. It does feel strange for Marco to be inconsistent after being so reliable the past few years. He’s still over one K per inning, which maybe suggests he’s fine from a stuff standpoint. At this point, I hope he can sneak in a couple good starts and still be a solid trade asset.

    I just had a look at the aggregate team WAR on Fangraphs and … oof. Jays player WAR is 29th with a total of 4.7, ahead of only the Padres. Of that, 2.4 is contributed by 2017 miracle Justin Smoak. Which is to say 4.5 games out of the second wildcard is one thing, but talking ourselves into this team being even a top 15 offense might be an act of delusion rather than optimism. They are 22nd in wRC+, 24th in wOBA and on the defensive side 22nd in UZR/150 27th in FG’s aggregate defensive metric.

    Also last in BABIP at .277, and Donaldson’s back, Bautista’s been good since May, they could add a piece, etc. So maybe they’ve more unlucky than bad. But maybe Tulo’s bad and getting worse, Travis can’t be relied on, Pillar is who we thought he was and Jose is in inevitable decline (last 4 years wRC+ is 160/148/122/102 and SLG .524/.536/.452/.406) which looks like more holes than anyone should be comfortable with for 2018. Selling now to plug holes for then kinda feels like the sensible thing to do.

    And to bring it back around, trading Estrada now doesn’t preclude bringing him back.

  • Sam

    Estrada will not be a ‘solid trade asset’ even if he ‘sneaks in a couple good starts’. If anyone even wanted him the Jays get basically nothing and will probably have to pay most of his salary so what’s the point? Not like they got someone they’re dying to get into the rotation that Estrada needs to make way for. In fact if he does show signs of coming out of this, the Jays should offer him a one year deal. they need a pitcher next year and Estrada could re-establish himself for a better pay day ahead. I think this team will keep most of it’s core together for one more year, and with some money coming off the books for next year will get a starting pitcher, pitching in general, outfield help and some decent bench players while their minor league pieces get another year closer to developing. If it all goes to pot, you cut bait then with the free agents you can get something for and then they’ll have some prospects hopefully redy to bring up and the free agency pool will be a gold mine that off season, so I’m sure they can get some nice pieces to trek on down to T.O. I really think , despite all the calls to ‘rebuild’ ,there’s no need, it would be dumb actually and I think this team can be a decent team in the next few years and perhaps when we look back this current season may be the lowest point of all and the future may be bright. But like it or not I think the smart thing to do is hang in there, make minor changes, with good health, some new blood, and a little luck, who knows? See what happens. I wouldn’t be shocked if we’re all pleasantly surprised this time next year.