What is driving the ugly numbers for Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada lately?
Through April and May, Marco Estrada looked better than ever. With his 3.15 ERA and 78 K in 68.2 IP, it seemed that he had found a way to take his game, yet again, to another level. An uncanny ability to induce weak air outs, great control and now a lethal strikeout artist? That’d hardly be fair.
And yet although the strikeout totals have remained high, his ERA has ballooned by roughly two runs to 5.17. June was a nightmare for Marco. He mixed in one solid start around five dreadful ones. He had a 9.11 ERA and a 1.045 opponents’ OPS. His command eluded him with 18 walks. The slump has continued into July with an outing that began well but ended with Marco getting knocked around.
Estrada’s struggles have come at a bad time for the Blue Jays. The club is trying to edge back to .500 and convince management that they are worthy of investing in for another playoff run. It would be a massive boon if their steadiest starter over past two years could get back on track.
And if the Jays keep floundering, Marco would’ve been a very valuable trade commodity but his stock has fallen. Marco is on an expiring contract this year and he has enough of a recent track record that teams would still be interested but his issues have hurt his value (a silver lining might be resigning him on the cheap in the offseason?).
But what has actually changed with Marco that’s contributed his brutal past seven starts? Looking at the numbers, not much. One stat does stick out like a sore thumb though: BABIP (batting average on balls in play). BABIP can give insight into whether a player has benefitted from good luck or suffered from bad.
Estrada’s BABIP in 2017 is .325. For many pitchers, that wouldn’t be too abnormally high but it’s very uncharacteristic for Marco. His career BABIP is .263 and with the Jays it’s been an extremely stingy .224. In fact, over 2015 and 2016, Estrada has had the lowest BABIP in MLB—19 points lower than the next lowest qualified pitcher (Jake Arrieta). Going back even further, Estrada leads the majors in BABIP from 2012-2016 (Estrada is followed closely by the Jays’ own Aaron Sanchez).
It should also be said that a low BABIP doesn’t necessarily make you good pitcher—it must be compared to a pitcher’s norms (ex. Marcus Stroman and Joe Biagini have nearly the same BABIP. Sanchez has the lowest mark among Jays starters followed by J.A. Happ). For most pitchers, a BABIP as low as Estrada’s would indicate they’re enjoying some fantastic luck but he’s been achieving those numbers for so long and so consistently that it’s his normal.
All that to say, Estrada’s BABIP is out of whack. It strongly suggests a good deal of bad luck is afflicted Marco. The good news is that there should be strong regression to the mean—bounces should start going his way again.
There is more at play than luck. Estrada’s walk rate has increased a touch this year (mostly due to the last month) and a few more fly ball have been leaving park but aside from that, there’s nothing very different about his underlying stats. Take a look at his batted ball profile, nothing is out of whack. Opponents’ plate discipline? Nope. His velocity has changed by a few MPH this season but for the better.
So what’s wrong with Marco? Rotten luck and some mechanical issues—nothing nothing chronic or catastrophic. If the Baseball Gods had kept smiling on Estrada over the past month, we likely would have barely noticed his minor mechanical problems.
His five year stretch of “good luck” has run out so far this season but it’s due to return and with it the Marco Estrada we’re familiar with.