Both Smyly (84% owned) and Estrada (67% owned) have quietly put up dominant numbers over long stretches but haven’t quite earned their MLB stripes or the full respect of fantasy players according to their ownership rates on Yahoo. Smyly is a guy who has always had filthy stuff but injury issues have prevented him from putting together a full season. Estrada is a guy who compensates for his lack of velocity by working up in the zone with pinpoint control, and is still trying to live down his atrocious 2014 season in which he surrendered the most homers of any NL starter.
In my opinion both Smyly and Estrada are undervalued because much of their best pitching has come recently due to subtle adjustments in Estrada’s case and development in Smyly’s case. Take a quick look at the following table, and try to guess which two lines over the past ~100 IP are Smyly’s and Estrada’s.
If you guessed Smyly was Pitcher A and Estrada was Pitcher C, you’d be right. Pitcher B is Felix Hernandez. Smyly and Estrada have made adjustments that have largely flown under the radar, and it’s time for us to adjust our perceptions about them.
This is going to be a two-parter because I got too deep into Marco Estrada’s dank peripherals, so stay tuned for Part II coming out tomorrow for analysis on Drew Smyly’s hot start to the season.
I linked David Laurila’s interview with Estrada up top, but if you didn’t click on it you definitely should because it’s an incredible look into the mind of a Major League pitcher. These are the points of interest I took away:
- Improving his command has allowed him to pitch up in the zone extremely effectively and generate a ton of strikes in the upper half with his rising fastball.
- He has leaned more heavily on his changeup since coming to Toronto, and has paired that elite pitch with a bump in his four-seam fastball spin rate.
- Estrada almost never shakes off the catchers’ signal, a habit he says he learned from über-efficient veteran Mark Buehrle last season.
That all sounds great, but the Pitcher X chart above clearly shows Estrada beating out his fielding independent statistics by a laughable amount, so here are a few reasons that may resolve part of that gap.
1. The Cutter
For all the talk about Estrada’s awesome changeup being the key to his recent success, the numbers actually show that he has been leaning on the pitch less. The cutter is what we should be talking about.
The cutter has been one of the fastest growing pitches in baseball since Mariano Rivera showed how effective it could be. It’s like a four-seamer but with late horizontal break that jams hitters and leads to a ton of broken bats. A few months back I talked about how A’s reliever Evan Scribner rode the cutter to an elite K/BB mark in 2015, and this is sort of the same. Watch these two GIFS of Estrada and try to tell which one is the four-seamer and which is the cutter.
Pretty hard to tell apart, right? That’s because he threw them at the exact same speed with the exact same delivery. (FYI, the first GIF is a four seam and the second is a cutter.) In fact, his cutter actually averaged a higher velocity at 89.8 MPH than his four-seamer (89.1 MPH). As a hitter, trying to battling two practically identical pitches up in the zone while also keeping in mind the deadly changeup that comes in over 10 MPH slower at 78.6 is a tough task.
BABIP is a fickle stat with a lot of noise, but when a pitcher manages to sustain a .263 BABIP over 750 innings, you can say pretty confidently that there’s an aspect of skill there. Estrada won’t repeat his .216 BABIP from last season, but he has always been able to limit line drives and his Hard Hit% is excellent is well. It’s 8.7 HR/FB that he paired with a 52% FB rate last year that should make you worried.
3. The Upper Half
“You can’t go thigh to belt. That’s the danger zone. You have to go above the belly button to the letters. That’s the safe zone. If you go above that, no one is ever going to swing.” —Estrada on pitching up in the zone.
Hearing Estrada say that confirmed what I was seeing from watching most of his starts last season, and brought to mind this heat map by Eno Sarris showing where in the zone right handed hitters are hitting homers these days.
Hitters today are looking for juicy pitches “down and in” in order to tap into their pull power, and Marco Estrada knows that. Last season, when he had two strikes on a batter, this is where he threw the ball for strike three:
He got strikes both in the highest slice of the strike zone but also above the strike zone on swings and misses and close called pitches. This heat map is honestly a model for how to pitch in the big leagues when your fastball maxes out at 92 MPH.
Estrada will likely regress a bit due to an unsustainable HR/FB rate, but by pounding the upper half with an effective mix of pitches, deceptive changes in velocity, and pinpoint control, there are a lot of reasons to believe he can continue to beat out his peripherals.