There is no pitcher who has a greater difference between their ERA and FIP than Marco Estrada over the past two years. Estrada has the 22nd best ERA among qualified pitchers over that span, ahead of AL Cy Young Winner Rick Porcello, Rays ace Chris Archer, and Felix Hernandez. Estrada’s .227 BABIP is the lowest by 16 points and he is tied with RA Dickey with the highest infield flyball percentage. Despite throwing only 88 MPH and having poor peripherals, Estrada has been one of baseball’s top 30 pitchers over the past two years.
One of the key’s to Estrada’s success is the absurd movement he gets on his pitches. There is no pitcher who gets as much rising action on his fourseam fastball or changeup than Marco Estrada (Clayton Kershaw ranks second in both!). Only Chris Tillman had more rise on his cutter. Estrada manages to get lots of spin on his fastball leading to strong results. League average spin rate is 2,264 revolutions per minute (RPM). Estrada averaged 2,403 RPM which was good for being among the top 40 pitchers who threw at least 1000 fourseam fastballs. The cutter has 2,426 which is considered one of the best. The high spin leads to greater rise on the pitches which helps in inducing popups and weakly hit flyballs. There is a correlation between fastball spin and swinging strikes however Estrada’s swinging strike rate with the fourseam and cutter sit below league average. Estrada doesn’t have a velocity advantage; he uses strong location and movement to get the batter to hit swing at pitches they shouldn’t be.
That’s not the only thing Estrada does well. He manages to disguise his pitches well through release points. All of his four pitches are released at nearly the same vertical height. The changeup and curveball area released from almost the exact same spot horizontally. The same can be said for the fastball and cutter.
Estrada became most comfortable with his release points in 2014. This deception is another part of the puzzle for the 33 year old.
And then there is the unique changeup. As seen above, the fastball-changeup release points are similar. The changeup is 11 MPH slower than the fastball. Only six pitchers who managed 100 innings last season had a greater velocity difference than Estrada. And then there is the rise on the changeup which is atypical of the pitch. Changeups are usually supposed to drop making it a much more difficult sequence for the batter. First, the batter fails to recognize the changeup out of Estrada’s hand early thinking fastball, followed by a velocity difference further making it more difficult to pick up, and then the ball is rising. It’s not an easy pitch to hit. League average batting average on changeup was .242 in 2016. Estrada’s .161!
Dealing with low velocity starters is always a tad concerning simply because they have less room for error than their high velocity counterparts. Estrada did well with the 1 MPH loss in 2016. The process Estrada uses to get batters out may very well have some longevity to it. It will be important for Estrada to improve upon his walk rate from last season as well. His swinging strike rate remained consistent with his career.
Estrada has become one of the best contact managers in the league. With sharp command, indistinguishable release points, and three pitches with an abundance of movement, Estrada’s one of the most unique pitchers in baseball. He enters the final year of his contract with potential to reap the benefits of his relatively newfound pitching success. There are few players like Estrada who throw 88 MPH while posting incredibly low BABIPs and having that success sustainable.