The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

How Marco Estrada overcame a slow fastball to become one of the top pitchers in the AL East

A brief glance at Toronto Blue Jays RHP Marco Estrada would elicit little enthusiasm. With young pitchers seemingly all throwing 95+ MPH, Estrada is a bit of a unicorn in the modern league. Estrada, 33, throws one of the game’s slowest fastballs but has had tremendous success the past couple years regardless. How does Estrada manage to do this? Is he lucky? Does he have superlative command? What’s his secret?

marco estrada spin rate

With all the newfangled statistics, we’ve learned over the past couple years that a high spin rate on a fastball correlates to more swings-and-misses and pop-ups. Due to the backspin on the ball, high spin rate fastballs tend to “rise” on the hitter at the last second. Of course, it is technically impossible for a fastball to rise due to that pesky little thing known as gravity. Nonetheless, high spin rate fastballs give the illusion that the ball is rising, making it difficult for a hitter to square up the pitch.

While Estrada is renowned for his spin rate amongst stat geeks, what really separates him from his starting pitching brethren is his vertical release point. Estrada’s over-the-top delivery appears to be at almost 90 degrees, which serves to minimize horizontal spin on his four-seam fastball. The effect of this, for a hitter, is devastating. By minimizing horizontal spin, Estrada is able to maximize the pop-up-inducing vertical spin on the ball.

marco estrada spin rate

2016 leaders in “Vertical Movement” per Baseball Prospectus

As you can see from Baseball Prospectus’s table, Estrada led the league in “vertical movement” on his four-seam fastball last year while maintaining an ultra-low -1.60 “horizontal movement” number. This led to a stellar 16% pop-up to batted ball in play ratio, which in turn helps to explain Estrada’s freakishly low .216 and .234 BABIP numbers for 2015 and 2016, respectively. Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts in terms of guaranteeing an out. By allowing his fastball to “rise,” Estrada has a competitive advantage that countervails his inability to light up the radar gun.

In addition to simply making the ball “rise,” Estrada altered his strategy of where to locate his fastball, opting to throw the pitch high while others focused on the pitching axiom of “keeping the ball down.”

In an interview last year with Fangraphs, Estrada explained his strategy.

“I’ve heard about my spin rate, but I don’t know why it is that way. I just know that I need to elevate. It’s a big part of my game. I’ve learned that working down isn’t me. Back in the day, I used to think that way. It was, ‘You’ve gotta work down, you’ve gotta work down.’ Then I started to elevate a little bit here and there. The next think I know, I’m telling myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to pitch up.’

“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 also has the benefit of his secondary pitches looking the exact same as his four-seamer coming out of his hand. This, according to Estrada, is by design.

“I want to keep everything spinning the same way and looking like a four-seam. The spin on my curveball is four-seam, and the four-seam [fastball] obviously spins up and down. My changeup is basically the same thing.”

While a simple fastball-changeup-curveball combination may be enough for Estrada to be a competent MLB pitcher, he gives his cutter a lion’s share of the credit for his success the past two seasons.

“In years past, when I didn’t have a cutter, I’d fall behind and throw a 3-0 or 3-1 88-mph fastball and get crushed. Now I can fall behind — not that I want to fall behind — and don’t have to throw a four-seam fastball. I can go with something that looks just like it, but has some movement. I can get some swings and misses, or some ground balls or pop ups.”

Marco Estrada has been one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball the past couple years. Many will pick him to regress due to his age (33), FIP (4.40 in 2015, 4.15 in 2016) and, of course, his slow fastball velocity. But looking at the factors behind his two-year surge — vertical movement and placement on the fastball, the addition of a cutter to his repertoire, and an emphasis on repeating the same arm motion for each pitch — I would argue Marco Estrada is just getting started. If you’re a fan of an AL East counterpart, be prepared to be flummoxed once again by a man who struggles to hit 90 MPH on his fastball. This time, don’t throw your arms up in the air in bewilderment because what Marco Estrada does to hitters is no fluke.

RSS
Follow by Email
Facebook
Google+
http://theraindelay.com/2017/03/21/marco-estrada-top-pitchers-in-al-east-slow-fastball/
Twitter
Updated: March 21, 2017 — 5:51 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Rain Delay © 2016 Frontier Theme
RSS
Follow by Email
Facebook
Google+
http://theraindelay.com/2017/03/21/marco-estrada-top-pitchers-in-al-east-slow-fastball/
Twitter