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Importance of Marco Estrada

The Toronto Blue Jays just clinched the AL East. The Toronto Blue Jays are going to the playoffs. Even at this point, it all seems a bit surreal, but that is what 22 years with no playoffs will do to a franchise. By breaking the longest active playoff drought, the Blue Jays finally had a full season playing to their potential and still have a chance of securing the best record in the American League.

As with any playoff team, Toronto’s season is full of heroes and stars, and everyone deserves a bit of the praise. The preseason called for the Jays to have an explosive offense, and that has been their calling card. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion have combined for nearly 120 homers and more than 300 RBI, with Donaldson being the front-runner for AL MVP. Russell Martin has been solid. The likes of Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis have also performed well, rising above expectations. Over at the pitching side, David Price has been better than advertised after his mid-season pick-up, while veterans RA Dickey and Mark Buehrle have been steady after rough starts. Roberto Osuna has been a pleasant surprise as the team’s closer, but then again Toronto was supposed to have a good bullpen.

Toronto’s success is a good reflection of a team that had its key players meet or exceed preseason expectations, which is not such a common occurrence. And yet, there is always a place reserved for the unsung heroes and the surprise contributors. And for the Blue Jays, that player has been Marco Estrada.

Before the season started, Estrada was considered as yet another low-key acquisition by the Jays, who traded Adam Lind for him to the Brewers. With Toronto set at their starting rotation, it was assumed that Estrada would be nothing more than a relief swingman and occasional spot starter, which seemed appropriate after the rough 2014 he had in Milwaukee. Over 150.2 innings, Estrada posted a 4.36 ERA, led the NL in homeruns allowed, and posted a negative WAR, according to Fangraphs (-0.1). Baseball Reference had him a bit better at positive 0.6, but the truth is that the hurler had been so bad that he couldn’t stay in Milwaukee’s rotation to end the year.

The logic was that things couldn’t get much better for Estrada, who would be moving to a tougher league and to another difficult home stadium for pitchers, which would be problematic considering his homer-happy tendencies. Fangraphs preseason projections pegged him for 93 innings and a 0.2 WAR, with Estrada being a super-utility kind of pitcher out of the bullpen. However, the early injury to Marcus Stroman and the struggles of Toronto’s young starters like Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez prompted the Jays to give Estrada a chance to start.

His first start came as late as May 5th against the Yankees, a game which Toronto lost. In fact, Estrada would go winless in his first five starts, posting a 0-3 record and 5.02 ERA that didn’t seem to augur great things for the Mexican pitcher. The Blue Jays lost all of his five starts. However, it all changed when June began. A 7-3 Toronto win in Washington made Estrada the winning pitcher for the first time as a starter, and that began a successful streak for him and the club, who has seen Estrada go 12-5 in 22 starts with a 2.93 ERA. The Blue Jays have gone 16-6 in these starts.

While it would be a stretch to suddenly call Estrada a dominant pitcher, his contributions have been essential for the Blue Jays, who desperately need stability in the starting rotation. His 2015 renaissance has been fueled by an unsustainable .219 BABIP against, which defies his tremendously low 31.9% groundball rate. Estrada’s 3.15 ERA is a big contrast to his 4.40 FIP and 5.05 xFIP, but the Blue Jays probably couldn’t care less at this point.

Even as Estrada continues to outperform his peripherals, 2015 does include a number of improvements and adjustments that have made him better suited for life in the American League. His devastating changeup has suddenly become one of the most effective pitches in the league, while he has also demonstrate an ability to remain constant as the game goes along. Extensive research has shown that starting pitchers tend to worsen as the game goes along, facing the times through the order penalty as hitters know what to expect. This hasn’t been a problem for Marco Estrada:

Marco Estrada Times through the Order 2015

Times Facing Lineup

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The fact that Estrada has been able to remain steady as the game advance to more high-leverage situations has made him a special pitcher in his own right. In fact, he will finish the season as the AL’s fifth-highest pitcher in terms of Win Probability Added, which accounts the contributions of each play and how they affected a team’s chance of winning. By this stat, Estrada has been more valuable than pitchers like Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, and Chris Archer.

Going by traditional WAR, Fangraphs has Estrada with 1.8 as only the 28th-most valuable pitcher in the AL, but Baseball Reference pegs him with a more forgiving 3.4 that places him the top 15. Estrada is also fifth in the AL in ERA, while he is the best at hits per 9 innings, and though that is certainly a product of his low BABIP allowed, he has also induced a ton of weak contact and easy fly balls that make his 6.7 H/9 much more believable.

As the playoffs are near, it will be interesting to see how the Blue Jays use Marco Estrada. While David Price is the obvious #1 starter, the return of Marcus Stroman makes things much more interesting. Dickey, Buehrle, and Estrada are bound to fight for the 2 available spots, though it is likely that Estrada will return to the bullpen for a long relief role if needed. But even if he ends up being the odd man out, it is still important to reflect on how important Estrada has been to Toronto’s season.

At $3.9 million this year, he has been a bargain for the Blue Jays, who have needed luck as much as they have needed their tremendous collection of talent to deliver the franchise’s first postseason berth in more than two decades. When the season is over, Estrada will be a free agent, so it will also be interesting to see the interest that Estrada arises in the market. While his numbers do show that he has been playing over his talent level, there is still value to be had by a pitcher in his early 30’s who can induce weak contact.

The Blue Jays enter the playoffs as the favorites in the AL East. And that wouldn’t be possible without a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be there.

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