If, after two consecutive starts of such impressive quality, you're thinking that maybe Marco Estrada is a better pitcher now than he was in the past, you are likely to be a Blue Jays fan and not a neutral observer. Which is fine, I'm a Blue Jays fan myself and I am definitely hopeful after seeing Estrada's work as the replacement for Daniel Norris. Neutral observers, however, do not share the optimism for Estrada's newfound qualities that has grown in our Blue Jay-colored hearts. I am assuming a Blue Jay-colored heart is simply colored blue, but please grant me some artistic license here.
As I was saying, national, unbiased media has so far been skeptical. Rob Neyer, on Just A Bit Outside has written:
If you believe the pitch categorizations, he has replaced some fastballs with cutters this season. But not exceptionally so.
Two straight excellent outings don't mean he's a different pitcher. Let alone Dave Stieb.
Dayn Perry of CBSSports is similarly skeptical:
However, let's not make the mistake of thinking Estrada has raised his performance ceiling mere days before he turns 32. Sure, there are things to like. He's started throwing his cutter more. His changeup still has a good velocity gap relative to his fastball, and it's showing a bit more drop these days.
That said, Estrada hasn't added velocity, and, as a percentage of batters faced, he's striking out less and walking more than his respective career norms.
Two informed analysts, who have noticed his new weapon, the cutter, but have dismissed Marco Estrada improving on his former self and now being more than a backend starter. And if we're objective, we probably have to nod our heads and agree with the wise people I have quoted and say that Marco Estrada has not turned into Jered Weaver in his prime. But we're not objective, are we? Our hearts are Blue Jay-colored, baby!
A look at Marco Estrada's cutter
Marco Estrada debuted his cutter against the Houston Astros, his third start of the season. In the very next one, his cutter was hit the hardest, 2.500 slugging against, because of this hit:
This is a great look at Estrada's cutter. First thing to notice, Russell Martin sets up low and inside, which is a location Estrada almost never uses when pitching to lefties. If you pause the video shortly after Estrada releases, it looks like the pitch is going to be at the letters, but when you hit play again the pitch ends up near the knees of Logan Morrison. It also looks like the pitch was heading straight for where Martin wanted it, had Morrison not made contact.
Now, this "triple" by Morrison inflates the slugging Estrada gave up on his cutter by a huge margin, as there have been only 4 hits against Estrada's cutter, and this one should have been a single if not for a very ill-advised dive by Chris "defensive specialist" Colabello in right field.
Thanks to the amazing stats by Brooks Baseball, we know that Estrada has recorded an average exit velocity of 84 mph (very small sample) on his cutters, while his fastballs and changeups have gotten an exit velocity of 91-92 mph on average. And while Estrada has not gotten many whiffs on his cutter yet, he has gotten a good percentage of groundballs (again, small sample) on his new pitch. So far, the pitch has been thrown for strikes more than the pitch it is most likely competing with, which is the curveball. In short, the results for the cutter look good so far, but we can't be sure until he throws it more.
The cutter, unlike the slider, isn't always mostly about getting whiffs, as pitchers like Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay will tell you. Ideally, the pitch puts more doubt into the minds of the hitters, leading to less solid contact not just on the cutter, but also on the other pitches. The cutter will hopefully give Estrada a weapon to pitch lefties inside, as they would usually look mostly away, except for maybe the occasional curveball, though Estrada has trouble commanding that pitch.
So far this season, Marco Estrada's fastball% has been 48.1, down 8.5% from last year. Over the last four years, Estrada's fastball has been hit for an isolated power of .214 and a HR/BiA of 10.75, which is about 112% of the average. If you don't like numbers, let's just say Estrada's main problem has been that has fastball has been hit ofor a home run too much. Can Estrada's cutter take some of the heat off his four-seamer, and let him keep the ball in the park more often? I think it's pretty conceivable. I'm hoping it will.