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Marco Estrada defying "stats", pitching out of his mind

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Back in June, Marco Estrada took a no-hitter late into two consecutive games, leading us to wonder whether a new, better version of Estrada had been created, or if the guy just got lucky multiple games in a row. It had me wondering if Estrada's new cutter could play a major role in his success, but several months later Marco Estrada is still pitching very well without making a lot of use of that cutter.

Marco Estrada
Marco Estrada
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Considering how well Marco Estrada has pitched this season, it is more than a bit strange to me to read the great Jeff Sullivan Rob Arthur recently describing Estrada's season as "uninspiring" in an article about Jake Arrieta's altered release point:

Perhaps the best parallel for Arrieta is Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada, who missed 222 days. Like Arrieta, Estrada seems to have embarked upon a program of steadily moving his release upward, becoming more of an over-the-top arm slot. But unlike Arrieta, Estrada — who is also a right-hander — has moved toward the center of the rubber and away from third base. Whether that choice is at all related to Estrada’s lack of success (his 3.31 ERA and 4.50 FIP in 2015 are uninspiring) is an interesting question. Maybe, like 2013 Arrieta, Estrada is only a few inches of release point away from becoming an ace.

It seems Sullivan has, at least in this case, almost completely moved away from using ERA as an indicator of how well a pitcher has pitched. One might call this a point of conflict between "stats guys" and "old-fashioned baseball fans", but that would be misleading. ERA, or Earned Run Average, is just as much a statistic as FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, is. So the conflict, if indeed there is a conflict, is between the proponents of the old statistics versus the fans of the new ones.

Why do we use FIP?

The clue is in the title with this one, Fielding Independent Pitching is very useful in eliminating factors the pitcher can't control (the fielding behind him), reducing a pitcher's responsibility to only walks, strikeouts and home runs. Simple yet effective, more effective than ERA in fact, in predicting how well a pitcher will pitch in the future. However, a metric called xFIP, which assumed that a pitcher has influence over how many flyballs are given up, but not over how many are turned into home runs, turned out to be even better at prediciting future ERA. But xFIP is even less optimistic about Marco Estrada's pitching than FIP, so it won't help us to show anyone that Marco Estrada has pitched better than his FIP suggests. Even my favorite metric, SIERA, offers no help in this situation, although it does think highly of Estrada if we use career numbers.

Despite being a writer for one of the "stats sites", as our beloved broadcaster Buck Martinez would say, I would lean toward using the old-fashioned metric in this situation. While I trust the advanced metrics in most cases, I do think that certain extreme cases can "break" FIP and cause it to be less effective than it usually is. I think Estrada this season has been one such extreme case, and I'll explain why in this article. Do note that I don't think Marco Estrada is actually a top 20 pitcher in the game, as his ERA- would suggest. But thinking of him as one of the five worst in the entire game? That definitely won't do.

The Weaver comparison

Jered Weaver, currently, is not a very good pitcher. Jered Weaver in 2011-2012, was one of the better pitchers around even though he pitched at a lower velocity than Marco Estrada currently does. He had a .250 and a .241 BABIP against in those seasons, which is kind of cherry picking since his career BABIP against is .271 (still very low). The difference in Weaver's ERA- and FIP- those years was 20 and 21, over his career that number drops to 10. Marco Estrada's 2015 gap? It's 31, he's been 10% better (?) at deceiving FIP than even Jered Weaver was at his very best.

Besides being right-handed, throwing high-80s fastballs and getting lots of flyballs, there are more similarities to be found. Marco Estrada has recorded an average vertical movement of 12.35 inches of "rise" on the fastball this year, Jered Weaver's was 11.89 in 2011 and 11.08 in 2012. Those numbers may not mean anything to you, so let me steal a graph from a nice Hardball Times article (which happens to feature Marcus Stroman):

Vertical movement on fastballs, 2011-2013

Since the graph ends at a vertical spin deflection of 12 inches, it would not be ridiculous to say that Estrada's number at 12.35 is probably very good. And Marco is only this season starting pitch like he has a rising fastball, putting it 0.15 inches above the center of the zone on average, compared to -0,01 in 2014 and -0,11 in both 2012 and 2013. He still has some catching up to do if he wants to imitate Jered Weaver completely, as Weaver threw the four-seamer 0.24 feet and 0.41 inches above the strikezone on average in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Put another way, prior to 2015 Marco Estrada put 14% of his four-seam fastballs above the letters (outside the strikezone), compared to 20,4% this year. Hitters have swung at 42% of those high fastballs (that's very high), and have slugged .250 against them this year.

More stats, different stats

If we sort the 129 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings as a starter this year and sort them by lowest BABIP against, who comes in first? That's right, it's Marco Estrada, followed closely by Zack Greinke, while R.A. Dickey is 7th. Drew Hutchison is 126th out of 129, by the way. If we sort those pitches by amount of soft contact given up, Estrada comes in 35th, which is good but not insane. What's insane is that Hutchison is 7th out of 129 pitchers in most amount of soft contact given up, while Dickey in the top 25 shouldn't surprise anyone. If instead we sort by least amount of hard contact given up, Hutchison drops to 90th, Estrada to 49th and Dickey rises to 4th place. The significance here is not that Estrada is now very good at inducing weak contact, it's that he was the actual worst at avoiding hard contact in 2012-2014, and now he is, or seems to be, better than average at it. Marco Estrada also has the 2nd best line drive numbers, for what it's worth.

The main reason that (x)FIP doesn't like Estrada this season is his lowered number of strikeouts. While his contact on pitches inside the zone (Z-Contact) is exactly on his career average, Estrada's O-Contact is elevated this year. In fact, he is 13th out of 129 pitchers in terms of allowing contact on pitches outside the strikezone. However, on pitches inside the strikezone, he's 121st! On pitches outside the strikezone, Estrada allows about the same amount of contact as Mike Pelfrey, and more than Jonathon Niese, as an example. But pitchers that allow more contact on pitches inside the strikezone than Estrada include: Chris Archer, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Carrasco...the list goes on. On pitches inside the strikezone, Estrada is the 9th best at getting whiffs out of 358(!) starting pitchers with 250 innings pitched between 2005 and 2015.

So Marco Estrada is letting opponents hit a lot of pitches outside the strikezone, no wonder he's allowing soft contact, right? Pitchers with the most similar low Z-contact, high O-contact in the last decade or so: R.A. Dickey, Michael Wacha, Tim Wakefield, Jered Weaver. We know the Weaver comparison by now, thought it's worth noting that his changeup has a very similar whiff rate to that of Estrada, while Wacha is yet another guy with a very good changeup and a pretty low career BABIP. Less positive comps are Hector Noesi (good changeup, garbage fastball) and Randall Delgado (another changeup guy), but there's also Hector Santiago, who has outperformed his FIP by quite a bit so far. Will Estrada keep allowing contact on pitcher's pitches at a groundbreaking rate? That remains to be seen. I'm pretty sure it's a positive quality, however.

Conclusion

Hitters trying to hit Marco Estrada have made weak contact, hitting weak flyballs and very few line drives. When hitters do that, it's crazy to ask Estrada to get more strikeouts. He is not the one who currently needs to adapt, that's up to the hitters. And while it's likely that the hitters will adapt and hit more line drives, it's also not unlikely that they will strike out more in the process, bringing Estrada's (x)FIP down again. Then again, hitters didn't really adapt to Jered Weaver's or Chris Young's extreme rising fastballs, only getting to Weaver now that he's throwing 83 mph. Marco Estrada's not an ace, but he's probably a decent number three or four in a rotation, and he should definitely be ahead of the aging Buehrle and Dickey, and the perplexingly ineffective Hutchison, in a Toronto Blue Jays playoff rotation.