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Marco Estrada lost velo and gained Ks

Marco Estrada’s new two-strike approach is paying dividends.

Toronto Blue Jays v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It appears all the divisions in baseball are pretty much wrapped up, and although there’s a handful of teams still vying for playoff wildcard berths, we are at a position in the season when we can look at leaderboards and compare what we have seen over the course of the last six months. To that end, there are some interesting pitchers who have improved their strikeouts per nine this season, with the leader being previously unheralded Marco Estrada.

Before we dive into the enigma that is Marco Estrada’s magical increase in strikeouts, first I’d like to discuss methodology. I wanted to compare starting pitchers’ 2015 K/9 to this year’s ratio by identifing all qualified starters for 2015 and 2016 and finding only those pitchers who threw enough innings to be on both lists. Due to injuries, call-ups, innings limits et cetera, this yielded 40 starting pitchers in total. Of those forty, five starters improved their K/9 numbers by at least one strikeout per nine innings, with Estrada ahead by a wide margin:

Year Name Team IP K/9 K/9 Improvement WAR
2015 Marco Estrada Blue Jays 170.1 6.34 1.8
2016 Marco Estrada Blue Jays 164 8.45 2.11 2.7
2015 John Lackey Cardinals 218 7.22 3.6
2016 John Lackey Cubs 176.1 8.83 1.61 2.8
2015 R.A. Dickey Blue Jays 214.1 5.29 2
2016 R.A. Dickey Blue Jays 169.1 6.7 1.41 1
2015 Collin McHugh Astros 203.2 7.56 3.7
2016 Collin McHugh Astros 164.1 8.82 1.26 2.6
2015 Chris Tillman Orioles 173 6.24 1.8
2016 Chris Tillman Orioles 164.2 7.43 1.19 2.4

Estrada leads the way in K/9 improvement when compared to last season, and it’s not even close. Last year, he posted a pedestrian 6.34 strikeouts per nine, which was over a batter lower than the league average for all MLB starters (which stood at 7.4 K/9). This season, he raised his punchout rate to 8.45, which is better than the league-average 7.74 K/9 for all starters this season.

The interesting thing about Estrada is that his velocity has actually fallen on all of his pitches when compared to 2015. Per Brooks Baseball, he lost velocity of at least one mile per hour (and in some cases more) on each of his offerings:

It gets even more curious when diving into the movement on his pitches, because he has lost horizontal movement on his fastball, changeup, and curveball, which account for 88 percent of his pitches.

And yet all of this has equaled...wait for it...an increase in whiffs across all four of his pitches!

One of the reasons for this is the velocity difference between his fastball and his changeup, which has been intensified, meaning he can rely even more on his secondary offerings to fool hitters. This in part has caused Estrada to change his approach to batters, particularly when he has them in a two-strike count. It’s easy to see the difference in approach when stacking up the percentage of pitches deployed when hitters are either in the hole 0-2 or 1-2, or even when it’s a full count.

Year Total 2-strike pitches Fastball% Change% Curve% Cutter%
2015 1020 49.31 31.27 8.73 3.63
2016 737 40.43 42.61 12.08 5.43

Generally, a pitcher throws his best pitch with a two-strike count, and for Estrada, that had always been his fastball. As good veterans do, he adjusted to his older self’s stuff and now relies on his changeup more than any other pitch when he gets a batter to two strikes. Even in a 3-2 count, Estrada has used his fastball only 48 percent of the time (67 fastballs on 137 3-2 pitches thrown), opting to utilize his changeup 42 percent of the time. This is a vastly different story from last season when he used his fastball in 3-2 counts over 60 percent of the time.

Regardless of the count, he has offered up both fastballs and offspeed pitches at an unpredictable clip that has not only increased batters’ whiff rates, but has frozen batters, which has also helped his K/9. With two strikes, he has an improved ‘looking’ clip on three of his four pitches compared to 2015:

Year FB Called Third Strike% Change Called Third Str% Curve Called Third Str% Cutter Called Third Str%
2015 3.97 0.31 5.62 5.41
2016 6.38 2.87 3.53 10

Taking a negative and turning it into a positive has never been so brilliant! Estrada has appreciably changed his approach with two strikes, reaching for his offspeed pitches more often. He is having his best year since 2012 and has been a strong part of the back of the Blue Jays rotation. His ability to keep hitters guessing and not offer the ‘expected’ pitch all the time has yielded positive results, and that, my friends, is how you generate more whiffs with lesser velocity.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano