(Image: Morry Gash / AP Photo)
Spring Training is normally about optimism, possibilities, and the excitement of a new season. Unfortunately, none of that seems to apply to Milwaukee starting pitcher Marco Estrada this year in Maryvale. While Spring Training statistics should always be taken with a full shaker of salt, two of Estrada’s three exhibition starts have been clunkers. After being lit up by Kansas City on Saturday, the right-hander’s ERA ballooned to 6.48. What’s worse, opponents are batting a robust .393 against Estrada. More than most players, Estrada’s issues are likely to extend beyond Spring Training unless he makes adjustments to his pitch selection.
One aspect of Estrada’s tough spring that figures to carry over into the regular season is his high fly-ball percentage. So far in the Cactus League Estrada seems to be looking for frequent-flyer miles, as he has compiled a 0.43 groundout/flyout ratio. Somehow this fly-ball flurry has resulted in just one exhibition homer, delivered by the Cubs’ Javier Baez. Yet Estrada has struggled with fly balls throughout his career. Last season, his ground-ball/fly-ball rate was 0.85; that total would have been third-lowest in the National League if Estrada had had enough innings to qualify. Similarly, 44.3% of contact off of Estrada last season was in the air, which would have been second-highest in the Senior Circuit. Being a fly-ball pitcher in Miller Park is hardly a recipe for success. Not surprisingly, Estrada struggled at home last season, as he was lit up for a 6.62 ERA in Milwaukee, compared with a stellar 2.09 mark on the road.
If the 30-year-old is going to rebound from his prickly Cactus League outings and decrease his fly-ball rate, the key pitch will have to be his curveball. The pitch has been comparatively ineffective for him since he moved to the rotation full time. Hitters have compiled higher averages against Estrada’s curve than against his other off-speed weapon, the changeup. Estrada struggles to command the curve; last year he threw it for a strike barely half the time. However, like most pitchers, Estrada typically induces ground balls when he throws the curve. In 2014, 58% of all contact off of Estrada’s curve was on the ground. Utilizing his curveball more frequently could help to reduce Estrada’s alarmingly high fly-ball rate. It may seem odd to suggest that he increase use of a pitch that he has trouble getting into the strike zone. However Estrada doesn’t have a real struggle with walks. Last season he averaged just two walks per nine innings pitched, indicating there is room for him to consider using the curveball more frequently.
The frustrating thing about Estrada’s struggles in Spring Training is that he ended last season on such a high note. After missing July with a hamstring injury, Estrada put together a 2.15 ERA. Opponents batted just .165 off of Estrada in these last two months, and his K/BB rate was over 5. Significantly, during his resurgence Estrada’s fly-ball rate dropped and his ground-ball rate rose. For the purposes of this article, it would be tidy and convenient if Estrada had rebounded because he was using his curveball more often. Unfortunately, that was not the case. His second-half peripheral statistics, such as a remarkably low 7.1% homerun/fly ball rate and his miniscule .199 BABIP, reveal that his turnaround is probably unsustainable.
Throwing more curveballs is just one of many adjustments that Estrada needs to make. Yet it is clear that he does need to make adjustments. Otherwise, Spring Training could be a sign of things to come for Estrada in 2014, and fans in the bleachers could be getting plenty of souvenir home run balls on days that he starts.