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How Blue Jays’ Estrada is approaching dangerous Rangers lineup

Arden Zwelling | posted Thursday, Oct 6th, 2016

Marco estrada throws seven scoreless innings

ARLINGTON, Texas — Marco Estrada has an awfully important start Thursday night against the Texas Rangers. Perhaps you’ve heard—it’s Game 1 of the ALDS.

The process for some pitchers in a situation like Estrada’s would be to look back at film of the last few times they faced their opponent, analyzing what went right and, more importantly, what went wrong. Baseball players have an embarrassment of data and resources available to them in today’s game, from advanced scouting to heat maps to spray charts to multi-camera, slow-motion footage of each and every major league hitter’s swing. You can analyze your game to an unbelievable degree, and some pitchers will take advantage of those resources, devising a plan to best nullify their opponents.

Not Estrada. He’s not about that life.

“No, I haven’t looked at one thing,” Estrada said Wednesday, a day before he starts Game 1 for the Blue Jays. “I don’t really do that sort of stuff. I feel like guys change their approach all the time, and you can kind of see it off their swings as the game goes on. I try to pay attention to that a little more than going back and seeing what they’ve done off of me. It’s just something I’ve changed in the last few years. And it seems to work out. So, I’ll just keep it that way.”

And, of course, that’s fine. You’ve got to do whatever works for you. Last season, following the advice of the revered Mark Buehrle, Estrada stopped worrying about the small stuff. He began to take the mound with a conviction to simply throw the exact pitch the catcher called, every single time. The most important thing was hitting his spot, and executing the pitch he’d been asked to execute with precision. Nothing else—results, defence, weather, who’s up in the bullpen, whatever—mattered.

And it’s worked for him. Since the start of 2015, Estrada’s allowed the second-fewest hits of any major leaguer to make more than 32 starts, trailing only some guy named Clayton Kershaw. His 3.30 ERA over that span sits 20th among starters, ahead of name brand pitchers like Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, and his opponent Thursday night, Cole Hamels.

“To be honest with you, I don’t really think about much while I’m out there. I focus on the glove and the sign and that’s about it,” Estrada said. “I’m just focused on throwing strikes and getting early outs.”

The Rangers will present an interesting challenge. Carlos Beltran and Adrian Beltre are future Hall-of-Famers; Rougned Odor and Carlos Gomez are tough outs and no fun to deal with on the base paths; Jonathan Lucroy, Nomar Mazara and Ian Desmond can leave the yard in a heartbeat. A dangerous lineup awaits Estrada Thursday night. Not that he’s even thought about it.

“I feel the same about this lineup as I feel about any other lineup. Nothing changes for me,” Estrada said. “I actually don’t really pay attention to who’s playing that day. I find out who is going to hit the day of, basically when they step up to the plate.”

It’s an admirable approach. Don’t worry about them; worry about you. Make the hitters try to beat your strengths, instead of you trying to beat theirs. That’s what some of the best pitchers in the game do. Chris Archer isn’t going to shy away from his slider against lineups with a patient approach. Noah Syndergaard isn’t going to lay off his fastball against teams that hunt for heaters. And Marco Estrada shouldn’t back away from his change-up, which is well regarded as one of the best in the game.

“Guys like Lucroy or Gomez, I haven’t really faced them. So we’ll see what we throw at them. But other than that, everybody seems to be the same,” Estrada said. “I try to hit the glove. That’s about it.”

That change-up is Estrada’s best weapon, and when he has it working he’s generally going to perform very well. It’s no coincidence that when Estrada struggled through a frustrating stretch in late August and early September when he posted a 7.53 ERA in six starts, it just so happened to be a rare stretch of time when he lost the feel for his change-up.

Any pitcher who has tried to make a change-up a core piece of their repertoire will tell you that it can be a challenging pitch to harness at times because there are so many working parts. You want your arm action and release point to look like a fastball, creating a deceptiveness that is absolutely paramount to the pitch’s success. You then have to manage the velocity of the pitch to give it adequate separation from your fastball. And on top of that you want to throw it with late action, so that it drops or fades as it reaches the plate, increasing the chance of a swing-and-miss or at least a groundball.

Really, it’s remarkable that Estrada has been able to command the pitch so consistently over the last two seasons, rarely having an outing where he isn’t able to use it successfully. But when he hit that rough patch with it, he found it exceedingly difficult to locate the pitch where he wanted to, which left him with only an 89-mph fastball, an 85-mph cutter and a 77-mph curveball to attack with.

Those three pitches alone aren’t enough to get big-league hitters out. There’s nothing overpowering or especially filthy in terms of movement there. He needs the change-up to be his great equalizer. Without it, Estrada’s practically naked on the mound.

“I kept bouncing my change-ups. Guys weren’t even offering. To be honest with you, I didn’t even see guys flinching at it,” Estrada said. “That’s how bad it was.”

Estrada’s change-up usage plummeted during that stretch as he tried to rely on other pitches to get through his outings. The low point likely came on Sept. 9 vs. Boston, when Estrada was lifted after only 2.1 innings, having allowed 10 of the 16 batters he faced to reach base. Estrada threw just 15 change-ups that day, getting a swing with less than half of them.

But from there, Estrada regained his feel for the pitch, performing better in his next outing before rattling off three straight strong starts to finish his season. In his most recent outing last weekend in Boston against a very patient, very dangerous Red Sox lineup, Estrada threw 34 change-ups, the most he’s thrown in an outing since early August. The pitch was great that day, getting Estrada a strike 62 per cent of the time as Red Sox hitters batted just .111 on the seven change-ups they put it in play.

So, toss out the scouting reports, burn the heat maps, delete the video files. Estrada doesn’t need any of that junk. He just needs his catcher, his approach, and his change-up.

“It’s been much better lately,” Estrada said. “So, I’ve just got to make sure that the pitch is there Thursday. If it is, I think I’ll be OK.”

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