How gravity-defying Estrada found the secret to success

Fastball and changeup both lead baseball in vertical movement

How gravity-defying Estrada found the secret to success

When the Blue Jays acquired Marco Estrada from the Brewers for Adam Lind on Nov. 2, the deal seemed to be less about the value of acquiring Estrada and more about simply clearing Lind's $7.5 million 2015 salary. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos said as much when discussing the deal with reporters a few days later, using the word "flexibility" eight times in 20 minutes and noting that Estrada was expected to be a member of the bullpen.

Ten months later, the 32-year-old Estrada has made 25 starts and has a 3.14 ERA that's the 18th-best ERA in baseball and better than stars like Masahiro Tanaka, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. As the Blue Jays, who will throw Estrada against Luis Severino and the Yankees on Tuesday night, push toward October, Estrada has quietly been a big contributor, with manager John Gibbons going so far as to say that Estrada possibly "saved [our] season."

That's probably a bit much given all the talent bursting from the roster, but what's interesting about Estrada is simply how unlikely it was that he'd be successful at all north of the border. Estrada spent parts of seven seasons kicking around with the Nationals and Brewers, mixing occasional value -- he was more or less a league-average starter in 2012-13 -- with a massive home run problem that led to his removal from Milwaukee's rotation last summer. Moving to the DH league and the Rogers Centre, generally considered something of a home run haven, didn't figure to help.

In some ways, it hasn't. Estrada's actually striking out fewer, with a career-low 18.1 whiff percentage. His walk rate of 7.9 percent is the highest he's had since 2010, and he's still allowing too many home runs, though his 1.18 HR/9 is both "higher than MLB average" and "better than he's had in three years." Unsurprisingly, Estrada's Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 4.42 is worse than his career average and represents the largest departure from his ERA of any pitcher in baseball.

And yet: Success, at least in terms of keeping runs off the board, moreso than Estrada's peripherals indicate he deserves. Immediately, your eye is drawn to the .221 Batting Average on Balls in Play, easily the lowest in baseball, and you assume that some good luck is involved. That's perhaps true to some extent, but Estrada's managed to come upon a fascinating and unique mixture:

• He gets a lot of fly balls.
• He doesn't allow grounders to get hit very hard.
• Everything he throws "rises," kind of.

We can explain. Overall, Estrada's Statcast™ exit velocity allowed of 88.42 mph isn't particularly notable, at 69th best of 154 pitchers with at least 200 data points. But on grounders, that drops to 84.27 mph, the 17th best, and softly struck grounders aren't exactly high-percentage plays. Nor are fly balls that stay in the yard, and Estrada's 52.1 percent fly-ball rate is second highest in baseball only to Hector Santiago of the Angels. If you're trying to make balls in play as unlikely as possible to turn into hits, this is a pretty good combination, and Estrada's 6.8 hits per nine innings rate is the American League's best.

Despite unimpressive velocity, averaging only 89.54 mph on his four-seam fastball, Estrada throws either the fastball or the changeup just over 80 percent of the time. Let's break out the vertical movement rankings on those pitches, and suddenly something incredible appears:

Vertical movement (in inches) leaders, minimun 200 pitches thrown
Four-seam fastball -- 1. Estrada, 12.31 inches
Changeup -- 1. Estrada, 9.87 inches

Both of Estrada's primary pitches lead all of baseball in vertical movement. We can show you what that means, using Estrada's calling card of a changeup, and what it looks like when it's making Evan Longoria look foolish, as it did on July 24 -- a game where Estrada took a perfect game into the eighth inning:

GIF TOR Estrada K's Longoria 92115

That's not just a fun highlight, that was Estrada's highest vertical movement changeup of the season, coming in at 14.67 inches, and the pitch leads all of baseball with 9.87 inches of average vertical movement. ("Vertical movement," it should be noted, is not about making a pitch rise. It's about having a pitch defy gravity for longer than a hitter would expect -- this is why Longoria swung entirely under the pitch, because it didn't end up where he expected.)

Estrada throws the changeup 28.5 percent of the time, the second most of the 133 pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown, and it's easily his most effective pitch -- hitters have just a .542 OPS against it, and only four of the 21 homers he's allowed have come off the change. Estrada's change turns into an infield fly 31.4 percent of the time he allows a ball in the air, and while he's missing fewer bats, remember that popups basically are strikeouts, at least in terms of success for the hitter.

Suddenly, the pieces start to make sense. Estrada doesn't throw hard, but his pitches don't behave in a way that hitters expect they would, which is why he gets so many fly balls and popups, which rarely lead to hits. Because hitters are usually under the ball, they don't put many on the ground and don't do so with solid contact, which is why his grounders find gloves. Since Estrada has raised his horizontal release point, he's able to stay on top of his pitches better, and get more of that vertical movement.

Estrada is not going to start ahead of David Price or Marcus Stroman in the playoffs, and if a few more of those balls in the air start to find their way back over the seats or that ludicrously low .181 second-half BABIP comes back to normal, he might not even be a consideration. But while Gibbons was overselling Estrada as the savior of the 2015 Jays, you get where he was coming from. Overshadowed by names like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Price and Troy Tulowitzki, Estrada has been a huge part of Toronto's impressive season, even if few realize it.

Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) is an analyst for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.