Right-hander Marco Estrada was a popular sleeper for 2013, and I certainly championed that cause. After all, he was coming off a season in which he compiled a 3.35 FIP with more than a strikeout per inning and an ADP (average draft position) between 225-250. He represented solid value and legitimate upside in the later rounds.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. The 30-year-old hurler struggled with the long ball and owned a 5.32 ERA when he landed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury in early June. His peripheral numbers remained solid, but his home run rate of 1.82 HR/9 ranked among the worst in the league in the first half. It undermined any chance he had to post a respectable earned run average.
Most owners understandably dropped Estrada, especially when his hamstring injury lingered longer than expected and he missed 58 games in June and July. Since returning, though, the right-hander is reminding fantasy owners why analysts included him in so many sleeper lists prior to the season. It may be time to swipe him off the waiver wire, as he’s only owned in 14.1% of ESPN leagues.
In his four starts since the Brewers activated him from the disabled list, Estrada has posted a 1.88 ERA in 24 innings, including 21 strikeouts and only three walks. He’s missing bats — he generated 20 swings-and-misses on Sunday against the Reds — and is also limiting the home runs. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher, he always has the chance to surrender an above-average amount of home runs. The key for Estrada, though, is to limit those home runs to solo homers and keep his home run rate away from the league leaders — which he largely accomplished in both 2011 and 2012.
If the home run rate doesn’t become too unworkable, there’s so much to like about Marco Estrada. As mentioned earlier, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is tremendous. He’s not a qualified pitcher because he spent so much time on the disabled list, but if he were eligible, his 3.95 K/BB ratio would rank 16th in all of baseball — just ahead of Yu Darvish and just behind Mike Minor.
He continues to miss bats, despite an average fastball velocity that has dropped from 90.2 mph in 2012 to 89.2 mph in 2013. His swinging-strike rate isn’t dependent upon an overwhelming fastball, though. Instead, Estrada leans on a plus-changeup.
The changeup is a difference-maker for Estrada on the mound. For comparison, Cole Hamels possesses one of the best changeups in Major League Baseball, and his swinging-strike rate is 26.1% on the pitch. Estrada’s changeup isn’t quite on the same level — few are — but he sequences well and it makes his fastball even more effective than it would otherwise be.
Estrada will miss bats. That’s understood. In the last four seasons, he hasn’t posted a swinging-strike rate under 10.2%, and that “low point” came last season in which he struck out more than a batter per inning. It’s quite literally all about the home run rate. When it’s reasonable — as it was last season — he’s a guy who can throw up a 3.50 ERA and provide above-average strikeouts and a solid WHIP. Obviously, when the home run rate skies to almost 2.00 HR/9, he’s essentially unownable in fantasy leagues.
His upcoming start is expected to come on Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels at Miller Park. That’s a mixed bag. Although the Angels haven’t hit for much power against right-handed starters this season, Estrada has significantly struggled at home. Almost 70% of his home runs this year have come at Miller Park, and considering Miller Park has the fourth-highest home run factor in Major League Baseball, that trend may not completely disappear anytime soon.
But for fantasy owners who are looking for a late-season addition to their starting rotation, Marco Estrada possesses under-the-radar upside. He’ll provide strikeouts and a solid WHIP, and if he can keep the home runs in check, he can be an above-average starter. In fact, despite the strict pitch count for his first couple starts, Estrada has still been a top-20 starter in the past 30 days. If that type of talent is available on the waiver wire, it’s worth grabbing.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).