A part of the allure of Greg Maddux was how he was able to post an above-league average K/9 during the prime years of his career despite not having the velocity of many of his peers. He was the epitome of sacrificing velocity for movement and location in a time when pitchers were observed peeking over their shoulder to the scoreboard to see what they hit on the in-park radar gun.
Thomas Boswell encapsulated Maddux rather well in repeating an anecdote from a time the two spent together in the early 90’s:
One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux’s catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher’s glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.
Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn’t taste quite right, he said, “That’s all I got.”
Maddux, while frustrating batters and fascinating fans, made it cool again to be a pitcher that got results without relying upon velocity. In a time when teams are consistently on the hunt for pitching, those who find pitchers who can miss bats with sequencing, location, and deception
The league-wide strikeout percentage (K%) was 19.8% in 2013 while the average fastball velocity (FBv) was 91.7 mph. Batters swung and missed at 9.3% of the pitches thrown, with an overall contact rate of 87.0% and a Z-Contact% of 79.5%. Pitchers who are toughest on batters tend to strike them out frequently by generating frequent swings and misses and limiting both overall contact as well as contact within the strike zone. There were several examples of pitchers (min 100 IP) in 2013 that were able to achieve above-average results in each area despite a FBv < 90.0.
There were six pitchers who exceeded the league-wide K%:
There were ten pitchers who exceeded the league-wide SwStr%:
There were 36 pitchers whose Contact% was below the league average; these were the ten best:
No pitcher whose FBv <90.0 was able to post an above-average Z-Contact% these were the ten best efforts:
Seeing names such as Hisashi Iwakuma, Kris Medlen, and Jered Weaver on those lists is likely not surprising given their recent track record. However, seeing Marco Estrada first or second on all four lists likely is.
Estrada was drafted and developed by the Washington Nationals, before he was waived and then claimed by Milwaukee in 2010. Throughout his three seasons in Milwaukee, he has retired 24% of the batters he has faced via the strikeout while limiting batters to a .239 batting average and a .296 wOBA. The issue with Estrada has been his extreme flyball tendencies leave him susceptible to home runs as 48 of the 437 flyballs in play off Estrada have become home runs. That computes to a 11.0% home run to flyball ratio, well within league-average range.
2013 was no exception as he permitted a career-high 19 home runs despite throwing 250 fewer pitches and permitting 15 fewer flyballs than he had in 2012. Yet, most of his home runs came in the first month of the season as he allowed an astounding ten home runs in the first month of the season. Once he put April behind him, Estrada’s 2013 season was noticeably improved.
“Marco has pitched in the second half the way we thought he would all year,” Milwaukee Manager Ron Roenicke told the Journal Sentinel. “We’ll see if he can maintain that through a season. We’ll certainly go into spring training with the thought that he can do it.
“That was a great way for him to finish the season. He gets strikeouts with the fastball, he gets strikeouts with the breaking ball, he gets strikeouts with the change-up. When he’s on like that, he can really go through lineups.”
The changeup stood out in 2013 as Estrada was able to sequence it better and increased his usage of it against right-handed batters. He threw 261 changeups to right-handed batters from 2011-2012, but threw 218 in 2013 against them. The willingness to use the pitch more frequently to same-handed batters led to better overall outcomes from the pitch.
Estrada is often lumped into the same boat as former Brewer pitcher Dave Bush since both pitchers threw with below league-average velocity while having issues keeping the ball in the ballpark. That is an unfair comparison because Bush walked a finer line while pitching because he did not miss enough bats.
Estrada has an ability to miss bats due to being able to throw three pitches, to both righties and lefties, for strikes. While his flyball tendencies will always leave him susceptible to home runs, his command of his pitches and his improving control should help limit his amount of baserunners. The recent addition of Matt Garza clouds Estrada’s future as he must now compete for the final two spots in the rotation with the likes of Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg, and Will Smith. The improvements he made last season in how he approached batters should certainly give him an advantage over the younger pitchers in the group.
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