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Marco Estrada: Sleeper With Red Flags

In many ways, this article is going to be a rehashing of the Marco Estrada article I wrote prior to the 2013 season. The core aspects haven’t changed. Estrada continues to offer an above-average strikeout rate, a stellar WHIP due to a low walk rate and encouraging fielding independent numbers.

I stated in August:

If the home run rate doesn’t become too unworkable, there’s so much to like about Marco Estrada.

Those words epitomized his injury-shortened performance last year. The right-hander saw his home run rate skyrocket in the first half to an untenable 1.82 HR/9. Expectedly, his overall numbers suffered as he compiled a nasty 5.32 ERA and 4.75 FIP, but the above-average strikeout-to-walk ratio remained. It was unreasonable to project his home run rate to stabilize at such a high level, which is why Estrada was a prime buy-low candidate late in the season for owners who were searching for improved pitching for the playoff stretch.

Sure enough, his home run rate rebounded to 0.77 HR/9, and the 30-year-old hurler was filthy throughout the second half after he returned from injury. He posted a 2.15 ERA in 58.2 innings, and his 2.81 FIP over that stretch ranked better than Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright — who were all quite good in their own rights. Estrada was a straight-up stud down the stretch. For those owners who stashed him on the DL or picked him up on the waiver wire, he likely anchored the pitching staff in August and September.

I want to simply sign off at this point and assert Estrada is a prime sleeper candidate for the 2014 season. I want to because Marco Estrada is one of my guys. I adore Marco Estrada as a pitcher. His fastball averaged under 90 mph last year, yet his swinging-strike rate was 10.9%. He features a nasty changeup that got guys to chase out of the zone 46.1% of the time and generated a 22.7% whiff rate. His three-year SIERA is 3.29, 3.19 and 3.51, respectively.

Alas, it’s not that simple and a couple red flags should be acknowledged.

I dismissed a significant velocity drop between the 2011 and 2012 seasons because Estrada made the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. His fastball velocity should be expected to decrease to some degree. This past season, however, we saw his fastball velocity drop dramatically yet again. Since the 2011 season, Estrada has seen his average fastball drop from 91.0 mph to 89.2 mph. That’s not an encouraging trend for a pitcher whose fastball is already a bit too home-run prone.

That’s not to suggest I believe his home run rate will necessarily balloon to the unsustainable level he experienced in the first half last year, but any time a guy with a narrow margin for error loses velocity, it’s concerning. Especially if it continues to trend downward to begin the 2014 season.

The other red flag isn’t necessarily a skill concern, rather a simple tempering of expectations from last year’s second half. Estrada was undeniably one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball throughout August and September. His ERA ranked ninth in all of baseball after the All-Star Break amongst starters who threw at least 50 innings. His 5.09 K/BB was sixth-best in the second half, behind only Cliff Lee, David Price, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels.

We must shine a light on the giant elephant in the room, though. Marco Estrada may have dominated the second half and a large portion of the reason may be due to the decreased home run rate, but one of the driving factors was also his unbelievable .199 BABIP, which was second to only Jake Arrieta in the second half. That isn’t to say his core skills were not still valuable. Owners simply wouldn’t be wise to expect a sub-3.00 ERA next year, as the likelihood that he could sustain a BABIP in the low .200s throughout an entire season is obviously low.

In terms of expectations, I’m setting them exactly where they were a year ago, except I’m added the velocity caveat that’s slightly concerning (he’s also rather injury prone, it seems). Marco Estrada is a pitcher who has the ability to post a mid-3.00 ERA with good strikeouts and a very good WHIP. Wins will clearly be a crapshoot, but with much of the Brewers’ offense coming back from injury or suspension, he’ll probably enjoy better run support which is important for pitcher wins.

Fantasy owners looking to Marco Estrada as a late-round sleeper have two things going for them: (1) he only threw 128.0 innings last year, so he’s not likely to be on many starting pitcher leaderboards; and (2) he pitched for a bad team last year, which an result in fantasy owners forgetting the good performances on that team. But much like last year, I remain high on Marco Estrada and expect him to put together a very effective season — and more importantly, one that should also be valuable in fantasy leagues.