Over the past week-and-a-half of Major League Baseball action, a pitcher has had a brush with history twice. I know, and you probably know that. Max Scherzer has retired 54 of the past 57 batters he’s faced, and over his past two starts has allowed just one hit. He threw a no-hitter this weekend that, if not for a misplaced elbow would have been a perfect game.
Another, more surprising pitcher, has been nearly just as good as Scherzer in a two-start span. I’m talking, of course, about Marco Estrada of the Toronto Blue Jays, who carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Friday against the Baltimore Orioles, before following that up with 7.1 perfect innings yesterday against the Tampa Bay Rays. Over the past 15.2 innings of those starts, Estrada has allowed just three hits and one run, while striking out 16.
So, who the heck is this unassuming 6-foot-nothing right-hander, and how was he able to become the first pitcher since 1988 to carry a no-hitter into the eighth inning in consecutive starts? More importantly, can he keep up this stellar pitching for the rest of the year?
Estrada would not jump out at you when trying to predict the most likely pitcher to throw a no-hitter. A pitcher like Scherzer would seem the better candidate. For his career, Estrada has a 4.13 ERA and 28-29 record. Just two months shy of turning 32, Estrada has been the definition of a replacement-level player his entire career. In eight seasons at the Major League level, Estrada has generated only 6.1 WAR. Not exactly the candidate to throw two consecutive near no-hitters.
You might be wondering how Estrada has managed to pull this feat off, and to tell you the truth, I am too. I sat down to watch Estrada pitch against the Orioles last week, expecting the Birds to hang a five-spot on him before the fifth inning. As the outs continued to pile up, I was very impressed by Estrada. His fastball will never blow you away, but it is paired very well with his 79 mph changeup that also has good, late drop to it. The difference in velocity between his fastball and changeup is just enough to allow him to be reasonably effective at the Major League level. When he is around the strike zone, and working quickly as he has been the past two games, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Estrada would generate a high amount of weak contact on off-balance swings. That’s the recipe for a no-hitter, if not plain old big league pitching success, and Estrada has worked it quite well over a short time span.
All that being said, fans of the Toronto Blue Jays should not expect the trend to continue much longer for Marco Estrada. There are still plenty of flaws in his repertoire, and he is not going to shutout the league for the rest of the year. Estrada is still an extreme flyball pitcher, and gives up his fair share of home runs. He allowed 1.73 HR/9 last season. If his 89 mph fastball is not properly located, it will be hit a long way. Furthermore, his strikeout rate is below his career average this year, while his walk rate is above his career rate.
Those trends do not bode well for Estrada, and there should be a significant statistical correction away from the 3.45 ERA he currently sports. Estrada has caught lightning in a bottle in his past two starts, but it should not be expected to continue for the rest of the season. He has made 10 starts this season, and prior to the past two, his ERA rose nearly each time out, peaking at 4.24 prior to the Baltimore start. Hot streak aside, expect an ERA somewhere between 3.75 and 4.25 the rest of the year for Marco Estrada.