On paper, Marco Estrada’s opening day start for the Blue Jays was very typical of the right-hander.
Six strong innings. Two runs. A respectable, but not overpowering, four strikeouts against a pair of walks. Fewer cutters and changeups than usual, but for the most part it was Estrada being Estrada.
The Blue Jays have come to expect quiet excellence from the master of inducing weak contact, and for the most part that’s what they got. They also got something extra from the 33-year-old in the form of a tidy boost to his fastball velocity.
Estrada is not going to blow anyone away with brute force – nor does he need to – but every tick on the heater helps and he appeared to pick up a couple in his 2017 debut against the Baltimore Orioles.
During a 2016 campaign where he fought through back issues, the Mexican hurler’s fastball averaged 88.1 mph. The highest number he reached on the radar gun was 90.6 and the his lowest was 84.3. On Monday, he averaged 90.1 mph with a high of 91.6 and a low of 87.8.
Looking at his game-by-game velocity chart since he joined the Blue Jays in 2015, his last performance certainly stands out as one of his best.
While one might be inclined to chalk it up to opening day adrenaline, Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet reported on this phenomenon earlier in the spring. There’s very little reason to believe this jump is not for real now that Estrada has demonstrated it in regular-season action.
Nowadays, a 90-mph fastball is generally far from noteworthy. Last season the average MLB starter had 91.9-mph heat. Even with this boost Estrada is theoretically behind the game.
However, with his devastating changeup, and the “rising” action he gets on his four-seamer, the Blue Jays right-hander doesn’t need big-time velocity. He got on fine last year consistently living below the 90-mph threshold. That said, throwing his fastball a bit harder gives opposing hitters a few milliseconds less to react — which is never going to be a bad thing.
Perhaps more than anything else, this rebound velocity appears to be a solid proxy for Estrada’s health. If his back was still bothering him there’s no way he’d be able to bring his average fastball back to a level it hasn’t sat at since 2012.
While this improvement didn’t result in a dominant outing – nor will it likely take him to an entirely new level – it seemed to show up a couple of times, most notably when Estrada sat down Chris Davis with a high fastball in the sixth inning.
There’s no way of knowing whether Davis would have hit that pitch if it were 88 mph, and realistically, he shouldn’t have swung for it at all. Even so, at 90.4 mph, the offering would have been one of Estrada’s hardest in 2016, and Davis had less time to pick up the spin and vertical movement than he would have at this time last year.
It’s impossible to judge what kind of season a starter will have based on their first outing. If that were the case, Carlos Martinez would be your runaway Cy Young-favorite and Masahiro Tanaka’s 2017 would be a write-off.
We know this isn’t the case. But what we do know is that Estrada looked stronger and healthier on Monday than he was last year. That’s a good enough reason for the Blue Jays to be encouraged.
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