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Marveling at Marco Estrada's Season

Whether or not he stays in the rotation interests me less than the sheer confounding rarity of his 2014 performance.

Mike Ehrmann

Yesterday, Neil Weinberg over at Beyond the Box Score asked us to forgive Marco Estrada's home run troubles, citing xFIP and ESPN's Home Run Tracker as evidence that Estrada has been victim to an inordinate amount of "lucky" homers which have bloated his already typically above average HR/9. The premise being, of course, that the Brewers may soon choose to pull the trigger and swap in Jimmy Nelson.

Weinberg's case is fair enough, but it is a very in-the-present perspective which focuses on Estrada's projected future performance as opposed to the statistical strangeness of his 2014 season thus far. My interest is primarily in the historical precedence for such incongruous results. Is there one at all?

The short answer? Hardly.

The most stunning number attached to Estrada is his current HR rate in terms of hits. He has given up 77 hits in 84 innings. 23 have left the park. That's 30% - a HR/9 of 2.46. I plunked away on the baseball-reference play index to find instances of individual seasons (of ample sample size) in which the pitcher allowed a HR on merely every fourth hit. The vast majority of the players matching the criteria are relievers and spot starters with small numbers of hits and homers allowed (think 40 H to 10 HR range).

As the number of hits increases the number of instances grows smaller. In 2001, Gabe White served up 18 HR out of the 70 total hits allowed for the Rockies (that's just shy of 26%). Doug Waechter's 2004 season with the Devil Rays is close: Waechter allowed 20 HR on 69 hits (29%) in 14 starts - just as many as Estrada has now. However, Waechter's K/9 (4.6) and BB/9 (4.2) were far worse than Estrada's current marks (7.9 and 2.9, respectively). Not to mention an ERA just north of 6. In Waechter's case, it's pretty safe to assume he wasn't fooling anybody.

Allowing around 2.5 HR/9 is not unprecedented; Ken Dixon, Ezequiel Astacio, Bruce Chen and Andy Benes have all finished extended runs of at least 80 innings allowing over 2.5 HR/9, but have each been absolutely shelled to make it seem believable - their H/9 totals coming in at 10.97, 11.11, 12.50, and 10.23, respectively. Estrada currently sits at 8.25 - a significant outlier.

What makes Estrada's season so curious is his okayness in the H/9, K/9, and BB/9 departments existing simultaneously alongside a HR/9 that would typically send a pitcher packing well before getting to 14 starts.

I narrowed the search to all pitchers who have faced at least 300 batters in a season (Estrada has faced 349), allowing more than 2 HR, striking out more than 7, and giving up less than 9 hits per 9 innings. Only four have pulled it off:

HR/9 H/9 K/9 BB/9 IP ERA Opp. slash
Rob Bell ('00) 2.05 8.34 7.18 4.68 140.1 5.00 .243/.334/.502
Sid Fernandez ('94) 2.11 8.51 7.41 3.59 115.1 5.15 .248/.320/.508
Marco Estrada ('14) 2.46 8.25 7.93 2.89 84.0 4.82 .244/.306/.509
Oliver Perez ('05) 2.01 8.91 8.48 6.12 103.0 5.85 .264/.382/.492

Estrada blows away the field in HR rate, but at the same time appears to be the most effective pitcher of the group. The only player superior to him in any substantial way is Perez in K/9 specifically, but his massive BB/9 tips the scale back in Estrada's favor.

The closest comparison appears to be Sid Fernandez' 1994 season with the Orioles; it was his age 31 season, in which he abruptly declined with his new team (thanks in part to a knee injury) after several excellent seasons with the New York Mets. It's worth noting that this was Fernandez' first season outside the friendly flyball pitching confines of the late Shea Stadium. Yet Estrada still has small wins in every category except HR/9. There really hasn't been an "extreme version" of Estrada in the past. Estrada has been the extreme.

You might say Estrada has been the best pitcher ever to be so horrifically excellent at allowing home runs. He's either pitching well and striking people out or allowing home runs. Mostly both. Each of those things are exciting. For a neutral baseball fan, he may be the most exciting pitcher in the league right now. Maybe ever.

Needless to say, I'll be looking forward to Estrada's start at Coors Field on Friday night.