On Sunday at Miller Park, veteran right-hander Marco Estrada slogged through what has become far too typical a start for him.
He gave up two home runs in the top of the first inning to fall behind 3-0. When the Brewers rallied to tie the game, Estrada almost immediately fell behind the Cincinnati Reds again on yet another long ball.
Milwaukee lost 13-4 on Sunday, with Rob Wooten giving up five runs without getting an out in the eighth, and the game got away from them.
Thanks to the inconsistency of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brewers were able to survive their own inconsistent May—when they were 13-15—and even with Sunday’s loss, Milwaukee is still 8-6 in June.
But the Brewers’ lead in the National League Central is down to 3½ games over the Cardinals, with the Pittsburgh Pirates (6½ back) and the Reds (seven back) lurking.
This isn’t 2013. Milwaukee is not only in the thick of the race, it is leading the race in the Central.
And that’s why Marco Estrada needs to be doing something besides starting games for the Milwaukee Brewers.
In 84 innings this season, Estrada has given up 23 home runs, seven more than any pitcher in the National League has surrendered. His 4.82 ERA is more than half a run higher than any other starter in the rotation.
Among qualifiers in the NL, that 4.82 ERA is the sixth-worst in the league.
Despite holding opposing hitters to a .244 average, Estrada’s opponents’ OPS is .816, fourth-worst in the NL, and he’s one of only four pitchers in the National League allowing opponents to slug higher than .500.
The solution is out there.
Big right-hander Jimmy Nelson has been ranked as the organization’s top prospect for awhile now and at age 25, with a sterling 1.51 ERA in the Pacific Coast League—which is equivalent to an ERA of about 0.12 just about anywhere else—he’s got nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
Nelson is 7-1 and just dominating hitters in Triple-A. He’s allowed 46 hits in 77.2 innings, with 86 strikeouts.
He’s ready. He’s already won a start this season, going 5.2 scoreless innings in Miami on May 25 when Yovani Gallardo was nursing a sprained ankle.
He was throwing his fastball in the mid-90s. He struck out NL RBI leader Giancarlo Stanton the first time he faced him.
The 31-year-old Estrada has been mostly good since coming over from the Washington Nationals off waivers in February 2010. He was part of the 2011 NL Central champion squad, filling a valuable role as a swingman out of the bullpen, starting seven games and relieving in 36.
But the home run count this season is alarming. Estrada is allowing 2.5 home runs per nine innings. The 23 home runs allowed is already a career-worst. By contrast, he gave up 18 in 138.1 innings in 2012 and 19 in 128 innings a season ago.
There is an advanced statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching that attempts to measure how effective a pitcher is at preventing home runs, walks and hit batsmen and getting strikeouts. It works the same way as ERA—lower is better.
The National League average FIP is 3.83. Among qualified starters, Estrada is next to last in the NL at 5.92.
Jimmy Nelson is ready. It’s time to put him into the rotation.