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Thairo Estrada Is Doing It All

In praise of an underrated superutility player.

Thairo Estrada’s path to the majors was a long and arduous one. After a stellar performance in the 2017 Arizona Fall League, Estrada earned the titleAFL Rising Star.” During the following offseason, however, Estrada was shot in the hip during a robbery while dining out with his wife. The injury and subsequent surgery were, of course, a massive setback, and after a long rehab, Estrada’s numbers understandably plummeted. In 2019, he debuted with the Yankees, graduating as the organization’s 42nd top prospect according to FanGraphs rankings. After a handful of stints in the major leagues, the Yankees designated Estrada for assignment in 2021 to make room on the roster for Rougned Odor

This past Sunday night, in the top of the 9th inning, Thairo Estrada hit a solo shot off of Pirates closer David Bednar to tie up the game for his new team, the San Francisco Giants. Although the Giants went on to lose that game, the moment was just one more highlight in Estrada’s solid 2022 campaign.

Estrada is a burgeoning example of the modern “super-utility player.” Although most of his playing time has come at second base, he’s also seen time at shortstop, third, left, and center. That versatility has allowed Estrada to stick in the lineup as the Giants’ cast of aging stars alternate time on the injured list. San Francisco’s second base/utility player entered the year relatively unknown but currently leads the Giants in games played (62) and places fourth in fWAR (1.1). The key to his success: a little bit of everything.

 

A Little Bit of Everything, All of the Time

 

Thairo put up great offensive numbers in 2021 but saw very little playing time. Over 132 plate appearances, he slashed .273/.333/.479, good for a 119 wRC+. The Giants are known to optimize platoon advantages and swing-path based matchups, so it should come as no surprise that increased playing time in 2022 has been attended by a good amount of regression. Over 238 PAs in 2022, Estrada is slashing .264/.318/.395  with a 104 wRC+. Those numbers don’t match his 2021, but they do make the 26-year-old an above-average offensive player with room to grow into more power.

Couple these numbers with Estrada’s exceptional base running, and you can start to see how much value he’s brought to the Giants organization. Estrada can ably contribute in every aspect of the game, even though he isn’t elite in any one thing.

Estrada’s defense across positions effectively guarantees his continued playing time. His primary position, second base, is his only below-average defensive position by DRS (-8) and UZR (-1.5), but his success at the position in years past suggests that this is a problem with small samples. After all, defensive stats are notorious for their volatility. For these reasons, every major projection system has Estrada putting up more average defensive numbers going forward.

In other words, Thairo Estrada does everything fairly well – a consummate, everyday utility player.

 

Room for growth?

 

For the most part, Estrada’s performance so far this season is exactly who he is. He’s a contact-forward hitter with occasional pop who doesn’t walk much. His .264/.318/.395 slash line closely resembles his career number (.254/.310/.406). That’s a fairly high floor, but is there anything to suggest a higher ceiling?

The answer largely depends on Estrada’s power moving forward. In 2021, his .479 SLG was an outlier. As a prospect, Estrada was never known for slugging. The sole exception was a brief stint in the Pacific Coast League, where he hit 9 home runs in just 50 games. But, as any prospect writer will tell you, the PCL inflates offensive numbers significantly. That kind of power isn’t likely to return in any other offensive context. Moreover, Estrada’s 2.1% barrel rate is one of the lowest in the league. Still, his 2021 7.1%, alongside his career 3.9%, may suggest some positive regression or, at least, future potential as Estrada hits his prime years.

So far this year, Estrada is hitting more line drives and fewer fly balls than he did last year. While his average launch angle this year (4.9°) is not far from his 2021 average (6.7°), that similarity masks one significant change in Estrada’s profile: launch angle tightness. Launch Angle Standard Deviation or stdev(LA) is a way to assess how consistent a player’s batted profile is across a wide sample. Average launch angle can be pretty misleading since a player who regularly hits pop-ups and grounders might have the same net average as a player who consistently hits line drives. This stdev(LA) metric is one way we can differentiate between players with similar averages. In the piece linked above, Alex Chamberlain shows how launch angle tightness can signal potential progression or decline and, moreover, measure a player’s volatility. Take a look at these two graphs which showcase the launch angles of each of Estrada’s batted balls over the past two seasons:

As you can see here, Estrada’s launch angle in 2022 (29.1° stdev) is clustering around his average much more closely than in 2021 (34.03° stdev), as represented by the tighter error bars above.

Fellow Pitcher List writer Carlos Marcano took these findings and combined them with another important batted ball metric called dynamic hard-hit rate or DHH% to create “Q.” Q provides a single reference that summarizes a player’s combination of hard-hit rate, optimal launch angle, and consistency. While Estrada doesn’t hit the ball hard at a high rate, his tight launch angle places him beside an interesting group of hitters:

Thairo Estrada among similar players by Q in 2022 (source: Carlos Marcano’s Q Leaderboard)

There are a fair number of similarities between hitters in this pool, but there is also a good amount of variability. Andrew Benintendi, for example, is having a bit of a resurgence and currently possesses a 120 wRC+. Victor Robles, on the other hand, has been well below league average (77 wRC+). What’s worth noticing here is that Robles, who stands out among these hitters in wRC+, accomplishes his Q number by hitting the ball harder and in the air, but the volatility of his launch angle makes consistent production hard to come by. Unlike Robles, Thairo Estrada’s launch angle may make his lower exit velocities more viable, like the other players on this list who have found major league success.

While Estrada doesn’t have the plate discipline necessary to attain the success of a Brandon Nimmo, his consistency suggests that his current output is sustainable, and potentially something he can build upon. It remains to be seen whether Estrada can revive some of his power from last year, but even a small increase in barrels would pay dividends.

 

Fantasy Darling

 

Estrada’s mix of skill, playing time, and positional versatility makes him a valuable addition to any and all fantasy teams. That might sound odd. Estrada’s ADP this year in NFC leagues was a whopping 692, and even now he is only rostered in 68% of Yahoo leagues and 73% of CBS leagues. But, according to Razzball’s player rater, Estrada has been the 58th most valuable batter in five category leagues this year.

That success is, in large part, the result of Estrada’s excellent base running. Among qualified hitters, he’s currently tied for 19th (2.2) in BaseRuns or BsR, a cumulative stat that looks at the contribution a player has made on the base paths. That ties Estrada with players like Jazz Chisholm Jr. Gavin Lux, and Jake Cronenworth and just ahead of players like Starling Marte and Whit Merrifield. In fact, Estrada currently ranks 22nd in stolen bases (9) and boasts an 81.8% success rate (a number which sat at 90% before a review overturned an initially successful attempt on Saturday).

Estrada’s stolen base numbers are far higher than most projection systems anticipated. Estrada’s stolen base attempts dropped dramatically after he sustained his leg injury in 2017. In 2021, he stole just 1 base over 52 games played. But a 60 grade speed tool and a 71st percentile sprint speed confirm the skillset. Moreover, Estrada’s skills on the base paths have him tied for 39th in baseball in runs scored (36). That’s a remarkable figure since Estrada usually hits in the second half of San Francisco’s lineup.

What’s more, Estrada’s .264 batting average ranks 60th among qualified hitters. That number stands perfectly in line with his career thus far, and it is backed up by a low K% (14.3), SwStr% (8.9), and an average BABIP (.289). The second baseman’s combination of average, playing time, and speed make him an above-average contributor in three 5×5 categories. Moreover, Estrada has flashed enough power to contribute there as well. Given consistent playing time, it’s reasonable to expect 10 – 15 HR, 20 SB, and .265 AVG season by the end of the season.

 

Super Util

 

At the height of his prospect days, Thairo Estrada was regarded as a high-end utility player. After an abrupt change in his career trajectory, Estrada’s outlook appeared bleak. Now, in 2021 and 2022, Estrada has played at a 3.6 fWAR/600 PA pace. To put that into perspective, that rate is in the same atmosphere as players who define modern super-utility like Chris Taylor (3.2 fWAR/582 PA in 2021) and Jake Cronenworth (4 fWAR/643 PA in 2021). And much like, Cronenworth and Taylor, Estrada has done this while playing all over the field.

In other words, Thairo Estrada has met the expectations set in his early prospect days and then some. His inspiring comeback deserves more recognition.

 

Photo by: Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire  |  Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

Grant Washburn

Grant Washburn is a late antique religious historian, a Yankees fan, and an Ottoneu player. When he's not poring over ancient manuscripts, he's poring over batted ball data.

  • mbourne26@gmail.com says:

    Great article. I have him in two leagues, but even I undervalued him.

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