With his appearance Tuesday night in Toronto, Jeremiah Estrada became the 14th Cub to make his MLB debut this season. He was also the seventh of the Cubs’ first seven draft picks in 2017 to have made it to the bigs. For the record, Brendon Little pitched prior to Estrada and was 13th and sixth on those respective lists.
While lefty Little had an outing to forget, his right-handed counterpart made the most of his opportunity as a COVID replacement and made everyone watching sit up and take notice. It’s been a rapid ascent for Estrada, whose professional career has played out like Scooby-Doo and Shaggy running in place before finally gaining purchase. Or maybe the Roadrunner would be more accurate given the velo numbers Estrada has put up.
As entertaining as the 23-year-old can be, however, there’s nothing funny about effectively missing three years of his career and logging just 40 innings between the 2017-21 seasons. He managed just 6.1 innings in rookie ball before being shut down with a UCL sprain that doctors believed could be remedied without surgery. That ended up costing him all of the 2018 campaign, after which he was assigned to the short-season Eugene Emeralds in June of 2019
He flashed his potential by posting an immaculate inning in his first appearance back from rehab, though he could tell something wasn’t right after his third outing. Elbow reconstruction followed, causing him to miss the remainder of that season, then came the pandemic that wiped out 2020 in the minors. The Cubs limited Estrada a great deal in 2021, converting him to a relief role and giving him just 23 innings for Low-A Myrtle Beach.
Estrada’s velocity has continued to climb throughout his career and is now in the upper-90s after only touching 92 mph for the Pelicans. Between that and simply staying healthy, he was able to rocket through three levels of the minors on his way to getting the call to the big team. That tends to happen when you strike out over 40% of the batters you face.
The Cubs are probably going to be very judicious with him the rest of the way because he’s at 49.1 innings this season, more than he threw in the five previous five seasons combined, but he’s a lock for the bullpen next year. That’s because, as hyperbolic or premature as the headline may seem to you, Estrada is the best homegrown reliever the Cubs have produced in a very long time.
I can’t say ever because, well, Lee Smith exists. Plus, the whole one-inning thing makes it tough to expand the claim. Give it some time, though, and this kid is going to be in some very lofty company.
It’s just what Estrada did Tuesday night, striking out the first and third batters he faced in a scoreless inning, it’s how he did it. More specifically, it’s how his 98 mph looked like the kind of elite offering that screams future closer. Out of the 40 pitchers who have thrown at least one fastball greater than 98 mph with at least 20.4 inches of vertical break, only 15 have thrown more than Estrada.
And he only threw 12 total fastballs. As Steven Pappas added in a subsequent tweet, Estrada would outpace Dylan Cease (994 fastballs thrown) and Liam Hendriks (439) by the time he threw his 58th fastball.
Only 40 pitchers have thrown at least one pitch this year over 98 mph with at least 20.4 inches of induced vertical break.
Only 15 have thrown more than Jeremiah Estrada, who only threw 12 fastballs last night.
— Steven (@GoCubs49) August 31, 2022
That kind of speed with that kind of movement just isn’t normal, even as we see more and more pitchers hitting triple digits regularly. For a little more context, that Estrada fastball produced five more inches of vertical movement than the average MLB heater. Only two other pitchers since 2017 have generated so much more movement than average since the 2017 season, and one of them was Clayton Kershaw.
Jeremiah Estrada measured 5.0 inches of vertical movement above average on his fastball last night.
Only two other pitchers have averaged five or more since 2017.
— Steven (@GoCubs49) August 31, 2022
You’ll have to go to Pappas for the more granular details and a full list of the other pitchers involved, but suffice to say Estrada is capable of things we haven’t seen from a Cubs reliever in a long time. And that’s just based on the fastball alone, so things really open up when you consider the slider and change. The best part is that the organization still has a multitude of other relievers with plus stuff who can fill the bullpen for years to come.
Ethan Roberts looked like part of that mix before he went down with elbow surgery, then they’ve got Brandon Hughes and Manny Rodriguez. Danis Correa is another pitcher with a similar profile to Estrada and who has also risen through the ranks this year. If the Cubs add a starter in free agency, we could even see a few starting pitchers converted to the arm barn for at least a season in order to ease them into the league.
After a few months of watching what felt like meaningless baseball from an aimless organization, the Cubs are showing some very serious signs of life that make tuning in a lot more worthwhile. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but spending some money this winter and getting these prospects up on a full-time basis would cover a lot of ground.
Here are the 2022 debuts: Seiya Suzuki (April 8); Roberts (April 9); Christopher Morel and Hughes (May 17); Matt Swarmer, Anderson Espinoza, and Nelson Velázquez (May 30); Caleb Kilian (June 4); Narciso Crook (June 30); Erich Uelmen (July 22); Nicholas Padilla and Javier Assad ( (August 23).
And the draft results: Little (Rd. 1, No. 27); Alex Lange (Rd. 1, No. 30); Cory Abbott (Rd. 2, No. 67); Keegan Thompson (Rd. 3, No. 105); Uelmen (Rd. 4, No. 135); Velázquez (Rd. 5, No. 165); Estrada (Rd. 6, No. 195). Hughes was the Cubs’ 16th round pick in that draft, but he was an outfielder at the time.