Estévez enjoys 'mind game' of pitching

August 15th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- Rockies righty derives pleasure from the knowledge that “not everyone can handle 98 mph.” But he also finds pitching with his brain, by using his slider and his changeup to baffle hitters, quite fun.

Estévez, 28, is moving closer to melding his two interests and becoming the dependable late-innings pitcher who can be a building block of the bullpen beyond this season.

“If I’m in the good spot that I am right now -- I mean, all pitches are working for me -- I want to throw them,” said Estévez, who extended his scoreless run to five games by striking out three against two hits in the eighth inning of Friday night’s 5-4 loss to the Giants. “I know my strength is my fastball and I’m going to use it.

“But if you mix some of those other pitches in there, they’re not going to be as aware of the fastball as they usually are. I don’t have to be predictable at all.”

Predictable, no? But consistent? That’s the Rockies’ hope.

Estévez is the most accomplished of a group of Rockies relievers who are at a crossroads. They’re young but past the development stage. They have experience, yet aren’t the long-in-the-tooth guys who tend to show up with contending teams.

• Estévez’s appearance in the 2017 National League Wild Card Game places him third among current bullpen members in postseason games, behind Jhoulys Chacín (three, all of them starts) and Daniel Bard (two relief appearances in 2009). In a season that included a change in his arm angle and a three-week stint on the injured list with a strained right middle finger, plus some bad luck, Estévez entered Saturday with a 4.69 ERA and 42 strikeouts against 15 walks in 40 1/3 innings.

• Righty entered Saturday leading the bullpen in appearances (47) and relief innings (47) during an up-and-down campaign that landed his ERA at 5.94, with much of the damage coming since the All-Star break.

• Righty , needing a big finish, threw scoreless ball in his first two outings since being reinstated from the COVID injured list, but his 9.58 ERA was highest among pitchers with at least 30 innings. The struggles come after he posted a 2.93 ERA last season.

• Righty had a 2.51 ERA in his first 15 games, but a 7.71 ERA in his next 12. But since recovering from upper-back tightness that kept him out from June 18 to Aug. 6, he was scoreless in three of his four outings.

“With all of them, it’s consistency,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “You’re not going to be perfect every night. But the ability to string appearances together of not allowing runs, doing the job asked of you, whether it’s inherited runners, an inning or more, we need to see consistency. That’s been the bugaboo of the bullpen. We’ll see the outings that give us hope of maybe turning the corner, but then we’ll see those appearances that are not solid.”

The mid-career relievers all need big finishes as they try to earn a place in the future bullpen. The team controls Bard for another year and must make a decision on Chacín, under a one-year contract. Beyond that, the team could fortify with experience, which could displace members of the current bullpen.

Estévez doesn’t have the deepest track record, but he sounds like the thinking reliever who can handle a big role on a team that expects to improve.

During Spring Training, Estévez felt secure enough in his position and the Rockies trusted him enough to allow him to adjust his arm slot. An over-the-top thrower when he first came up, Estévez dropped his angle and found success. But by the end of last season, he was more sidearm than the Rockies wanted. They let him struggle through the spring as he raised his delivery point, and he said he felt soreness in his arm as he adjusted. But he’s where he wants to be.

“I got a little frustrated, but I knew it was going to come to me if I worked at it,” Estévez said. “But it’s muscle memory, and everything is good now.”

Estévez now wants to finish strong and at the same time build his knowledge base so he can return next season with greater savvy.

“On some guys, you can see when they have no chance against your fastball,” Estévez said. “But there are a lot of smart hitters. There are guys like Buster Posey who can be late and still hit a double, but that’s because they have experience and they get you when you’re predictable. But if I mix things up, I can get him.

“It’s a mind game, and I like it.”