With 'lethal combination' of pitches, Estrada sets Padres K mark

November waiver claim strikes out all 5 Yankees he faces, giving him club-record 10 in a row

May 27th, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- Baseball world, meet , the Padres’ November waiver claim who might be the most dominant reliever in the sport at the moment.

Estrada punched out five straight Yankees, all swinging, in San Diego’s 5-2 victory on Sunday afternoon at Petco Park. Dating back to his previous outing on Thursday against Cincinnati, the 25-year-old right-hander has now tallied 10 consecutive strikeouts -- a franchise record that surpassed Jake Peavy’s previous mark of nine straight, set in April 2007.

That streak will remain active the next time he takes the mound, too. The Phillies’ José Alvarado is the only pitcher since at least 1961 to strike out 11 consecutive batters. He did so last April. Prior to '61, play-by-play data is incomplete, so it's impossible to glean the all-time mark. But the next time Estrada pitches, he'll be looking to equal -- and then break -- an expansion-era record.

On Sunday, Estrada entered with San Diego trailing by a run in the sixth inning and struck out Aaron Judge and Alex Verdugo on seven pitches. After the Padres took the lead with a small-ball-riddled, four-run rally in the bottom of the sixth, Estrada set down Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Gleyber Torres.

In the process, Estrada lowered his ERA to 0.59 this season. He has faced 18 batters across his past four outings, and he has punched out 15 of them.

“This guy’s got an elite fastball, and now he’s got secondary pitches in the zone,” said manager Mike Shildt. “It’s just a lethal combination.”

When San Diego claimed Estrada off waivers from the Cubs in November, his stuff was never really in doubt. His high-octane fastball wowed metrics lovers and scouts alike. He also threw a slider and a changeup. But the Padres have managed to harness Estrada’s command, and they’ve polished those two offspeed offerings.

His slider velocity has ticked into the 90s, and his new splitter/changeup grip has paid major dividends. It’s a perfect complement to that lively fastball. Estrada learned it from watching videos of Eric Gagne talking about his changeup, then applying his own twist. He calls it a “chitter.”

“First time seeing him in person, I thought he was really good,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “He was impressive. Looked like he had life at the top of the zone, and that splitter and slider was pretty impressive.”

Drafted in the sixth round by Chicago in 2017 out of nearby Palm Desert High School, Estrada struggled with his command in the Minors. Last season, he posted a 6.75 ERA in the Majors with a 5.97 mark at Triple-A Iowa -- mostly due to those unseemly 38 walks in 39 1/3 total innings.

In early November, the Cubs were mired in a roster crunch. They were also rumored to be in the Soto sweepstakes. Estrada was at his own birthday dinner when he learned he’d been placed on outright waivers. Coincidentally, the Padres had already come up in conversation that night.

“It was me and my best buddies, we all went out to dinner, and we were all talking about Juan Soto,” Estrada said. “They were like: ‘Imagine if you get traded to the Padres.’ Being traded for Juan Soto, I was like ... San Diego wouldn't be bad. Ten minutes later, I get a call from my agent, he says I got outrighted. At my birthday dinner.”

It didn’t quite unfold the way Estrada and his buddies predicted. Soto, of course, was dealt to the Yankees a month later. Estrada was claimed by San Diego the following week. As early as February, when Estrada visited the team’s pitching lab at Point Loma Nazarene University, the Padres thought they had something.

“This guy had a pretty special fastball,” Shildt said. “Now it was just a matter of making sure there were secondary pitches, then constantly working. … The message was: ‘Continue to get better at some of these things. If you do that, you can be a force at the back end of games.’”

That’s precisely where Shildt has been using Estrada lately. He has quickly become Robert Suarez’s primary setup option. On May 17, Estrada earned his first career save in Atlanta.

In March, when the Padres’ bullpen still seemed full of question marks, they included the ever-reliable Steven Wilson in the trade package for Dylan Cease. Part of the reason they were comfortable doing so? Estrada was viewed as a potential replacement for those setup innings.

After a short (and dominant) early stint in the Minors, Estrada has been everything the Padres could’ve asked for.

“He’s been throwing the ball really well for us,” said third baseman Manny Machado. “He’s been lights out. … He’s going to be a big key to our bullpen moving down the road. Let him keep grabbing the ball and doing his thing.”