In the early stages of the 2022 season, Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Carlos Estévez knew he had to do something.
Even with some very early success, through his first 18 appearances this year, the sixth-year member of the Colorado Rockies carried an unsightly 6.46 earned run average allowing four home runs and a .290 opponent batting average during those early contests.
Carlos Estévez struggled out of the Colorado Rockies bullpen for the first portion of the season.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” said the veteran Rockies reliever, who recorded his 300th career strikeout August 28 on the road against the New York Mets. “I was missing a lot. I wasn’t commanding my changeup or my slider like I wanted to. Even my fastball, I was getting in trouble (with).
“I found a way to go back to what I do, like stay behind the baseball, get my pitches to move the right way that I want them,” he added. “Once I found that, it’s been really good.”
“Really good” might even be an understatement to describe how Estévez, whose 305 career strikeouts rank seventh-most by a Colorado reliever in franchise history, has changed the course of his current campaign.
In his last 36 appearances (since June 5), he has notched a 2.65 ERA in 34.0 innings while limiting opponents to a .197 batting average. The sterling 1.47 ERA in 19 games in the second half of 2022 for the Rockies setup specialist stands as 10th-best among National League relievers during that time (minimum 15 pitching appearances).
In fact, Estévez did not permit an earned run in 13 consecutive outings (from August 3-September 2) the second-longest such streak of his career and just one game off his career-best string of 14 straight games set a year ago.
So, what did Estévez discover that proved to be a game changer after some self-introspection as well as consulting with Rockies pitching coaches and the team’s analytics department?
“I noticed that my fastball was moving more sideways instead of having that ride, like vertical movement,” he said. “It was more horizontal. Once I figured that out, I did a couple of drills to stay behind the baseball.”
By staying behind the baseball, Estévez — whose ERA has improved to 3.81 in 55 games this season — has been able to increase the velocity of his pitches, work more in the top of the strike zone, and have success.
In talking about Estévez’ recent success, Colorado manager Bud Black said the placement of the right-hander’s pitches is key, using a breakfast food analogy to explain.
“I think, with the uptick in his velocity, the top of the zone works right now,” Black said during the Rockies recent trip to Atlanta to meet the defending World Series champion Braves.
“If it’s too high, it’s a ball — no fat. If it’s lower, he gets waffles — no matter how hard the velocity. With Carlos, it’s like chest high — if he can get it there — it’s effective because you’ll get the swing through (and) you will beat some bats. But I think he has also thrown some breaking balls up there, too — not by design — but at the correct height. They (opposing hitters) swing through them and they work. I think that’s what has sort of turned the numbers around a little bit.”
Added Black about pitch location for his pitcher, nicknamed “Este”: “Breaking balls are intended to be down, most of his fastballs are intended to be down. But, because of the overthrow in the effort … they go up,” Black added. “Right now he’s in a spot where I think, because of the added velocity, he’s having some success.”
One teammate who is not surprised with Estévez’ rebound on the mound this season is Daniel Bard.
“That guy always bounces back,” Bard said of Estévez in comments during the Rockies recent series in Atlanta. “I’ve seen it for three years now. He’ll go through a rough spell every now and then where they (opponents) barrel some balls and then he always finds it right back. It doesn’t last long usually.”
“You can confidently throw him in there in any situation,” the Rockies closer added. “We’ve had some guys get hurt that were in that setup role and last year he filled in for me closing at the end of the year and did a great job.”
With his better numbers in the season’s second half, Estévez finds himself being called on during more key moments for his team.
“In San Diego, I had an outing where we were losing by one, I think, and I went in there, (had a) 1-2-3 inning,” he said. “We then tied the game and we ended up taking the lead … It feels really good to be able to help the team that way.”
With Estévez in the final year of his contract, Bard admits the importance of the franchise retaining the native of the Dominican Republic for a seventh season with the team in 2023.
“I hope he (Estévez) is back next year, if that’s in the cards,” Bard said. “I hope it is. But some team is going to be really lucky to have him because, man, he’s special.”