Image credit: © Ron Chenoy - USA TODAY Sports

This article was originally published February 2, 2023.

I loved Mitch Hedberg.

His great skill was making jokes and observations that seemed so incredibly obvious, but which clearly took outstanding creativity. Anyone who’s ever been in a shopping mall has likely climbed a static escalator, but he was the first person I heard to opine, “An escalator can never break. It can only become stairs.” He was a master at putting into words the things we all saw but never thought about in such a funny way.

In thinking about Thairo Estrada’s 2022 production and his 2023 outlook—how’s that for a segue—I’m reminded of another Mitch Hedberg joke. A little later in that Comedy Central special, he tells the story of hitting a golfer with a ball. The punchline is, “You’re supposed to yell ‘fore,’ but I was too busy mumbling, ‘There ain’t no way that’s gonna hit him.’”

I spent the first few weeks of the 2022 season watching Estrada produce at a fantasy-worthy rate from afar, waiting for the proverbial golf ball to slice away from him and into a bunker or manmade lake. Instead of getting in on any of that fantasy goodness, I just mumbled to myself, “There ain’t no way that’s gonna hit him.” Of course, there were hits and Estrada was one of the waiver-wire gems of last season.

That can be true at the same time this next statement can also be true: I just don’t see the upside in paying for Estrada this spring. Nothing can take away his 14-homer, 21-steal season; those fantasy players who did latch onto Estrada early surely won’t forget his contributions any time soon. But we know that past success doesn’t necessarily equate to future success, and taking Estrada at pick 171.49 in NFBC Draft Champions drafts since December 1—the 10th second baseman off the board, ahead of guys like Brandon Lowe, Vaughn Grissom and Jonathan India, among others—doesn’t seem like it leaves much room for profit.

The reasons for optimism are clear. Estrada will only turn 27 later this month, and last season was his first full season in the majors. If we remove his two disjointed seasons with the Yankees in 2019 and 2020, before the Giants “purchased” him in April 2021, Estrada has a 162-game average of 18 homers, 71 RBI, 76 runs scored, 19 steals and a .263/.324/.417 line as a major leaguer. That will play.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Giants don’t have much in the way of competition for Estrada at the keystone. Last year, they entered the season with Tommy La Stella on the roster and in line for the big side of a platoon at second base. This year, La Stella is gone, and only Wilmer Flores—who has other positions to worry himself with as well—is a threat to Estrada’s playing time as spring approaches. If you’re pairing his 2021-2022 production with this year’s playing time, and maybe even baking in growth as he becomes more comfortable in the majors, it’s not hard to see how some are bullish on the 26-year-old.

I just can’t get past the feeling that there ain’t no way that’s gonna hit him again. If we’re to believe his Baseball Savant page, Estrada is a guy who’s managed to get the most out of pedestrian tools; only his Sprint Speed, strikeout percentage, Whiff percentage and Outs Above Average (OAA) sliders shade red, and many of his batted-ball metrics are a cold shade of blue. You can say that those abilities are baked into projections that are still relatively favorable for Estrada–and I agree–but it’s not just this human that is skeptical. PECOTA also thinks Estrada is pretty meh, projecting him for nine homers and 15 steals with a .254/.316/.377 line in 119 games: a DRC+ of 97.

Estrada did have full run of the second base position last season and will enter spring in a very favorable spot, but despite the positive OAA, he is not a defensive maven. To wit: Estrada played five different positions last season, and his OAA as a second baseman was zero. According to that metric, he’s only passable at the position.

When Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi said this during his end-of-year Zoom conference call with reporters, as relayed by my colleague Howard Megdal, it leaves one to wonder about Estrada’s future as a concrete starter:

“We’re gonna have to explore all of those channels in our pursuit of greater athleticism and better defense,” Zaidi said. “I think maybe some of what we saw early in the season, and understated our need to improve defensively because we saw errors and some misplays that I think were actually unlike the group of players we have…[G]oing into next season with the new defensive rules, I think it’s even more important to have a lot of range throughout the field, but particularly on the infield. So for us, we’ll have to explore all channels to get those types of players.”

Howard went on to note that by a different metric, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Estrada was actually a team-worst -17 between second base and shortstop. Not exactly the kind of defender you want to run out for 160 games when your stated focus is improving infield defense.

The final hole I’m going to attempt to poke in the Estrada hot-air balloon is his counting stats. I pointed this out in my piece on deep-league options earlier this week, but I sometimes disagree with the conclusions drawn by FanGraphs’ RosterResource arm. Like with Jonathan Schoop hitting cleanup in the Tigers lineup, I also disagree that Estrada is destined to hit atop the Giants lineup this summer.

Consider that last year, amid his breakout season, Estrada batted leadoff just three times, while pedestrian hitters like Austin Slater, LaMonte Wade Jr., and the aforementioned La Stella all appeared there more than 20 times. Estrada did hit second in the order seven times, but primarily he found himself batting fifth, sixth, or seventh as part of an offense that was, by our DRC+ metric, below league average.

Despite making a lot of contact, his is not a profile that a forward-thinking organization like the Giants features high in the lineup. If he routinely finds himself hitting in the bottom portion of the order, it’s going to be awfully hard to repeat those 71 runs from last season, even if we project a full slate of at-bats.

In the end, it just comes down to perspective. It’s clear I have hesitations about the repeatability of Estrada’s 2022 production, both in quality and in quantity. Others have proven happy to buy in on him with the expectation of a repeat performance or improvement.

They see stairs. I just see a broken escalator.

Thank you for reading

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