Every Bullpen Guy Has His Backstory—and It’s Often Extraordinary

Padres reliever Jeremiah Estrada wrote himself into the MLB record books on Tuesday night mere months after being discarded by the Cubs. Stories like his aren’t hard to find.
Padres reliever Estrada became the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out 13 consecutive batters (across multiple outings) on Tuesday night.
Padres reliever Estrada became the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out 13 consecutive batters (across multiple outings) on Tuesday night. / David Frerker-USA TODAY Sports

The story of righthanded pitcher Jeremiah Estrada seems remarkable at first glance: released on outright waivers by the Chicago Cubs in November, six months later on Tuesday night with the San Diego Padres he becomes the first pitcher known to strike out 13 consecutive batters—all of them swinging.

Crazy? Sure. Amazing? You bet.

Rare? No.

That’s what life is like in the world of modern relief pitching. In a universe filled with anonymous pitchers like Estrada who can throw in the upper 90s, the next great reliever is only one tweak, one grip change, one new pitch away from dominating in the big leagues, even if it might not be sustainable.

Trevor Megill was drafted in the seventh round by the Padres, claimed by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft, waived by the Cubs and non-tendered, DFA’d and traded by the Minnesota Twins—only to wind up closing for the Milwaukee Brewers this year at age 30. Conversely, the Brewers gave up on Lucas Erceg, a converted third baseman with a 5.07 minor league ERA. They sold him to the Oakland A’s, for whom he is striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Since he was released twice within 11 months in 2020-21, Luis Garcia at ages 35-37 has made $11.25 million in three years. On and on it goes …

Says one team executive, “Everybody can play that game of ‘What did we miss?’ But it happens time and time again. In today’s game, so many guys so often are one adjustment away from turning it around, especially when you throw 97 [mph], as many guys do.”

The average relief pitcher throws only 19 pitches per appearance. Hitters have only a brief look to figure out how their stuff moves and how they use it.

Look at this: a list of the pitchers with the highest strikeout rate this season (minimum 16 innings). None of them are homegrown first- or second-round draft picks. Each has their own story to tell:





Fernando Cruz, Reds



Released by Royals and Cubs

Mason Miller, A’s



Four years pitching Division III ball

Aroldis Chapman, Pirates



Fourth team in three years

Jeremiah Estrada, Padres



Put on waivers by Cubs in November

Josh Hader, Astros



Converted starter traded at 21

Reed Garrett, Mets



Released twice, 5.40 career ERA

Edwin Diaz, Mets



Missed 2023 season with knee injury

Cade Smith, Guardians



Undrafted free agent out of Hawaii

Estrada’s story begins with being drafted by the Cubs in the sixth round out of Palm Desert (Calif.) High School. The 6-foot-1 righthander threw in the mid-90s. Chicago gave him $1 million, about five times over slot, to keep him from a verbal commitment to UCLA. Over the next six years, hampered by injuries, Tommy John surgery and the lost season to COVID, Estrada threw only 88 ⅓ innings but struck out 12.9 per nine innings. He made his major league debut in 2022.

Then Estrada took a major step back last season. Between Triple A Iowa and the Cubs, Estrada walked 38 batters in 39 ⅓ innings while pitching to a 6.18 ERA. The strikeouts remained plentiful: 56.

Cubs reliever Jeremiah Estrada grimaces after allowing a home run
Estrada largely struggled with the Cubs last season amid command issues. / John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Cubs player development people were confounded by Estrada’s stalled development. They had tried to give Estrada a splitter to complement his plus four-seamer, but it never took root. At one point they watched him throw 30 straight four-seamers in a minor league game. Estrada had been in the Cubs’ system for seven years. When the team put its 40-man roster together after the season, Estrada received little support for one of those coveted spots. He was placed on outright waivers. He was claimed by San Diego, about two and a half hours from his hometown in the Coachella Valley.

With the change of scenery came a change in mechanics and pitch use. Estrada found a splitter that felt comfortable coming out of his hand. He meshed well with Padres pitching coach Ruben Niebla. Estrada started the year at Triple A El Paso, where he struck out 20 of the 33 batters he faced, earning his promotion with the Padres.

In 16 ⅓ innings with San Diego, Estrada has more wins (2–0) than runs allowed (one). He has fanned 28 of the 58 batters he has faced, including the past 13 across three outings. His four-seamer is stunningly good. It averages 96.9 mph. More importantly, it also has the most ride (sinks less) of any fastball thrown at 95 mph or more. He also throws the splitter and a slider with elite horizontal movement.

With Estrada in front of closer Robert Suárez, the Padres suddenly have one of the most dynamic end-of-game duos in baseball.

You might remember Suárez’s story. In 2015, Suárez was working construction and playing semipro ball in Venezuela when a buddy suggested the Mexican League paid decent money. There, at age 24, Suárez became a professional for the first time. From Mexico he went to Japan, where he blew out his elbow, had Tommy John surgery, failed as a starter, was released, re-signed with another club in Japan, became a closer and signed with the Padres after the 2021 season—his first contract with a major league organization coming at age 31. He has since signed a three-year, $30 million deal. This year he leads the National League in games finished and has a 0.73 ERA.

Just another story in the remarkable, crazy and amazing world of modern relief pitching.

Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci covers Major League Baseball and brings Sports Illustrated 41 seasons of experience. Tom is a five-time Emmy Award winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, two-time New York Times bestselling author and a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. He was the first baseball writer to be named National Sportswriter of the Year for three consecutive years and the only to call the World Series as an analyst. He appears on MLB Network and Fox. He holds a degree from Penn State and lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two sons.