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The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 24-31

In past iterations of this column, a combination of pressing narratives and fatigue with certain pitchers and their respective teams, or a straight up lack of interesting matchups have forced us to get creative. Not so this week, where the first three days of the week each feature games with giant WATCH ME signs stapled to their probable pitchers. Beginning with the Padres-Brewers series, the final week of May has gifted us some undeniably fun fixtures.

Monday, May 24, 7:40 PM ET: Blake Snell vs. Brandon Woodruff

In his first year in San Diego, Blake Snell seems to be learning his new city using a method that many non-pitchers find helpful: a lot of walks. Snell has already issued 25 walks in 40.1 innings (13.7 BB%) and allowed hitters to reach base at a clip comfortably above the league average. The former Ray has a .330 on-base percentage against him, while the rest of the league is at .313. Read the rest of this entry »

Ryan Thompson and Tyler Rogers Explain Their Weird Jersey Numbers

This season, two sidearm relievers – the Rays’ Ryan Thompson and the Giants’ Tyler Rogers – are leaving hitters dumbstruck with their unusual pitching styles. Besides releasing the ball near their shoe tops, though, Thompson and Rogers have another thing in common.

Both pitchers wear jersey numbers far above what most baseball players would consider traditional. Thompson, who proudly wears No. 81, rocks a number that would fit in better with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than the Rays. Meanwhile, Rogers has been the best pitcher out of the San Francisco bullpen with No. 71 on his back, and says that he likely would have ditched it had he not been so fortunate on the mound.

Thompson and Rogers discussed the process behind getting their numbers, how important they are to them now, and all of the strange experiences that have come from boldly wearing a number that so many others will not. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 17-23

As the 2021 season nears its Memorial Day checkpoint, feast your eyes upon some stars who are off to the best starts of their career, a couple of wily veterans still learning (and if they know what’s good for them, eventually unlearning) some new tricks, and two-up-and down hurlers on a quest for consistency.

Tuesday, May 18, 6:40 PM ET: Trevor Rogers vs. Zack Wheeler

Two of the National League’s best pitchers through the season’s first month are on a collision course at Citizens Bank Park. One is an NL East mainstay who generated considerable prospect hype; the other is making a name for himself after a relatively anonymous minor league career. While Rogers was a first-round pick and a top-six prospect in the Marlins’ system heading into the season, he certainly was not on many fans’ radars outside of South Florida; our own Eric Longenhagen viewed him as a “stable 2-WAR starter prospect.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 10-16

All the pitchers in the league seem to have gotten together and decided that someone has to throw a no-hitter each week. One of our best matchups this week involves a guy who already threw one, two guys meeting in LA who are certainly pitching well enough to nab one of their own, and an AL Central altercation between pitchers – and teams – trending in opposite directions.

Tuesday, May 11, 7:10 PM ET: John Means vs. Marcus Stroman

John Means got his 15 minutes of fame last week after methodically tearing the Mariners apart. Means’ destruction of the M’s lineup earned him a no-hitter and the baseball world’s spotlight, but the Baltimore bro has been reliably great all season. He’s allowed just five hits and three earned runs over his last 22.1 innings, striking out 27 hitters along the way. If we zoom out and look at his entire body of work across seven starts, we find that Means has become one of the best pitchers in the game thanks to one little trick.

Like a local magician bringing their act on the road, Means risked letting the secret out of the bag when he performed the trick over and over again in Seattle. The Orioles’ breakout star threw first pitch strikes to 26 of the 27 hitters he faced, elevating his first-pitch strike percentage to a maniacal 73.5%. Not only is this 12 percentage points above Means’ career-high, it’s also the highest of any American League starter. As a predominantly fastball-changeup artist, one would think that Means adheres to the traditional method of fastballs in the zone, changeups just underneath it. While he still utilizes his changeup in that fashion – to the tune of a 33.3% chase rate – it’s actually the pitch he throws most frequently in the zone, per Baseball Savant. Read the rest of this entry »

Willians Astudillo and Hanser Alberto Are Here To Swing the Bat

In her 2012 novel Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn wrote that the Midwest is full of people who are nice enough, but easy to manipulate. “Easy to mold, easy to wipe down,” Flynn wrote of these people, who she described as having plastic souls. But she could not have foreseen two current Midwest residents who are breaking the mold of modern baseball.

The major-league walk rate has comfortably sat around 8% for the last 100 years, and with 21st-century front offices emphasizing on-base percentage, the game’s elite offensive players regularly walk more than 10% of the time while boasting on-base percentages in the .400 club.

This season, the American League Central plays home to two players that don’t seem to care about any of that. The Twins’ Willians Astudillo and the Royals’ Hanser Alberto have each strode to the plate at least 55 times in 2021. They have combined for zero walks.

The pair of Midwest transplants are the only players in the league who have batted at least 50 times without drawing a walk. They are also the only players in the league who have batted at least 40 times without drawing a walk, and the only players who have batted at least 30 times without a walk. The player with the third-highest amount of plate appearances this year without a base on balls is Angels journeyman Scott Schebler, who’s all the way down at 27. Red Sox backup catcher Kevin Plawecki had made 35 straight walkless plate appearances to begin his season before inexplicably drawing two on Thursday against the Tigers’ bullpen.

Astudillo and Alberto have never been paragons of patience during their careers. Both players have career walk rates under 2.5%, with Astudillo at 1.9% and Alberto at a slightly more selective 2.4%. Since Astudillo was summoned to the big leagues in 2018, he and Alberto have the lowest walk rates of any players with at least 300 plate appearances. Yet, they can each claim on-base percentages above .310 during that span, which certainly isn’t great, but is much better than almost all of their classmates in the remedial walk room. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 3-9

This week kicks off with two exciting players who should leave a huge impact on the sport over the next decade, and concludes with two who left their fingerprints all over the last one.

Monday, May 3, 9:38 PM ET: Tyler Glasnow vs. Shohei Ohtani

Outside of a deGrom-Ohtani matchup (which, All-Star Game, if you’re listening…) you’d be hard pressed to come up with a more exciting combination of starting pitchers. Tyler Glasnow, a pitcher who’s been abandoned by consistency at times in the past, is turning his question marks into periods. The looming issue with Glasnow was always when, not if, his strikeout numbers would reach kick-ass status. Like many of his fellow right-handed power pitchers, getting out of Pittsburgh was a great start. In his first full season with Tampa – albeit in just 12 starts – Glasnow made it over the 30% K-rate hump for the first time. His second full season with the Rays ended with a 38.2 K% and a trip to the World Series. This season, he’s still climbing, and hitters are getting completely neutralized.

Notching 10 or more strikeouts in three of his last four starts, including a career-high 14 on April 12 against the Rangers, Glasnow’s strikeout percentage is a robust 39.2%. With Blake Snell and Charlie Morton out of the picture, Glasnow is still bulldozing everything in his path, and he’s on an immaculate pace.

Tyler Glasnow, 2021 Season
6 37.2 39.2 7.7 1.67 1.69 .144 .210 .227

The most elementary reasons for that? Rather than going all in on fastballs and curveballs – pitches he threw a combined 95.4% of the time last season – Glasnow has scaled back the curve and introduced a slider-cutter hybrid. He’s spoken about the increased confidence that came from working with Tampa Bay’s coaching staff and their support, stating that they instructed him to “out stuff” guys rather than trying to dot the corner. When he only had two pitches though, his stuff was too predictable. Enter the “slutter,” a pitch that Glasnow admits has made things easier on him, which I’m sure he and his Boy Meets World good looks really needed. Read the rest of this entry »

Franmil Reyes Hit Nearly 900 Feet of Home Run

There probably aren’t many times in his life when Franmil Reyes has snuck up on someone. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Reyes looks like he could stiff arm a Ford F-150. There’s nothing inconspicuous about him. However, despite being fourth in average exit velocity since he was called up in 2018 – rubbing elbows with the Aaron Judge-s, Nelson Cruz-s, and Joey Gallo-s of the world – Reyes’ name is rarely mentioned when discussing the game’s prodigious power hitters. Part of this may be because he’s played in Cleveland and a pre-Fernando Tatis Jr. San Diego. Part of it may be because, despite the jumbo exit velocity, he’s tied for 21st in home runs over that span. You can hit the ball as hard as you want, but if 46.6% of them are on the ground like Reyes’ have been, people will lose interest as quickly as those blistering grounders become outs.

Exit velocity will catch the eye of dedicated, hardcore fans painstakingly poring over data. But massive home runs will always be the quickest way to draw the eyes of casual fans. Ideally (as Reyes did twice on Tuesday night) you can hit a ball over 110 mph while also sending it halfway to a neighboring county. Reyes may not have to worry about sneaking up on people anymore, both because he’s finally getting the results that his exit velocities would suggest, and because he’s literally being very loud. You’ll know he’s around because you’ll know the sound of his bat.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: April 26-May 2

The end of April always sees some teams with their hands hovering above the panic button, some pitchers wondering what the heck is happening, and others hoping their newfound glory is more than just a phase. As the month comes to a close, we’ll see all of those tropes beautifully on display. Here are the week’s best matchups.

Tuesday, April 27, 6:10 PM ET: Kenta Maeda vs. Aaron Civale

Heading into the season, three AL Central teams had playoff odds above 24%. Nearly a month into things, two of those teams are struggling with losing records (Minnesota and Cleveland), while the Royals, who had the fourth-lowest playoff odds of any AL team, are the surprise of the spring. This week brings the first Minnesota-Cleveland series of the year as both sides try to find their mojo. On Tuesday, they’ll each turn to guys with a wide array of pitches who currently occupy different ends of the success spectrum.

One year removed from finishing second in Cy Young voting and AL starter WAR, Kenta Maeda is searching for answers. He’s only seen the sixth inning once in his four starts this year, going exactly 6.0 innings in a game against the clawless Tigers. He’s had two starts flame out at 4.1 innings; his other outing was a meltdown at the Coliseum on April 21. The A’s clobbered three home runs, whacked five balls with exit velocities above 100 mph, plated seven earned runs, and hooked him after three innings.

Those big-time exit velocities are becoming a troubling trend for Maeda, a pitcher who thrived in his first five major league seasons by limiting hard contact. According to Statcast, Maeda had the lowest average exit velocity among all starters from 2015-20 who threw at least 500 innings. Today, he’s floundering in the 28th percentile for average exit velocity and the 29th percentile for hard-hit percentage, partially due to the fact that his four-seam fastball just flat out ain’t working.

Last season, when Maeda had the lowest average exit velocity of any starter and the highest K% of his career, hitters flailed their way to a .086 batting average and .103 wOBA (.150 xwOBA) on his fastball. The average exit velocity against that pitch (83.4 mph) was even weaker than his league-leading overall average (85.3). This year, that’s all gone awry. His fastball is getting lit up for a .313 average and .372 wOBA (.430 xwOBA). He even allowed a home run on the fastball for the first time in his Twins tenure. This Matt Olson skyscraper, measured at 107.8 mph on a middle-middle meatball, is a perfect encapsulation of how things are going for Maeda when his catcher puts down one finger.

Aaron Civale, on the other hand, has taken the thump out of opponents’ bats. Cleveland’s third-year righty is in the 88th percentile of exit velocity, and his heater is the one steadying the ship. As Devan Fink laid out, Civale has overhauled everything, mainly his philosophy on fastballs. After throwing a four-seam 2.5% of the time in 2020, he’s shot that percentage all the way up near 30.

It’s now Civale’s turn for a tour of the exit velocity leaderboard. His revamped changeup – which, as Devan also mentioned, is now a split-change – is working so well that he may even want to consider upping its dosage. The split-change is sending everyone back to the dugout having made weak contact (or no contact at all), but particularly left-handers, who have yet to record an extra base hit, and are slap boxing a 78.0 average exit velocity against this diverting action.

Like a scrap-hungry seagull or a fan with the day off tomorrow, Civale is also sticking around late into the game. As opposed to Maeda, Civale has pitched into the sixth inning in each of his starts, twice going seven frames or longer. With both teams looking to course-correct after chumpish starts, and the Royals’ making things even more crowded in the Central, Tuesday’s Maeda-Civale ticket is one to pinpoint.

Friday, April 30, 9:40 PM ET: John Means vs. Jesús Luzardo

Fresh off a resounding 8-1 win that ended Oakland’s 13-game winning streak, the Orioles meet the A’s for a second straight weekend series. John Means will attempt to keep Oakland earth-bound on Friday, matched up with the same youngster he defeated last time out. Means and Luzardo had a timeshare of the strike zone when they last linked up, pouring in strikes on over 60% of their identical 101 pitch counts.

Means has stuck to the same script for virtually his entire career, though this season he’s relegating his slider from supporting actor to bit part. With roughly 10 mph separating his fastball and changeup – Means’ most common offerings – the rock of the Orioles’ rotation is letting those two do the lion’s share of the work. Eighty-three of his 101 pitches in the clubs’ first meeting were either a fastball or changeup, and the A’s could only scrape together two hits in 6.1 innings. Will Means follow the same path when they collide this weekend, or will he try to confound Oakland by peppering in more sliders and curves?

Both pitchers will throw their fastballs more often than not, though they use different lanes of the highway. Per Baseball Savant, Luzardo was responsible for each of the 23 highest-velocity pitches in Sunday’s game against Means, topping out just a hair under 98 mph.

The Athletics’ Peruvian prodigy took the L thanks to Austin Hays’ two home runs, giving Luzardo five gopher balls in 25 innings, all provided by right-handed hitters. Since his big-league career began in 2019, Luzardo has allowed 15 home runs, 14 of which have come from the right side of the batter’s box. (To satiate your daily need for useless trivia, the only lefty to take Luzardo deep is Mariners’ 28-year-old rookie José Marmolejos.) Don’t let the Orioles band of nameless, faceless offensive players fool you. Though they’ve managed just one souvenir shot against lefties this season, Baltimore’s left-handed hitters are fifth in wRC+ against same-handed pitchers.

Friday, April 30, 9:40 PM ET: Jon Gray vs. Madison Bumgarner

Friday evening will be extremely conducive to the two-screen lifestyle, as Gray vs. Bumgarner gets underway at the same time as Means vs. Luzardo. Both of these towering NL West staples are intimately familiar with their opponent. Gray has tussled with the Diamondbacks 13 times in his seven-year career while Bumgarner’s career stats against the Rockies read like a full season for a 1960’s workhorse: 37 starts, 230.1 innings, 218 strikeouts, 62 walks. Despite inhabiting the same division as Bumgarner for his whole career, Gray has only matched up with the inimitable lefty twice. Entering round three, both guys are hot.

Gray shut out the non-Bryce Harper parts of Philadelphia’s lineup on Sunday, allowing just two runs on a pair of solo shots to the Phillies’ right fielder. Though he’s running the first double-digit walk rate of his career, Gray is doing well at keeping those base on balls from becoming runs. His 85.8 LOB% will surely come down, and his .208 BABIP will likely come up, but there are some encouraging trends that suggest Gray’s early-season fortune could be here to stay.

Keeping balls on the ground means they can’t be added to the collection of Coors Field moon shots, and Gray has gotten his groundball percentage back above 50%, much more in line with his 46.6% career average than the 36.7% outlier from last season. The Rockies also have to love their ace’s hard-hit rate, as it mirrors the numbers he maintained in 2016-17, the only seasons he’s eclipsed 3.0 WAR. So far Gray has been riding the slider – a pitch that’s been his best since 2019 – until the wheels fall off. Hitters began whiffing on it 40% of the time during that 2019 breakthrough, and this year they’re hardly faring any better, swinging and missing at a 42.5% clip and striking out in 19 of the 51 plate appearances that have ended with this unrighteous pitch.

The desert faithful will get their first look at Bumgarner since his seven-inning no-hitter. The zero hits part jumps out of the box score, but Sunday’s shortened no-no was also MadBum’s best all-around game as a Diamondback. It was his first start for Arizona without a walk, and he matched his Diamondback-high with seven strikeouts. Bumgarner generated 10 swings and misses on his cutter and curveball, the latter of which is quickly becoming an essential out pitch. With a Whiff% of 40.0 (and a staggering 75.0 against lefties), Uncle Charlie is bringing gifts every time he visits Bumgarner.

This could spell doom for Ryan McMahon, the Rockies’ left-handed hitting outfielder who’s carrying around an 0-for-10 with three strikeouts against the legendary lefty. Trevor Story, the only current Rockie with more than 18 plate appearances against Bumgarner, has also had a bad time. His 8-for-41 (.195/.233/.561) numbers are hilariously heightened by the fact that five of those hits have landed in the seats.

Under the Radar Matchup – Friday, April 30, 8:05 PM ET: Nathan Eovaldi vs. Kohei Arihara

Here’s the situation: Eovaldi has one of the lowest barrel percentages of any starter; Arihara has one of the highest. Unsurprisingly, Eovaldi has been one of the more valuable pitchers around, becoming one of the first American League hurlers to hit 1.0 WAR. He’s done it by converting to the church of groundballs, getting disgusting ride on his fastball, and harnessing a curveball that’s experienced a 180-degree turnaround in just two years.

Nathan Eovaldi Curveball
Year % wOBA xwOBA EV
2021 20.0 .151 .295 79.1
2020 17.1 .153 .161 87.9
2019 17.5 .390 .386 86.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

As recently as 2019, Nathan Eovaldi was downright bad, trying to smile through the pain of home runs and walks. That is no longer the case, as Eovaldi is working on a streak of 42.2 consecutive innings without allowing a dinger, and his walk rate is a microscopic 4.2%, down from the 11.6% that severely hampered him two years ago.

While Eovaldi’s aversion to hard contact has very plainly made him Boston’s best pitcher, his Friday counterpart’s success has been much more confusing. Arihara was managing a 2.21 ERA (3.05 FIP) heading into his last start despite constantly getting hit on the thick part of the bat. After coming over from Japan on a two-year pact with the Rangers, Arihara experienced unbelievable luck through his first four starts until stopping by Guaranteed Rate Field on Sunday. His 93.9 EV (highest of any starting pitcher), 12.9% Barrel% (fifth-highest), and 50.0% HardHit% (tied for highest in the league), tell us that hitters are having a very easy time squaring him up. Yet, he went longer than five innings with zero earned runs in his two previous starts before getting beat up by the White Sox in his worst showing to date, pushing his ERA to 4.03 (4.17 FIP). Even after getting his “Welcome to MLB” moment in Chicago, Arihara still has a HR/9 under 1.00 and is feeding groundballs to 40.6% of his adversaries.

His teammate Mike Foltynewicz, who has the dubious distinction of being neck-and-neck with Arihara on HardHit Mountain, has a 5.32 ERA, 6.78 FIP, and leads the world in home runs allowed. Baseball is hard and unfair.

The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: April 19-25

With another full week of baseball on the horizon, let’s set our sights on three intriguing faceoffs. One is riddled with questions about each starter’s ability to become a true ace, another connects two former teammates who have each proven themselves as aces, and the final is between two fellas who haven’t proven much of anything yet this year.

Tuesday, April 20, 6:40 PM ET: Zac Gallen vs. Luis Castillo

For years, Gallen has embodied promise. He was, and in many ways still is, the physical form of “could be.” The Cardinals took him in the third round of the 2016 draft, and his 1.62 ERA and 2.17 FIP at High-A in 2017 showed quick returns on the their investment. Gallen made it all the way up to Triple-A by the end of the year, then was traded to Miami in December 2017 along with Sandy Alcantara and two other players in exchange for Marcell Ozuna. Read the rest of this entry »

Ronald Acuña Jr. Is Toying With the Marlins

As baseball re-adjusts to the typical rigors of a 162-game marathon, the enormity of the season looms large. The rush of new beginnings has already subsided after cresting atop pomp, circumstance, and red, white, and blue bunting. Seven months of this stuff can take a toll on the mind, because even though the gatekeepers of fun want the players to act more robotic, they’re still hopelessly human.

To break up the monotony – to prevent the edges from blurring together – life needs texture. The smoothness of everyday things, people, and feelings must be offset by secondary and tertiary characters, those who remind us what it’s like to experience things in technicolor rather than dull gray. For most of us, it’s the fun extended family member who you only see every so often, or the friend of a friend who’s always good for a chuckle.

For Ronald Acuña Jr., it’s games against the Miami Marlins. Read the rest of this entry »