Monday’s Early Game: TB @ BOS

Game time: 11:05 ET

Starting Pitchers
Rays: Jeff Niemann (R)
2 GS, 8.1 IP, 3 K, 1 BB, 2 HBP, 1 HR, 4.94 FIP, 5.34 xFIP.
Projected FIP: 4.13 (FAN) 4.61 (CHONE) 4.67 (ZiPS)
L-R Splits: 0.20 run reverse split in 205.0 IP

Red Sox: John Lackey (R)
2 GS, 12.2 IP, 5 K, 6 BB, 1 HBP, 0 HR, 3.88 FIP, 5.50 xFIP
Projected FIP: 3.74 (FAN) 3.90 (ZiPS) 3.96 CHONE 4.18 Marcel
L-R Splits: 0.21 normal split in 1513.2 IP

The Red Sox will be looking to avenge three straight losses to the Rays and four straight overall. They appear to hold the pitching advantage in the last game of this four game set, as John Lackey will take the mound for the Red Sox. Although his 1.42 ERA looks great right now, Lackey has had some issues with control so far, issuing 6 walks against only 5 strikeouts. The ERA is a result of keeping the ball in the ballpark, as we can see from his high xFIP.

Lackey appears to have a completely new approach this year, as he has taken to throwing a cutter – 38% of his pitches have been classified as a cutter so far this year, a pitch with significantly less movement towards a right-handed hitter than his four-seam fastball. His cutter is averaging 89.5 MPH on the year, so far a significant drop off from the 91.6 he averaged on his go-to four-seam fastball last season. He hasn’t completely scrapped the four-seamer – he still uses it over 20% of the time – but the average velocity appears to be lower, sitting at 90.2. It’s very early in the season, but he’s only drawn 6 swinging strikes in 207 pitches – a paltry 2.9%. That number will need to rise for Lackey to be effective as the season continues.

Niemann, similarly, has a low ERA in his first two starts despite poor performance. Niemann hasn’t managed to strike batters out as of yet, and although a 1.08 BB/9 looks nice, he also has hit two batters in only 8.1 innings. His first start ended abruptly, as he was hit on the shoulder by a Miguel Tejada line drive.

Much like with Lackey, the use of a secondary fastball – in this case, a two-seamer – appears to be much more prominent in Niemann’s repertoire this season. Unlike Lackey’s cutter, Niemann’s two-seamer exhibits a sharper break towards a right-handed batter. In his April 13th start against Baltimore, the two-seamer drew 2 swinging strikes in only 27 pitchers, for a swinging strike rate of 7.41%. If his breaking pitches can draw more swinging strikes – only one between 33 changeups, sliders, and curveballs – an increased whiff rate on his fastballs should lead to more strikeouts and, naturally, more success for the second year pitcher.

Neither pitcher exhibits a strong platoon split, and so neither team should be looking to stack the lineup with lefties. Expect the normal lineups for each team today.

The CHONE projected standings originally showed the Red Sox 5 games ahead of the Rays for the AL Wild Card. The FAN projections showed the Rays as within 2 at the start of the season. With the Rays taking the first three games of this series at Fenway Park, the Rays have closed the gap. This is an important game for the AL East and Wild Card races, even though it’s only April, as each team needs all the ground it can get.

We hoped you liked reading Monday’s Early Game: TB @ BOS by Jack Moore!

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Mike Fast

Whatever you want to call Lackey’s main fastball, it’s pretty much the same pitch this year as it was last year. MLBAM called it a fastball last year and is calling it a cutter this year, but the pitch itself hasn’t changed much.

IMO, it’s on the borderline between designations anyway, so I don’t fault MLBAM for either choice, but there’s no indication that I see that Lackey is unveiling a new pitch or relying on anything more heavily so far this year.