The Best Early-Week Pitching Matchups

This is Matthew’s first post as a FanGraphs contributor. Matthew is a staff writer and podcast host at Lookout Landing, where he ponders great existential questions like, “Why would anyone be a Seattle Mariners fan?” and, “What dark curse did the Mariners conjure to make Mark Canha such an annoyance in their life?” He has written about the lack of Black players in Major League Baseball, recorded parody songs about the Astros’ banging scheme, and interviewed several minor leaguers. In addition to his current role at Lookout Landing, Matthew was previously a writer for Baseball Prospectus and a marginally successful open mic comedian. After a public school and Subaru childhood, Matthew attended the University of San Diego before bravely becoming the first FanGraphs writer to ever live in Seattle.

The first full week of the 2021 season is upon us. To avoid getting trampled in the avalanche of games, let’s focus in on the ones with the juiciest matchups, funniest storylines, and richest histories of batter vs. pitcher ownage. Here are the best pitching matchups in the week’s early going.

Monday, April 5, 7 PM ET: Jacob deGrom vs. Matt Moore

A team’s first game of the season almost always pairs their best starter versus the top of the other team’s rotation. But with a COVID-19 postponement pushing the Mets’ opener back, they get to unleash Jacob deGrom’s fury against a Philadelphia reclamation project. This NL East showdown sets the game’s most dominant pitcher against a guy who hasn’t pitched stateside in two years.

Unable to convince an MLB team to give him a job after knee surgery ended his 2019 renaissance, Matt Moore signed in Japan with the Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks. He’s back after posting a 2.65 ERA in Nippon Professional Baseball. That’s certainly impressive, but Moore’s ERA in NPB was still not as good as the 2.38 deGrom ran last season (his 2.26 FIP was somehow better), or his 2.43 before that, and especially not the 1.70 from the year before that. Monday’s tilt is a classic story of an established, hegemonic force meeting a redemptive arc on its final curve.

Moore came to the Phillies on a one-year, $3 million deal, a few commas away from his teammates Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto. They’re small samples to be sure, but the Phillies stars have had very different experiences facing deGrom in the past. Harper – who has the second-most plate appearances against deGrom of any active player with 46, trailing only Freddie Freeman’s 66 – has uncovered the secret sauce. His .289/.413/.500 line against his division rival absolutely dwarfs Realmuto’s .160/.148/.348, which includes just four hits and nine strikeouts in 27 tries.

deGrom is, terrifyingly, still getting better in certain areas. He had a career-best K% (38.8%) and batting average against (.188) last season as his average fastball velocity soared above 98 mph. This coincided with an altered approach against lefties, who saw a steady diet of sliders and changeups. The red-hot Phillies and their right handed-heavy lineup should expect lots of fastballs, though, especially if last year’s shortened season was any indication. 2020 was the first year of deGrom’s storied career where he threw fastballs to righties more than 51% of the time. According to Baseball Savant, the .168 wOBA righties managed off that improved fastball was the worst they’ve ever done:

In his last major league season, Moore threw just 10 innings for the Tigers before the knee injury shut him down. The last time we saw him for any meaningful amount of time was 2018, when he was moonlighting as a Rangers’ reliever. During that season in Texas, Moore increased his four-seam fastball usage to 58.5% while scaling back his cutter, a pitch he threw 14.7% of the time under the Giants’ tutelage in 2017. Now that he’s back in a starting role, one would imagine Moore will need to utilize all of his pitches to effectively navigate multiple trips through the lineup. Particularly in his first start against these Mets, the lefty may have to get creative against Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto, who slug .589 and .544 against fastballs, respectively, with wOBA’s above .400. And though it’s been in limited action, Francisco Lindor has knocked Moore around too, collecting eight hits in 13 plate appearances. If Moore can slay his past demons with a strikeout against Lindor, it will be the first time he’s ever K’d the electric shortstop.

Tuesday, April 6, 1:10 ET: J.A. Happ vs. Casey Mize

J.A. Happ made his big-league debut in 2007 as the eighth-best prospect in the Phillies’ organization per Baseball America’s. It might be hard to picture Happ as anything other than the journeyman innings gobbler we’ve come to know, but back then he was a rosy-cheeked 24-year-old. He even had hair! A year after that 2007 debut, Happ won a World Series ring while sharing a dugout with Matt Stairs and Jamie Moyer.

Stairs and Moyer are the types of guys who are one degree of separation removed from the baseball of the 1970s. The old guys on their rookie teams – sepia-toned legends like Gary Carter and Ron Cey – came up in a completely different millennium than the one Happ started in. You have to imagine Happ sidled up next to Stairs or Moyer at some point and tuned in to the charming stories of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, Casey Mize will be making just the eighth big-league start of his life, the first after a seven-game guest spot in the Tigers’ 2020 debacle. In contrast to Happ’s early days, apart from Miguel Cabrera, the rebuilding Tigers probably had less sterling stories to tell in the dugout. Hope is slowly gurgling to the surface of Detroit’s frozen lakes, though, and a bushel of young pitchers are providing most of the heat. Mize, the first overall pick of the 2018 draft and the 32nd best prospect in baseball per Eric Longenhagen’s pre-season Top 100, gets to make his first major league start with fans in the seats on Tuesday. He’ll get his fourth crack at the Twins and hope to last five innings against them for the first time in his infant career.

This has the potential to be a blissful afternoon for fans of the groundball. Happ has ridden his sinker-slider combo to seven seasons with a groundball rate above 40%. Mize became a prospect darling and eventual top pick thanks to an advanced splitter. After repeatedly punking college hitters with it, the Auburn Tiger finally got to unveil it in the bigs last summer.

There’s still very limited data on that pitch, but Mize was a 40% or better groundball pitcher in each of his minor league seasons, presumably on the back of this dive-bombing splitter. Residents of the Great Lakes region may want to stock up on shin guards as long as Mize is in town, just to be safe.

With the Tigers so plainly constructed for the back half of this decade, and Happ’s Twins designed to win yesterday, today, and tomorrow, it’s fitting that this matchup pits the young guy who can still accomplish everything against the veteran World Series winner who basically already has. Detroit’s starter for this game was celebrating his fourth birthday as Minnesota’s was graduating high school. When Mize was born in 1997, Happ’s old teammate Jamie Moyer was already playing his 11th season in the bigs.

Tuesday, April 6, 6:35 PM ET: Dean Kremer vs. Gerrit Cole

When the pandemic wiped out the 2020 April schedule, it robbed fans of one of my favorite kinds of game: The decaying corpse of a last-place team, having been rejuvenated by the start of a new year, heads out on the road for the first big test of the year. Pragmatists on either side of the ledger look at the matchup and see a clear advantage for the home team, but with the players still finding their legs after a long hibernation, they acknowledge that things could get weird. It’s the sort of game fans attend to re-acclimate themselves to the ballpark, only to leave in the fifth inning upon realizing just how cold it is while remarking on how glad they are to have baseball back.

Ideally, an April game like this is also being played in the Northeast, with biting winds and layered long johns rendering the players nearly immobile. It wasn’t quite the same scale, but the Orioles already got a test run of this on Friday, when John Means ground the Red Sox into dust on a gloomy spring afternoon at Fenway. Now, the O’s are in the Bronx for a three-game tangle with the mighty Yankees, and they’ve got a Tuesday appointment with Gerrit Cole.

Cole is a familiar sight even for the most clueless baseball observer, not necessarily in name or recognition, but in archetype. Standing 6-foot-4 with a contained mess of curls peering out of his hat, Cole is the platonic ideal of a power pitcher. Even those who left the sport behind in Little League can watch Cole and understand that he was meant to be a presiding presence on the mound. Those who follow the sport closely can laugh at the obvious progression Cole has undergone. Of course the strapping right-hander with the explosive fastball is from Southern California. What does that make him, the millionth of those to reach the majors? Of course he went to UCLA, the baseball factory that’s sent over 300 players to pro ball. Cole was a top draft pick who breezed through the minor leagues in just a year and a half before becoming a mainstay at the top of major league rotations, especially after he shelved his sinker and started throwing more four-seamers up in the zone while in Houston, elevating his strikeout rate from league-average to elite.

His counterpart on Tuesday, Orioles righty Dean Kremer, has a slightly different backstory. Kremer is also from California, but his hometown of Stockton is a bit less glamorous than Cole’s Newport Beach. Rather than a powerhouse Pac-12 school, Kremer landed at San Joaquin Delta College after high school. He had to tirelessly condition his body into an major-league pitcher’s frame, something Cole was more naturally blessed with. After transferring to UNLV, Kremer was drafted by the Dodgers in the 14th round. Cole was the first overall pick in his draft year; Kremer went 430th. While the minors were mostly a 38-game formality for Cole, they were four years of drudgery and 91 games for Kremer.

In addition to having a disparate path from Cole’s, the Orioles hurler is also unique to literally every other player in major league history. Kremer became the first Israeli citizen to play in the bigs when he premiered for Baltimore last fall. While Cole was ace of the staff in Pittsburgh, Houston, and New York, Kremer was heading the rotation for Israel’s national team, pitching in the Maccabiah Games, European Baseball Championships, and World Baseball Classic. In 2015 the fresh-faced Kremer said of the majors, “It’s a lot of work to get there. I’m a pretty realistic person.” Whether he saw the mound at Yankee Stadium as a realistic goal, he’ll take the ball there on Tuesday, sharing the slab with the best of the best.

Wednesday, April 7, 2:20 PM ET: Brandon Woodruff vs. Kyle Hendricks

The rubber match of this week’s Brewers-Cubs series features a pair of aces, though they make their money in very different ways. According to Baseball Savant, Woodruff averaged 96.6 mph on his four-seam fastball last season, good for 21st-fastest in the league. Hendricks sputtered in with the sixth-slowest (though still effective!) four-seamer, sitting at 87.4 mph. While both pitchers also heavily rely on their sinkers; Woodruff’s is more heavy metal while Hendricks’ is smooth jazz.

The Brewers’ best starter doesn’t sacrifice much velocity when going from the fastball to his other offerings. At an average of 96.3 mph, his sinker was the 13th-fastest of any qualified pitcher in 2020, and while there’s some debate over whether it’s actually a slider, Baseball Savant also classified Woodruff’s cutter as the majors’ seventh-fastest. Hendricks doesn’t lose any velocity when he pulls the sinker from his quiver, either. While it’s the big league’s eighth-slowest – and averages basically the exact same velocity as his high-80s heater – Hendricks’ superb pitch tunneling skills make his four-seamer and sinker appear virtually identical until it’s too late.

As both teams try to claw their way to the top of the NL Central, Milwaukee and Chicago will heavily rely on the top dogs in their respective rotations. Through one start, results have varied. Woodruff recorded five strikeouts in four innings against the Twins’ powerful offense but was pulled after that – perhaps more an indication of Craig Counsell’s managerial style with a loaded bullpen than of Woodruff’s performance – and spectated the rest of the game as the Brewers won in extras. Hendricks was plundered by the pitiful Pirates, allowing three runs in three innings while getting just five swinging strikes in Chicago’s Opening Day loss.

A couple of hitters in the Brewers’ lineup have cleaned Hendricks’ clock throughout their career, though probably not the ones you’d expect. Christian Yelich is rocking a .194 career average against the Cubs’ control artist, while Lorenzo Cain is still searching for his first extra base hit. It’s Milwaukee’s infield that packs a wallop. Nobody in the history of civilization has more hits off Hendricks than Kolten Wong (12) or more home runs than Travis Shaw (three). Even light-hitting Orlando Arcia has gotten a few punches in. Thirty-one plate appearances against Hendricks has yielded a .703 OPS for Arcia, a significant hop from his .660 career mark. With Hendricks looking to recover from last week’s stinker, and the Brewers trying to bounce back after getting outscored by seven runs in their opening series, Wednesday’s affair holds great intrigue for both teams.

Matthew is a contributor at FanGraphs and a staff writer/podcast host at Lookout Landing. His previous work includes bylines at Baseball Prospectus, Riot Fest, and one-on-one interviews with Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe, Brenden Dillon, David Fizdale, and several minor league players. He goes by the full Matthew, and it's pronounced RAW-berson.

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1 year ago

Welcome! I hope this becomes a regular feature!