The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: April 12-18

This week’s docket has several marquee matchups, but we respect your intelligence enough not to explain why Shane Bieber vs. Lucas Giolito or Yu Darvish vs. Dustin May is worth watching. Instead, turn your attention to three games where the visiting pitcher will return to their old stomping grounds, and don’t gloss over Tuesday night’s game in Atlanta either.

Wednesday, April 14, 6:35 PM ET: Joe Musgrove vs. Tyler Anderson

Joe Musgrove is baseball’s hottest pitcher at the moment, and after becoming the first Padres pitcher to throw no-hitter, he’ll try to become the latest ex-Pirates pitcher to make Pittsburgh look silly for having traded him. Musgrove, who Pittsburgh traded to San Diego in January, is looking to join Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow as the latest pitcher to take another leap forward ditching his black and gold threads, and his early-season showing has been superlative. Still only 28, Musgrove was deemed unlikely to help the next good Pirates team (he’s a free agent after the 2022 season), and was traded for prospects. Over his three-year stay in Pittsburgh, during which the team had the majors’ seventh-lowest winning percentage, Musgrove was the Pirates’ best pitcher by nearly two wins. Now, he’s part of a San Diego team built to win a championship, which would already be the second of Musgrove’s underrated career.

Unsurprisingly, when he arrived in Pittsburgh from Houston, Musgrove’s cutter and sinker usage shot way up. Such was the way of Ray Searage, the since-fired pitching coach who preached cutters, sinkers, and two-seamers as gospel. That first year in Pittsburgh brought the highest cutter and sinker usage of Musgrove’s career at 15.4% and 17.8%, respectively. Last year, the first without Searage, those numbers sunk to 11.9% and 6.2%.

The intrigue surrounding Musgrove now lies in his approach as a third organizational philosophy floods his brain. With the Astros, four-seam fastballs reigned supreme and sinkers were treated like last week’s garbage, which explains Cole’s transformation when going from Pittsburgh to Houston. In his first start for the Padres, Musgrove twisted 19 cutters on his way to eight strikeouts, three hits, and no walks in six scoreless innings.

With that pitch sitting in the high-80s against the Diamondbacks, and not resulting a single hit, Musgrove may have the recipe for a revenge game full of outs, especially if the Buccos keep running a team batting average hovering in the low .230s. Musgrove currently sports a 0.00 ERA and a 0.95 FIP. Turns out no-hitters are quite the early-season boost to a pitcher’s line.

He might not be coming off a no-hitter, but Tyler Anderson is looking to build off a successful maiden voyage as a Pirate. He punched out seven hitters through five innings and elicited 21 swinging strikes, and now the deceptive southpaw gets another shot at a star-studded National League lineup. Look for Anderson to lean heavily on his changeup against San Diego, both because of the Padres’ reliance on right-handed hitters, but also because the pitch is one of the best of its kind.

Last year Anderson ranked 12th among NL starters in weighted changeup runs while throwing the pitch a career-high 42.3% of the time. All that did against righties was produce a .215 batting average and .266 wOBA with a 31.5% whiff percentage. In other words, Anderson has the perfect arsenal to attack right-handed swingers like Manny Machado, Wil Myers, Tommy Pham, and Ha-Seong Kim.

Wednesday, April 14, 7:10 PM ET: Zack Wheeler vs. Joey Lucchesi

One day after Musgrove takes the PNC Park mound as a visitor, Zack Wheeler will do the same at Citi Field, wearing a Phillies uniform in the ballpark he called home for five years. Despite probably knowing where they keep all the good snacks, Wheeler has just been okay at the Mets’ stadium. His 61 starts in Queens led to a 4.16 ERA (3.80 FIP) with exactly 9.0 K/9. Last season was obviously the first time Wheeler got to face the Mets, and he did a great job of stunting on his ex.

In three starts, the former Queens darling recorded 13 strikeouts to just one walk, lasting at least six innings in each performance. Expect a lot of heat from Wheeler in this one, both because of his renewed interest in the four seamer since joining the Phillies, and because he loaded up the fastball over 50% of the time in each of his three squabbles with the Mets last year.

Conversely, Mets starter Joey Lucchesi, who hasn’t been officially announced as the starter, but seems likely to get his first rotation turn Wednesday, hasn’t thrown a single four-seam fastball in his entire major league career, according to Baseball Savant. Instead, he relies on a sinker as his primary pitch, complementing that low-90s libation with a yawning curveball that’s 13 mph slower. Lucchesi takes “don’t throw anything straight” to its final form, and with a Rube Goldberg-esque delivery, it can make for a very uncomfortable at-bat.

The Phillies have already gotten an early look at Lucchesi, but this will be his first ride in blue and orange as a starting pitcher. His Mets debut on April 7 came in relief, and Lucchesi alternated between the sinker and curveball exclusively, leaving out the cutter he’s toyed with in the past. The modern starter with just two pitches is increasingly rare, so we’ll see if Lucchesi uses the same game plan on Wednesday, or if the dual repertoire was just reserved for his relief outings.

As a starter for the 2019 Padres, when that cutter was still involved 13.6% of the time, Lucchesi allowed the lowest line-drive rate of anyone in the league. Both of his big-league seasons with at least 130 innings have also come with a groundball rate above 44% – with a K% always a few doors down from the league average. Lucchesi’s cauldron of endless grounders, a pinch of line drives and strikeouts, and even fewer pitch types, makes him one of the most distinctive pitchers in the game.

Friday, April 16, 9:38 PM ET: Matt Shoemaker vs. Andrew Heaney

Shoemaker didn’t quite have the same cache in Anaheim that Musgrove did in Pittsburgh or that Wheeler had in New York, but he was with his old team the longest of anyone in the bunch, sticking in Anaheim for six years compared to Wheeler’s five with the Mets and Musgrove’s three with the Pirates. Shoemaker has not pitched in Angel Stadium since September 30, 2018, and if his career numbers at the Big A are any indication, he may be eager to get back on Friday as a member of the Twins.

The bearded sinkerballer has logged over five times as many innings in Angel Stadium as any other yard. Those 262.7 innings were extremely kind to Shoemaker: He has a sparkling 278/64 K/BB at the Orange County diamond with both an ERA and WHIP that are better than his career averages. Since leaving the Halos, the sinker and splitter have still been Shoemaker’s bread and butter, so much so that he still threw them over 25% of the time while pitching for the Blue Jays in 2019 and ’20. But as someone who had a front row seat to the Mike Trout show certainly knows, those splitters and sinkers at the bottom of the zone may not come back. Here’s a look at Trout’s wOBA by zone from the last season before the pandemic, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

For potentially the first time in the last 10 years, though, Trout may not even be the biggest problem here. Though it’s a classically small 2020 sample size, Shoemaker’s sinker did not fare well at all against lefties last season. Of the 12 plate appearances by left-handed hitters that ended with a sinker, five resulted in a hit. Lefties slugged 1.600 on it with an .828 wOBA, while righties settled in with a much more palatable .353 and .325. If I were the Angels’ hitting coach, I would simply tell Shohei Ohtani and Jared Walsh to sit on the sinker.

Shoemaker’s teammates have the unfortunate pleasure of facing the exact type of pitcher they struggled with last year. Left-handed pitchers (a group Andrew Heaney belongs to) held the Twins to an 81 wRC+ and .249 wOBA, seventh and fourth-worst among all teams. Minnesota’s collective slash line against lefties was, across the board, worse than their one against righties. Their batted ball output took a hit too. They posted a .244/.318/.456 line against righties, with a 33.9 Hard% (9th in the league), while managing just a .236/.309/.349 showing against southpaws, with a 29.6 Hard% (25th in the league.

Due to the quirks of a starting pitcher’s schedule, Heaney has only seen the Twins one time: September 19, 2015. Miguel Sanó and Byron Buxton are the only players from that game who are still with Minnesota. The only active Twinkie who Heaney is even slightly familiar with is Nelson Cruz, and by familiar, I mean Cruz is 5-for-17 against him with three home runs. Sadly for Heaney, not all Twins lose their mojo when they step in against a lefty. Cruz and his lifetime .962 OPS against them help put the boom in Boomstick.

Under the Radar Matchup – Tuesday, April 13, 7:20 PM ET: Pablo López vs. Max Fried

There’s no former fan favorite returning to spite his old team here, but don’t sleep on Tuesday night’s duel between the Marlins’ Pablo López and the Braves’ Max Fried. López is staking a firm claim on the second spot in Miami’s rotation. He was an integral part of the Fish’s magic run to the postseason last year, when he accrued more WAR (1.6) pitching in the truncated season than he did under more normal circumstances in 2019 (1.5). Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 225 pounds, López eschews the traditional power pitcher mold and instead dices hitters up with his dynamite off-speed stuff. Arm-side changeups are López’s pitch du jour, which results in very little hard contact against the 25-year-old. When the changeup is feeling good, it can be hard to make contact with at all.

Fried, meanwhile, will look to go deeper than the two innings he managed against the Nationals last week. Washington managed eight hits and five runs. Adding insult to near-injury, one of his outs came after a ball ricocheted off Fried’s right leg and was snagged by Austin Riley, who tagged Trea Turner out. Fried was originally slated to start Monday but will get the nod Tuesday instead. He pitched to a sterling 2.25 ERA and 3.10 FIP in 2020’s short season, posting 1.5 WAR.

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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3 years ago

Wait. why does the Fried blurb have nothing about Fried?

Meg Rowleymember
3 years ago
Reply to  darkness88

Because a wordpress update didn’t stick – thanks for pointing that out. Updated now!