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.

Interestingly, Means could have a couple avenues to even greater improvement. Both of his breaking pitches (an 85 mph slider and a 77 mph curveball) are befuddling hitters. Yet, despite some pretty gaudy numbers, Means is not throwing either pitch more than 12.5% of the time.

John Means Breaking Pitches
Pitch No. % AVG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
Curveball 84 12.3 .000 .058 .189 82.7 19.2
Slider 50 7.3 .083 .121 .152 75.3 55.6

Hitters’ ineptitude on those pitches could be precisely because Means doesn’t throw them very often, relying on the element of surprise over their raw stuff, but either way, his breaking pitch usage is an interesting subplot as he makes a run at Johnny Vander Meer.

On the other side, Marcus Stroman has reigned in a pitch that was once his nemesis. In 2019, the league hit .296 on his cutter with a .475 slugging percentage and .342 wOBA (.315 xWOBA). After sitting out the 2020 season, Stroman and his cutter are back. Through six starts, hitters are copy and pasting an identical .185 batting average and slugging percentage on his cut fastball. The wOBA is down to .200 (though the .324 xWOBA could spell danger), but none of Stroman’s pitches have produced more strikeouts in 2021 than this demon.

Racing in at a few ticks higher than his slider, Stroman’s cutter creates a wicked optical illusion.

The cutter is his second-most utilized pitch against left-handers, presumably due to the fact that they haven’t had an extra base hit against it all season. If you’ve got some time to kill, watch Stroman break down the difference in grips between his slider and cutter. He explains that he thinks curveball when throwing the slider, while the cutter is a slight variation of a four seamer. The results are two pitches that disappear underneath lefties’ hands, but with enough speed difference that it’s difficult to distinguish which one is coming until it’s too late.

Friday, May 14, 10:10 ET: Sandy Alcantara vs. Julio Urías

If you’ve never watched Sandy Alcantara pitch, here’s what you need to know. Four pitches occupy roughly 95% of his pie chart. Two of them – a four-seam fastball and a sinker – go fast. Like, real fast. Each one averages 97 on the radar gun. The other two are a bit slower, and they seem to have specific designs. Alcantara’s slider is for getting righties out; his changeup is for the lefties.

When the right side of the batter’s box is filled, Alcantara becomes primarily a slider machine. The pitch has been an ace in his sleeve against them, tallying a 28.8% usage. Despite ranking near the bottom of the league in terms of horizontal movement compared to the average slider, Alcantara’s has remained useful thanks to consistently great location. He’s thrown 140 sliders on the year. According to Statcast, 94 of them (67%) have ended up in the following locations, which is exactly where you want sliders to go.

Even though he’s what you’d broadly define as a power pitcher, Alcantara has shown great touch on his changeup as well. There has not been a single home run against the change so far, partly because he’s burying it down in the zone as well. Of the 197 changeups that have left his hand, 77% ended up in the zones highlighted above. The Marlins have watched their 2019 All-Star strike out 22 left-handed hitters in his eight starts. Twelve of those strikeouts have come on the changeup.

Armed with two devastating secondary pitches that he’s locating with ease, Alcantara is enjoying the lowest ERA and FIP of his career while basking in his highest strikeout percentage as a starting pitcher.

Urías, meanwhile, has made room for himself in the Dodgers’ crowded rotation by throwing strike after strike after strike. In both of his starts with double digit strikeouts – and really for all of his starts this season – Urías has shown a precision far beyond his years.

We mentioned that Means’ 73.5% first pitch strike percentage is tops in the American League. The only person blocking Means from the top of the major league list is Urías, who’s looking down from his 78.1% perch. Urías is also the only qualified starter in the National League throwing over half of his pitches in the strike zone. Logically, it makes sense that the pitcher with the highest zone percentage in the league would also be eliciting a high percentage of swings. Batters are swinging at 55.5% of Urías’ offerings, which could theoretically cause destruction. After all, you can’t get a hit without swinging the bat. For Urías, the key has been getting those swings on top of the ball. Los Angeles’ bespectacled pitcher is rolling 42.5% of his batted balls into grounders, a major leap from the 38.7% and 32.9% in his 2019 and ’20 groundball columns.

Tons of strikes also means very few walks, and in Urías’ case, his newfound 3.6% walk rate is a revelatory reduction from his 8.2% career average. When considering all this, plus his 27.2% K-rate (also a career best), it’s no surprise that hitters’ on-base percentage against Urías is a piddling .263.

Saturday, May 15, 4:10 PM ET: Lucas Giolito vs. Mike Minor

As the White Sox drive their flag into the mountain of legitimacy, the Royals are falling down it at an alarming pace. Kansas City’s euphoric 16-9 start has been undermined by the team’s current eight-game losing streak. The White Sox, conversely, were a middling 8-9 through 17 games but have not lost a series since, including a three-game sweep of the Royals.

The game that dropped the White Sox to 8-9 – the last time they were under .500 – was a total lemon from Lucas Giolito. Pitching in Fenway Park’s funhouse dimensions, Giolito gave up eight hits and seven earned runs, walking two and serving two homers before exiting after just three outs. Since that awful afternoon in Massachusetts, the South Siders have seen their ace return to form. He’s gotten his ERA back down to a much more palatable 4.54 (4.14 FIP) after it crept above 5.75 following the Boston massacre.

His path to salvation seems to be paved with changeups. The year that Giolito’s career took off also happened to be the first year that over a fourth of his pitches were changeups. The former first round pick by the Nationals’ ramped up his changeup usage from 15.7% in 2018 to 26.2% in ’19, and subsequently posted 5.1 WAR while making his first All-Star team. His changeup usage was steadily increasing again after the Patriots’ Day debacle, but interestingly, Giolito and the White Sox locked down a convincing win on Sunday – over the same Royals they’ll face again this weekend – thanks to a firehose of fastballs.

Perhaps catcher Yasmani Grandal called the fastball more due to Kansas City’s familiarity with Giolito’s typical game plan; perhaps they were setting them up for the second meeting in six days. Or perhaps it was just because Chicago was ahead 5-1 after three innings. Whatever the reason, Giolito’s changeup is sure to be a big factor in the White Sox’s season, one that could lose one of its main threats if the Royals can’t recreate the candy sweet tastes of their initial 25 games.

Part of the reason for the Royals’ stately first month was that they were winning in spite of Mike Minor’s woes. Kansas City managed to pull a win out in four of Minor’s first five starts, despite the lefty’s 5.26 ERA (5.33 FIP) and ungodly 20.0 HR/FB ratio. He began losing velocity on his fastball in 2018, and though Statcast ranks its spin in the 95th percentile, Minor’s heater is not doing what he wants it to.

Minor’s fastball is generating an 18.8 whiff percentage, the lowest since his last year in Atlanta, which preceded the shoulder troubles that caused him to miss two full seasons. Even though he’s wisely throwing it a lot less frequently, hitters seem to have no issue discerning when it’s coming. Want to know what a .591 slugging percentage (.587 xSLG) and .413 wOBA (.407 xWOBA) look like in motion picture form? Enjoy a few videos of Minor’s fastball, which is responsible for those unsightly numbers, getting blasted to smithereens.

The good news is that Minor’s next shot at redemption comes against the team that just plated five earned runs on him in five innings and has the fourth-best offense in the league. Wait, no. That’s not good news.

Under the Radar Matchup – Tuesday, May 11, 3:45 PM ET: Jordan Lyles vs. Logan Webb

This one’s for all the sadists out there. Tuesday’s baseball by the Bay will pit two of the starters with the 12-worst ERAs in the league (minimum 30 innings) against each other, though one of them does not quite belong.

First, let’s talk about Jordan Lyles. He’s been excruciatingly bad. The 7.09 ERA is a tad misleading (his FIP is 5.83 and a ridiculous .343 BABIP isn’t doing him any favors either), but according to Statcast, no AL starter is getting hit harder than Lyles. That’s completely on him. Same with the 91.6 average exit velocity, which would put Lyles by himself as the worst in the AL, but his teammate Mike Foltynewicz is right there for support. Though it carries a reputation as a pitcher’s park, San Francisco’s Oracle Park has been unkind to Lyles. He’s allowed 16 earned runs in 18 innings there. This could get ugly.

Logan Webb, on the other hand, is not as bad as his surface-level numbers would indicate. By expected ERA, he grades out at 3.47, not quite the 5.34 that displays in each stadium he pitches in. Exit velocity likes him, too, where Webb’s 85.8 average puts him in the bottom 10 of the league, pages and pages away from Lyles. The problem for Webb has been those weakly hit balls falling in for hits. The league is raking .290 off him with a .228 expected average. If anyone needs some shift luck, it’s Logan Webb.

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

Logan Webb was buzzy fantasy gamble out of spring and now may just be bad luck away from still reaching that buzz. I’ve been keeping an eye on him.