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.”

At his current pace, Rogers could reach 2 WAR before the All-Star break. He’s been a tough customer for hitters all season, burrowing his way into the NL’s top ten in strikeouts (57) and strikeout rate (32.6%). The fastball has been Rogers’ moneymaker, and with velocity consistently in the mid-to-upper 90s, it’s been responsible for 40 of the lefty’s strikeouts. No left-handed starter throws a higher percentage of fastballs than Rogers, and for good reason: Hitters are mustering a .198 batting average on it (.186 xBA) and whiffing over 30% of the time. When he throws the fastball with two strikes, the ball is typically slinging around the horn shortly thereafter.

The four-seamer gets a little more airtime against lefties than it does against righties, but it’s the changeup that’s allowed the New Mexico native to rip right-handed hitters’ hearts out. Per Baseball Savant, Rogers calls upon the changeup 25.1% of the time against righties, and they’ve politely responded by hitting very few balls that we’d describe as well-struck, with an 85.5 mph average exit velocity and 11 strikeouts. This repertoire makes Rogers well-equipped to face the Phillies’ righty-heavy lineup and continue his season-long streak of six or more strikeouts per start.

Wheeler is right behind Rogers in total strikeouts but far behind in fastball percentage. Though the 45% usage rate is the highest of Wheeler’s career, it’s another pitch’s breakout that’s coaxing hitters into bad swings, as his slider is the best it’s ever been. That’s where most of the strikeouts — and the career-high 26.7% K-rate that’s followed — are coming from. A pitcher who was once an equal opportunity fastball-sinker employer is now reaping the benefits of a swing-and-miss slider, giving him one of the more chaotic pitch usage charts of the last five years.

Wheeler hasn’t faced the Marlins since his first start of 2020, and Miami has one of the few offenses in the league that’s been above average against sliders this year, which could present an interesting pitch selection puzzle for him to solve. That said, a slider that averages 91.2 mph is a conundrum for the guys holding the bats as well.

Thursday, May 20, 12:35 PM ET: Johnny Cueto vs. Tyler Mahle

On Thursday, Cueto will re-introduce himself to the ballpark he called home for seven and a half years, during which he finished in the top five of Cy Young voting twice and led the NL in strikeouts in 2014. After a lat strain kept him out for three weeks, Cueto is hoping to find the stuff that made him a fan favorite in Cincinnati for so long.

Now in his fourteenth big league season, the 35-year-old has embraced his slider like never before, throwing it 29.5% of the time. Unfortunately for Cueto, it’s probably not a pitch worth throwing that often. Since returning from the IL, he’s made two abbreviated starts, and the slider has been responsible for four extra-base hits, three of which left the bat with triple-digit exit velocities.

This is right in line with the slider’s performance all season. It’s getting shellacked, with a .741 slugging percentage (.658 xSLG) and .461 wOBA (.421 xwOBA), all while earning the same amount of home runs as strikeouts (two). If these trends continue, Cueto will need to find a new favorite secondary pitch.

Mahle sees Cueto’s slider deployment and raises him, tossing it at a 35.2% clip. Per Baseball Savant, Wheeler and Tyler Glasnow are the only right-handed starters who throw a slider harder than Mahle. It hasn’t iced as many hitters as his fastball, and the .569 SLG (and .573 xSLG) against it are not what a pitcher wants to see, but it has still helped him find the new gear that’s made him the Reds’ overnight sensation.

Both the high-octane slider and his high-spin-rate fastball are getting whiff rates in the upper 20s, but with more development, Mahle’s third pitch could be the one that brings fame and fortune. Right now, it’s almost exclusively for lefties, but his splitter means a lot of whiffs and not a lot of hits for the guys standing 60 feet and six inches away. We’ve only seen 88 of them — and 82 were thrown to left-handed batters — but this split-finger from hell effectively acts as a changeup. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mahle stopped throwing a change in 2018 and came back for 2019 with this bad boy. Two years later, it’s made him one of the toughest right-handed pitchers on lefties.

Cueto’s return to Great American Ballpark is not the only fun subplot of Thursday’s game. The Giants and their left-handed hitters’ 115 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers will certainly get a test against Mahle. He’s got a 29.5% K-rate, and the Giants strike out at the fifth-highest clip of any NL team, adding yet another level of intrigue to this matchup of the Reds’ past versus their increasingly fruitful looking future.

Saturday, May 22, 1:05 PM ET: Dylan Cease vs. Gerrit Cole

It would not surprise me to learn that Cease sees Cole as the fully actualized version of himself. Both righties love a fastball-slider combo and keep a changeup and curveball in their back pocket, and Cease has even reached the 30% strikeout zone that Cole’s occupied comfortably for the last four years. The next step for Cease in his transformation would be kicking walks to the curb.

This season, the Yankees’ $324 million man has a 39.3% K-BB rate, putting him ten percentage points clear of any other AL starter, and with a nutty 1.6% walk rate, he is holding hitters to a .194 on-base percentage. Cease cannot say the same. Though his 11.5% walk rate is an improvement from his 12 starts in 2020, it’s a big part of why opposing batters have a .313 OBP. Cease’s fastball sits at 96 mph and his slider has gotten even more strikeouts than the heater; he just doesn’t seem to know where his pitches will end up. Among AL starting pitchers with at least 30 innings under their belt, he throws the fourth-lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone. He’s getting first-pitch strikes just half the time, and that puts him behind only Houston’s Cristian Javier on the wrong end of the AL leaderboard.

Cole has been opting for a different approach. He’s grabbing first-pitch strikes against 67.5% of his challengers, and working ahead in the count so often helps inflate his 15.8% swinging-strike percentage, as hitters are left with no choice but to swing their way out of his clutches. Cease still has a way to go, but if you squint, you can see elements of Cole in his game. The weekend’s White Sox-Yankees squabble will draw way-too-early labels as an ALCS preview, but if Cease cuts down on his walks and Cole continues his metronomic pace, both teams have an added reason to believe they’ll be playing deep into October.

Under the Radar Matchup – Monday, May 17, 10:10 PM ET: Casey Mize vs. Yusei Kikuchi

Start your week off by checking in with two of baseball’s most mercurial pitchers. In April, both Mize and Kikuchi posted back-to-back starts with five or more earned runs. Since then, they’ve each settled down, Kikuchi in particular. He followed his brief rough patch with two gems, holding the Astros to one hit and no runs over seven innings before going seven strong again on the day John Means no-hit his teammates.

In his most recent start, Kikuchi struck out 11 Dodgers and only walked one, showing the kind of bat-eluding stuff that convinced the Mariners to sign him out of Japan. The 11 strikeouts were a career-high, but he’s certainly shown a penchant for going A to Z from one start to another. A matchup with the Tigers could be just what the doctor ordered to keep his mojo intact.

Mize has found the recipe for groundballs, which are happening on 52.2% of balls put in play against him, but the strikeout numbers aren’t what you’d expect from a former No. 1 pick. His 16.5% strikeout rate is the sixth-lowest in the AL (min. 30 innings), but the good news for him is that his main strikeout pitch should play wonderfully in Seattle. Fifteen of his 27 strikeout sequences have ended with a fastball, and the Mariners are the AL’s most abysmal fastball hitters.

Two pitchers trending upward plus the league’s least intimidating offenses could equal a quick and easy game on Monday in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll put the over/under on game time at two and a half hours and the total runs at 3.5.

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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2 years ago

I’m still miffed you didn’t mention the Flaherty/Burnes match-up last week. Surely that was better match-up than Alcantara/Urias or Giolito/Minor.