The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 24-31

In past iterations of this column, a combination of pressing narratives and fatigue with certain pitchers and their respective teams, or a straight up lack of interesting matchups have forced us to get creative. Not so this week, where the first three days of the week each feature games with giant WATCH ME signs stapled to their probable pitchers. Beginning with the Padres-Brewers series, the final week of May has gifted us some undeniably fun fixtures.

Monday, May 24, 7:40 PM ET: Blake Snell vs. Brandon Woodruff

In his first year in San Diego, Blake Snell seems to be learning his new city using a method that many non-pitchers find helpful: a lot of walks. Snell has already issued 25 walks in 40.1 innings (13.7 BB%) and allowed hitters to reach base at a clip comfortably above the league average. The former Ray has a .330 on-base percentage against him, while the rest of the league is at .313.

A quick glance at his numbers tells a large portion of the story. Snell is falling behind in counts immediately. His first-pitch strike percentage has plummeted to 56.6%, again behind the rest of the league’s 59.8%, and his lowest mark since 2017. That problem – plus a career low chase rate – have led to at least one walk in each of his nine starts, including a start in Pittsburgh where the Pirates recorded more walks against him than outs and a six-walk fiesta against the Giants to open the month.

Snell’s vicious slider is still doing what he wants it to, but some kooky results on his curveball and changeup have led to this strange beginning to his Southern California experience. According to Baseball Savant, both the curve and change are being spat on like never before, and the pitches are in a different chase-rate galaxy than they were during his 2018 Cy Young campaign:

Blake Snell Chase %
Year Curveball Changeup
2018 41.0 37.5
2019 39.4 34.2
2020 36.3 36.8
2021 23.4 19.6

National League West scheduling quirks have meant Snell’s last six starts were a trio of back-to-backs against the Dodgers, Giants, and Rockies. Like many pitchers facing Colorado’s anemic offense, Snell got back on track, lighting up the Rox for 11 strikeouts and just one walk on the 18th. The Brewers currently rank 28th in team wRC+, so this next stretch could be exactly what Snell needs as he loads up for his first San Diego summer.

Brandon Woodruff is trying his damnedest to join his Monday mound mate in the Cy Young club by doing everything that Snell hasn’t been this year. Woodruff is enjoying more chases than ever on both his curveball and changeup while also throwing the former harder than he ever has. An 84 mph curveball coming in 12 mph slower than a pitcher’s average fastball (and sinker!) seems like it should violate the laws of physics, but this is our reality in 2021.

An extremely unfair truth for hitters is that Woodruff’s curveball is his fourth-most used pitch. His favorites are still the turbo fastball and sinker, with a death-to-righties slider getting the third-most play. That slider actually becomes the fastball’s co-pilot with righties in the box, and the .200 wOBA (.202 xwOBA) right-handers are putting up against it makes sense when you watch how it moves.

That pitch has 19% more vertical movement than similar sliders at his velocity, and with 6.4 average inches of drop, Woodruff’s slider has more vertical movement than any other right-handed NL starter’s. Any conversation about the modern lack of hitting, in my opinion, should start with a slack-jawed appreciation of how nasty pitchers are these days. Woodruff is a perfect example, and even when put in the ring with a slightly diminished Snell, viewers will get to see dozens of pitches from both starters that would make guys in the ’70s and ’80s re-think their career choice.

Tuesday, May 25, 8:10 PM ET: Clayton Kershaw vs. Zack Greinke

I assume we’re all familiar with the work of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. They are two of the most accomplished players in the game, with spots reserved in Cooperstown, and if not for Justin Verlander, they would rank first and second among active pitchers in several counting stats.

Kershaw and Greinke Active Ranks
Pitcher Strikeouts IP WPA WAR
Clayton Kershaw 4th 6th 1st 2nd
Zack Greinke 3rd 1st 2nd 3rd

The two pitching gurus shared a clubhouse for three seasons in Los Angeles. The last time they matched up as opponents, though, the always entertaining Greinke did this.

Neither guy has the same juice they did during their heyday in LA, but little tweaks here and there have allowed both to maintain their status as top-of-the-rotation pitchers. For Kershaw – who has already reached 1.8 WAR this season – that has meant the long-awaited acceptance of the fact that his slider is his best pitch.

The Dodgers’ stalwart is finally using the slider as his primary pitch, bumping it above 45% for the first time in his career. The pitch has regained its dominance from his gilded age in the mid-2010s. A staggering 78% of his strikeouts this season have come on the slider; it’s getting whiffs 45.4% of the time. Kershaw has said there’s no real rhyme or reason to his slider extravaganza, asserting instead that sometimes the situation just calls for it. Dave Roberts has had a front row seat for this, and said of the 33-year-old’s shift in pitch selection, “It’s actually fun to watch that evolution because now there’s no one book, whether lefty or righty, to game plan against Clayton now.”

Meanwhile, game planning against Zack Greinke has always been a crapshoot. The pitching savant has been known to introduce new strategies and alter his pitches from year to year, sometimes even from start to start. For instance, on April 12, Greinke used one of his 90 pitches on a sinker. Next time out, he threw 17. In his two most recent starts – both wins against Texas and Oakland where he went at least seven innings – Greinke went from throwing 31 changeups versus the Rangers to just seven versus the A’s.

No one on the planet knows what Zack Greinke will do except for Zack Greinke. Tracking data shows him throwing seven different pitches this year, with average velocities ranging from 89.5 mph to 71.1 and his infamous eephus crawling to the finish line at 52.2. Despite being a Dodger for three years, Greinke has a fairly extensive history of pitching against them. He’s toed the slab 18 times against his former team and put up a pedestrian 4.60 ERA, though a 106/32 K/BB ratio is noteworthy given the star power in recent Los Angeles lineups. Both the newest Dodger hitter (Albert Pujols) and the longest-tenured (Justin Turner) have batting averages above .300 in at least 35 plate appearances off the mysterious six-time All-Star.

Wednesday, May 26, 2:10 PM ET: Jack Flaherty vs. Carlos Rodón

The Kershaw, Greinke, and Max Scherzer-types have the power of longevity on their side, but 25-year-old Jack Flaherty is laying the foundation for a storied career of his own. His mid-90s fastball won’t blow up radar guns or highlight reels, but Flaherty has been one of the senior circuit’s nastiest pitchers for years now.

In preparation for his first ever start against the White Sox – who field one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups night in and night out – Flaherty’s curveball will be of utmost importance. The White Sox treat fastballs like piñatas and are only slightly above average against curveballs, which is a pitch that Flaherty has slowly been mastering. His curveball has yielded just three hits on the year (and only one to righties) and taken a massive leap in chase rate. In 2019, his curve got hitters to swing out of the strike zone 22.8% of the time. This year, it’s up to a domineering 32.9%.

The Cardinals’ young hot shot has made it through six innings while striking out at least five hitters in each of his last six starts. Will the White Sox’s potent bats be the ones to slow him down, or will Flaherty add another feather to his cap in pursuit of true stardom?

Chicago’s Carlos Rodón is another pitcher who baseball fans have known for years but he has never demanded attention quite like he is now. Rodón is now in the 90th percentile or better in xwOBA, K%, and Whiff%, looking more and more like the pitcher Chicago was hoping for when using a top-three draft pick on him in 2014.

His slider reached god levels after Rodón decided to show it off less frequently. In the past two seasons – when he twirled it on 37.2% and 30.1% of his pitches, respectively – hitters seemed ready to identify and damage the slider. Now, with just a 23.6% usage but .022 batting average against (.057 xBA), it’s the worst kind of surprise for unsuspecting hitters.

Already with a no-hitter and a 13-strikeout masterpiece at Yankee Stadium under his belt, Rodón has fans on the South Side dreaming of postseason glory. If he and Flaherty continue punking hitters on the regular, they’ll also both find themselves at the Midsummer Classic in Colorado.

Friday, May 28, 7:05 PM ET: Freddy Peralta vs. Jon Lester

The man affectionately known as Fastball Freddy may need a new nickname. As a 22-year-old on the Brewers’ 2018 NLCS team, Peralta was hosing fastballs like they were going out of style. His 77.7% fastball percentage earned him the alliterative moniker, and he leaned into it while transitioning to the bullpen in 2019 and ’20. Now back in the starting rotation, Peralta is showcasing a slider that’s opened up a whole new world.

That slider – a pitch he unsheathed last season, but threw just 4.8% of the time – is getting much more airtime this season. With a 32.7% usage, 47.2% whiff percentage, and .215 wOBA (.194 xwOBA), Peralta’s slide piece is more than worthy of a nickname of its own.

Armed with this new weapon, Peralta is one of the reasons for the offensively starved Brewers still being within shouting distance of first place. In his nine starts (Peralta came out of the bullpen for two scoreless innings on Opening Day), the Milwaukee magician has dulled opponents’ bats into a .134/.241/.274 slash line. He’s also been one of the hardest NL pitchers to square up. As for the Fastball Freddy title?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I like that nickname ‘Fastball Freddy,’ but I don’t know if they’ll keep calling me that because now it’s different. […] I like ‘Fastball Freddy,’ but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

If his slider keeps sliding, what’ll happen is the Brewers having a formidable third starter behind Woodruff and Corbin Burnes.

Jon Lester does not have the velocity or raw stuff of Freddy Peralta. What he does have is a boatload of experience, which has helped him post respectable numbers this season despite striking out fewer hitters than ever. Now in his 16th tour of the big leagues, Lester is pumping 89 mph on his four-seam fastball, which is not the type of pitch that will earn him a cool nickname.

In fact, both Lester’s fastball and his trademark cutter are getting obliterated in 2021. This has led to a higher percentage of changeups than the three-time World Series champ has ever thrown. He may have accidentally found something here, as the pitch has kept righties wildly off-balance all year; only four of the 81 total changeups he’s thrown have gone for hits. The only one that eclipsed an 85 mph exit velocity actually still earned Lester an out.

If Lester wants to fully embrace the crafty lefty lifestyle – à la Jamie Moyer – the Tacoma native should continue taking some oomph out of the ball. His possibly career-extending changeup makes Lester our under-the-radar pitcher of the week.

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

I believe that Flaherty is facing Giolito on Tuesday now instead of Rodon on Wednesday

1 year ago
Reply to  mg122021

High school teammates Giolito and Flaherty, coached there by Chicago’s current pitching coach Ethan Katz!

1 year ago
Reply to  MRDXol

I’ll be at the game tonight, very excited!