The Best Pitching Matchups of the Week: May 3-9

This week kicks off with two exciting players who should leave a huge impact on the sport over the next decade, and concludes with two who left their fingerprints all over the last one.

Monday, May 3, 9:38 PM ET: Tyler Glasnow vs. Shohei Ohtani

Outside of a deGrom-Ohtani matchup (which, All-Star Game, if you’re listening…) you’d be hard pressed to come up with a more exciting combination of starting pitchers. Tyler Glasnow, a pitcher who’s been abandoned by consistency at times in the past, is turning his question marks into periods. The looming issue with Glasnow was always when, not if, his strikeout numbers would reach kick-ass status. Like many of his fellow right-handed power pitchers, getting out of Pittsburgh was a great start. In his first full season with Tampa – albeit in just 12 starts – Glasnow made it over the 30% K-rate hump for the first time. His second full season with the Rays ended with a 38.2 K% and a trip to the World Series. This season, he’s still climbing, and hitters are getting completely neutralized.

Notching 10 or more strikeouts in three of his last four starts, including a career-high 14 on April 12 against the Rangers, Glasnow’s strikeout percentage is a robust 39.2%. With Blake Snell and Charlie Morton out of the picture, Glasnow is still bulldozing everything in his path, and he’s on an immaculate pace.

Tyler Glasnow, 2021 Season
6 37.2 39.2 7.7 1.67 1.69 .144 .210 .227

The most elementary reasons for that? Rather than going all in on fastballs and curveballs – pitches he threw a combined 95.4% of the time last season – Glasnow has scaled back the curve and introduced a slider-cutter hybrid. He’s spoken about the increased confidence that came from working with Tampa Bay’s coaching staff and their support, stating that they instructed him to “out stuff” guys rather than trying to dot the corner. When he only had two pitches though, his stuff was too predictable. Enter the “slutter,” a pitch that Glasnow admits has made things easier on him, which I’m sure he and his Boy Meets World good looks really needed.

Hitters would likely admit that Glasnow’s new toy has done the opposite, in fact making things much more difficult on them. Glasnow has now made six starts with this new pitch at his disposal. It’s generated an opponents’ average of .200, but its main utility has been steamrolling left-handed hitters. That group is poking .091 against the new pitch. The next lefty to record an extra base hit on it will be the first. Having to worry about both the curveball (which remains very good!) and the slutter, lefties are now getting fooled badly by both pitches.

Ohtani is still hunting for his first 10-strikeout game of the year, but his K-rate has not suffered for it. At 37.1%, Ohtani is not only shattering his previous high (29.9% in 2018), he’s also crashing the American League’s hoity toity strikeout soirees. Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Glasnow, and Carlos Rodón are the only AL starters ringing up a higher percentage of hitters than Ohtani, and he’s throwing harder than ever before. The fastball is up to 97, the splitter is up to 90, and hitters are up to nothing but groundouts and sad strolls to the dugout.

Having just 12 starts and 53.1 big league innings under his belt before this year, Ohtani is on pace for his largest workload by far. His strikeout numbers and whiff rate point to another potentially historic season. It’s his control problems that may hold him back.

In his last five trips to the mound, including the two glimpses we got of him during the pandemic season, Ohtani has walked three, five, five, six, and two hitters. The last time he issued fewer than two walks was May 20, 2018, coincidentally against the Tampa Bay Rays. This year’s Rays rank 14th in BB% and are middle of the pack in O-Swing% as well, meaning they’ll show some patience, but also could be hacking at this pitch right as it hits the dirt.

Here’s hoping a hit by pitch suffered by Ohtani the Hitter in Sunday’s game against the Mariners doesn’t delay this great matchup; Joe Maddon indicated yesterday Ohtani’s availability would all depend on how he feels today after being sore yesterday, though he also noted Ohtani’s elbow felt better as their tilt against Seattle went along.

Thursday, May 6, 2:10 PM ET: Triston McKenzie vs. Danny Duffy

Triston McKenzie is learning a valuable lesson in his second big-league season in Cleveland: no matter how good your stuff is, or how often it misses bats, big league hitters will eventually get the barrel on it. That is happening more often than McKenzie would like, as right now he’s in the third percentile of HardHit% and first in barrel percentage despite sterling strikeout and whiff rates. McKenzie is the only starting pitcher with a K-rate above 30% and a HardHit% north of 50%, giving him one of the most unusual profiles of any modern starter.

A pitcher combining a large volume of strikeouts with cosmic exit velocities would suggest high pitch velocities as well. After all, the old adage states that the harder they come in, the harder they’ll go out. That’s not the case for McKenzie, whose fastball cruises in just under 92 mph. Location has derailed him all season – and caused an eye-popping 21.8% walk rate – as every McKenzie pitch seems to end up either 10 inches out of the zone or right down the middle.

In those last two starts, neither of which lasted longer than four innings, McKenzie allowed eight combined walks and five hits to the Yankees and White Sox. Three of those hits didn’t come back. As it turns out, if hitters can zero in on fastballs over the middle and assume everything on the edge will end up off the plate, they can do some serious damage.

His wild streaks often put him in obvious fastball counts, which is when the carnage starts. His slider and curveball have been literally untouchable this season (no one has recorded a hit on either pitch) but, according to Baseball Savant, they land in the strike zone less than a third of the time. You see the problem. On Thursday in Kansas City, watch McKenzie’s breaking pitches. If he can locate them for strikes, he should be in good shape. If not, it could be another walk fest broken up by the occasional fastball getting blasted into orbit.

While McKenzie has issued eight walks and three homers in his last two days at the office, Danny Duffy has seen just nine walks and two homers all season. The 32-year-old diversified his menu and has gotten delicious results from it. The Royals’ veteran is throwing five pitches – fastball, slider, changeup, sinker, curveball – and hitters are slugging .300 or worse on all of them. The slider has been a chef’s favorite. When he serves it to right-handed hitters, they leave the table still hungry.

Remarkably, 85% of the hits Duffy has allowed this year have been singles. He’s yet to allow more than two earned runs in a start, and aside from an eight-hit affair with the Angels, has surrendered four or fewer hits each time out. Unlike McKenzie, Duffy can rely on each of his pitches for strikes. At 27.4%, McKenzie has thrown the lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone of any starting pitcher. Duffy is standing on the other side of the gulf at 43.1%.

Without a mountainous spike in strikeouts, or a precipitous drop in walks, Duffy’s success has been a bit puzzling. According to Statcast, he’s getting hit harder than ever before, with an average exit velocity and HardHit% far from the top of the league. So what’s been the secret to Duffy’s unbelievable start? Luck. A ridiculous 95.4 LOB% is partially responsible, along with the .247 BABIP that’s the lowest he’s had in seven years. Of the six starting pitchers clutching tightly to their sub-1.50 ERA’s, he’s the only one with an FIP above 2.50, and Duffy’s 3.66 xFIP is several lengths ahead of that field as well.

Saturday, May 8, 1:05 PM ET: Max Scherzer vs. Corey Kluber

This interleague showdown features five Cy Young awards, 10 All-Star Game appearances, and over 4,300 career strikeouts. If we were living in, say, 2017, this matchup would have been a headliner. Four years later, a Scherzer vs. Kluber duel gets pushed a few lines down on the festival poster, but thanks to recent vintage performances from both dudes, this show could get moved back to the main stage.

Scherzer was an Isan Díaz home run away from his first shutout of the year on Sunday. He instead had to settle for a regular old complete game – his first since September 8, 2018 – bumping the Nationals back up to .500 in the process. Scherzer received the typical congratulations one would expect after a storybook day like that, but for different reasons. The breezy and efficient pace of his start meant Scherzer could be with his wife Erica for the birth of their third child.

“Pretty cool day for him,” said Scherzer’s longtime teammate Ryan Zimmerman. “We’re happy for him. He never ceases to amaze, I guess is the best way to put it.”

The now-father-of-three transitions from a day he’ll never forget to a place that he’d probably like to. In five starts at Yankee Stadium, Scherzer has a 4.60 ERA and a 27/15 K/BB ratio. Among non-Coors Field stadiums where he’s pitched at least five times, Scherzer’s .849 OPS in the Bronx is his highest in any ballpark. He’ll lug his .294/.370/.479 opponents’ slash line into New York right as the Yankees are heating up, though the Bombers’ midweek series against the Astros could cool them down before Scherzer arrives.

Corey Kluber’s right arm is part of the reason for the Yankees’ resurgence. While they do come with the caveat of being against the weakling Orioles and Tigers, Kluber’s last two stays on the rubber have shown why the Yankees took an $11 million chance on him. He went 6.2 innings against the O’s on April 27, scattering six hits and a lone earned run before really giving the hands of time a workout.

Sunday’s clinical takedown of the Tigers was not only Kluber’s 100th career win, but it was also his first 10-strikeout game in pinstripes. Throwing an improved changeup, Kluber kept the Tigers to just three baserunners over eight innings, causing his catcher, Kyle Higashioka, to say that it felt like watching a video game.

Like Scherzer a few hours south, Kluber’s gem included 20 swings and misses while also bringing his team to an even .500 record. He’ll get his second chance in six days to pitch in front of the fanbase that was screaming he was washed, and an opportunity to go toe-to-toe against the only active right-handed pitcher with more Cy Youngs than him.

Under the Radar Matchup – Saturday, May 8, 7:10 PM ET: Steven Matz vs. Cristian Javier

The Matz-Javier summit presents a fascinating look into what it’s like to be a major league pitcher. Matz is a groundball pitcher who does not throw a four-seam fastball. Javier is a fly ball pitcher who throws one 58.5% of the time. Matz has a pedestrian 23.9 K%; Javier has a sharp 32.9%. Yet, they’ve both been pretty good this year, even though Matz should theoretically be doing better, while Javier and his teeny 0.87 ERA cackles in the face of conventional wisdom.

It’s Matz whose 4.00 ERA should theoretically be a few points lower, given his 3.76 FIP. Javier, on the other hand, has an ERA that is exactly half of his 1.87 FIP. Matz should probably be profiting more given his outstanding 49.3 groundball percentage, rather than Javier who is getting grounders 28.9%, living on fly balls, and building a force field on the fence that has kept any of them from escaping.

Despite all their differences, Matz and Javier have essentially been the same pitcher by one metric: expected ERA. Matz checks in at 3.42, Javier at 3.26. If you’d like to help, consider donating Steven Matz a better defense.

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

Ohtani vs Glasnow, good grief that is gonna be fun