This is a weekly column aimed at discovering the best pitching matchups of the week ahead. Using the projected probables listed atop every team’s page, we have pinpointed the five pitching matchups most likely to become “appointment television.”
These probables are subject to change, as even the best plans can be washed away.
5. Clayton Kershaw vs Bartolo Colon
(Dodgers vs Mets; Thursday May 12, 10:10 PM ET)
For a moment, it looked like Clayton Kershaw wasn’t the best pitcher in baseball. Like a bout of indigestion, this went away with a few white pills and a night’s rest (for the bullpen). At the moment, the left-hander holds a 2.04 ERA and an absurd 21.33 K/BB ratio. That’s right, for every one walk the 28-year-old allows, he racks up 21 strikeouts. Kershaw has history vs the Mets; this would be his first start against them since he proved the Bad Playoff Kershaw myth largely false in the 2015 NLDS. He’ll have to contend with a Mets lineup that remains largely the same, with Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker in place of Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy.
Kershaw will likely duel with Bartolo Colon, arguably the most beloved active player. From decorating baseballs after wins to mashing a home run off a former All-Star, the rotund right-hander has cemented his reputation as one of the more eccentric players to ever play the game. At the least, he’s the most GIF-able one. Colon has been almost the same player every year since his revival in 2011: a control artist – no, a virtuoso – good for 150-200 above-average innings. The adage is that Colon, 43 later this month, could pitch until he’s 50. I, for one, wouldn’t doubt him.
4. Taijuan Walker vs Chris Archer
(Mariners vs Rays; Wednesday May 11, 3:40 PM ET)
Taijuan Walker was largely inconsistent in 2015, but he’s shown signs of growth in his second season as a full-time rotation member. The flame-throwing right-hander (his fastball averages 94 MPH) has allowed only three walks in his six starts this season, compared to 29 strikeouts. Some regression could be expected, though it is important to note that Seattle’s young stud has posted above average walk rates so far in his career. Walker was forced from his previous start versus Houston after only two innings due to a neck injury; he played catch on Sunday and, as of today, is still on track to make his Wednesday start.
The first repeat participant in the weekly probables column, Chris Archer made good on last week’s placement. Archer tossed six innings of shutout ball, striking out five and racking up his second win. Archer’s ERA sank down to 4.23 after the appearance. It’s a solid step in the right direction for Archer, whose poor April befuddled many observers. One may recall that Archer was projected to face Angels ace Garrett Richards. But after Richards was scratched with a torn UCL, spot starter Cory Rasmus took the stead. The 2015 All-Star carved up the last AL West opponent he faced, although the first-place Mariners (!) could pose a tougher challenge.
3. Zack Greinke vs Johnny Cueto
(Diamondbacks vs Giants; Thursday May 12th, 9:40 PM ET)
The fact that Zack Greinke plays in the Major Leagues is remarkable considering where he was ten years ago. Ten years ago, Greinke almost quit playing baseball altogether while in the depths of social anxiety disorder. He had a cathartic bullpen session, each pitch progressively harder and wilder, until he was whisked away, not to be seen in the Majors until September of that season. In that time away, he took control of his anxiety, a very arduous (and honorable) task. Ten years on, we know Greinke as a three-time All-Star, a Maddux-lite who could hit the mug out of a coffee drinker’s hand. The 32-year-old is also the highest paid player in the game, as he’ll take in a record $34M this season. So, why is Greinke struggling so far in 2016? Looking at underlying stats (such as FIP, BABIP, etc), one could say it’s poor luck. He did shave his long locks when he signed with Arizona, so maybe growing his hair back out would solve his 2016 issues.
If Greinke is the closest we’ve been to Greg Maddux, Johnny Cueto is the closest we’ve been to Luis Tiant. The Dominican-born right-hander has been terrific in 2016, using his various deliveries and tempos to keep batters off-balance. Through his first seven starts for San Francisco, Cueto has posted a 3.02 ERA and solid walk/strikeout rates, providing evidence that his poor showing for Kansas City was not a sign of regression. Cueto is one of many recent high profile free agents with a player opt-out. This new phenomenon is largely pro-player, as if the player has performed well enough to receive another large contract, they can opt out. If the player doesn’t perform to expectation, he can opt in, and receive the remainder of his original contract. It’s a negotiating tactic one would never (ever) see in the NFL, for example. Cueto was linked to Arizona during the offseason (a la Greinke to the Giants), and this would be his first 2016 start vs the D’Backs.
2. Madison Bumgarner vs Marcus Stroman
(Giants vs Blue Jays; Wednesday May 11, 3:45 PM ET)
Madison Bumgarner started the strangest ballgame I’ve ever seen. Minnesota alternated singles and doubles for the first eight batters, only being broken up by a Carl Pavano strikeout. Bumgarner, all of 21 then, allowed eight earned runs, failing to make it out of the first. That Twins lineup hit Delmon Young fifth. So, what kind of damage could Toronto’s lefty-killer lineup do? Considering the unlikelihood of the first event and the talent/knowledge the now 26-year-old Bumgarner has gained, probably not that much. Bumgarner has been his typical self this year, posting a 3.14 ERA with an uptick in strikeouts negated by an uptick in walks.
This is Marcus Stroman’s second time on this list, and his second straight Top 2 appearance. Behind him is the formidable Toronto offense, save Justin Smoak (kind of good now!) due to the lack of a DH in San Francisco. No matter. Stroman himself would have to hit vs Bumgarner, though, which could be fun. The 25-year-old right-hander outdueled Kenta Maeda last week, tossing seven innings of two-run ball, racking up eight strikeouts. The 5’8” (listed) Stroman faces a much more physically imposing opponent this week; at 6’5”, Bumgarner is nearly a foot taller.
1. Jake Arrieta vs Gerrit Cole
(Cubs vs Pirates; Saturday May 14, 2:20 PM ET)
Jake Arrieta has been great this year, don’t get me wrong. He’s just not the same. His control has evaded him since mid-April, and the command isn’t totally there either. Rather than generating swings-and-misses, batters are hitting Arrieta’s stuff into the ground. That’s still great, weak contact is good as well, but the lack of control is, at the least, a bit eye-raising. Two of his last three starts have lasted only five innings, with four walks each. By merely mentioning this, he’s bound for a double-digit, zero walk game across 7+ innings. Or maybe not. Arrieta is already 30 (he’s older than you think), so there’s a non-zero chance we’ve seen Arrieta’s peak already. Underneath it all, Arrieta has posted a 1.13 ERA, so he’ll probably be just fine, unless he isn’t.
A third repeat offender from last week’s list, Gerrit Cole finds himself squared off against his 2015 Wild Card game foe. In that game, Cole lasted five innings, allowing four runs, and tallying up the loss. Last week was much kinder. Cole, 25, defeated Michael Wacha on Sunday, hurling six innings of two-run ball. The Cubs offense has been a juggernaut this season; Cole learned this first hand on May 2nd. On that day, the Cubs tagged Cole for five earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, cruising to a 7-2 win. As an added layer of difficulty, this week’s game is in Chicago versus Arrieta. But, if the young right-hander can perform like he does versus every other MLB team, he should be fine. One of these days, he’ll have the Cubs’ number.
FIVE BONUS MATCHUPS
Kenta Maeda (LAD) vs Noah Syndergaard (NYM); Wednesday May 11; 10:10 PM ET
Max Scherzer (WSH) vs Jordan Zimmermann (DET); Wednesday May 11, 7:05 PM ET
David Price (BOS) vs Dallas Keuchel (HOU); Thursday May 12, 7:10 PM ET
Corey Kluber (CLE) vs Jose Berrios (MIN); Sunday May 15, 1:10 PM ET
Luis Severino (NYY) vs Chris Sale (CWS); Friday May 13, 7:05 PM ET