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. Sonny Gray vs Masahiro Tanaka
(Athletics vs Yankees; Friday May 20, 9:35 PM ET)
Sonny Gray, the A’s young ace, has seen many more gray days than sunny days in 2016. The 26-year-old cruised though most of his first three MLB seasons, posting a 2.88 ERA with an All-Star Game visit. On the field, Gray has been a facsimile of his ace-like self; he holds a 5.84 ERA in his first eight starts of the season. The right-hander’s control and command have evaporated; he is currently at career-worsts in walk rate and home run rate. Gray showed some promising signs last Sunday vs Tampa Bay, allowing three runs in 5.2 innings. However, he still allowed three home runs, tied for the most he’s allowed in a game. This start will be his fourth career vs the Yankees, where he’ll look to turn his baby-step signs into positive results.
Masahiro Tanaka has a partially torn UCL. It’s easy to forget this; he’s surely performed like the frontline type the Yankees were hoping for when they signed him for $155 million in 2014. Still, he has a partially torn UCL. For now, he’s still relatively young and very good. Tanaka, 27, has posted a 3.51 ERA this year, a number inflated by a subpar start versus the White Sox on Sunday. Prior to that start, Tanaka had a 3.11 ERA. Let this also be a reminder that it is still very early in the season (!) and the stats don’t mean as much – for now. Tanaka has a diverse pitch repertoire; he pairs a sinker with a slider and generates lots of weak contact with a split-finger fastball. This will be Tanaka’s third start versus Oakland, in the other two he sports a 1.32 ERA.
4. Matt Harvey vs Stephen Strasburg
(Mets vs Nationals; Thursday May 19, 7:10 PM ET)
Matt Harvey is Batman. Or, more accurately, Matt Harvey *was* Batman. The 27-year-old currently has a career-worst 4.93 ERA; his walks have also risen as his strikeout rate has dropped. So, what’s causing this drop in performance, kryptonite? No, that would be for Superman. Rather, the bane of Harvey’s existence has been severe velocity inconsistency. On the season, Harvey is averaging 95 MPH on his fastball, but let’s dig deeper. In two of his last three starts, Harvey has averaged 93 MPH on his fastball, while averaging 96 MPH during the start in-between. In the two 93 MPH starts, Harvey posted a 6.35 ERA. The Mets will need Christian Bale Batman rather than George Clooney Batman versus division-leading Washington; maybe Harvey can help the Mets put a dent in Washington’s lead.
Stephen Strasburg could be on his way to a career year. Three years running, he’s ecpipsed 10 strikeouts per nine innings, this year culminating (so far) with the lowest ERA. Extracurricular distractions like Tommy John surgery, innings caps, and Scott Boras have overshadowed Strasburg, who has built himself an impressive résumé to date. Maybe it was those distractions that led Strasburg to re-up with Washington for seven more years? Now he won’t have to delve into the public dog-and-pony show that is free agency. With his departure from the free agent pool, the best starter available could be Rich Hill or Bartolo Colon, both definitely serviceable but hardly staff aces. Strasburg will face the rival Mets, who he has a career 2.79 ERA against.
3. Drew Pomeranz vs Johnny Cueto
(Padres vs Giants; Wednesday May 17, 9:10 PM ET)
After five years of floundering between Colorado, Oakland, the rotation, and the bullpen, Drew Pomeranz has hit his stride. Still only 27, Pomeranz is embracing his first full-time starting gig since 2012, marking a 1.80 ERA in seven starts. Pomeranz is still the same two-pitch guy as a starter that he was as a swingman. So, how does he make it work? He’s eschewed the fastball as his primary pitch, throwing predominantly his curveball, and it’s worked. Batters are hitting .143 against the curve, and when they’re sitting on his curve, the fastball (at 91) looks even quicker. It’s questionable as to how long this’ll last; Major League hitters are the best in the world at making adjustments. But, for now, mark the date and time: Drew Pomeranz is good now.
Johnny Cueto is still good, but that isn’t news, he’s expected to be good. Last week, Cueto was featured for his matchup versus Zack Greinke. Cueto won handily, outdueling the still-struggling Greinke over seven innings of two-run ball, lowering his ERA to 2.97. This week, Cueto faces the Padres, who he defeated on April 27th (in a shutout!) for his 100th career win. He should have little problem with a Padres lineup that, for a time, was purposely starting Adam Rosales and Jemile Weeks. They’ve moved on from that, as Brett Wallace and Jose Pirela now occupy third and second base, respectively. Cueto holds a 3.34 career ERA versus San Diego in nine starts.
2. Jose Fernandez vs Joe Ross
(Marlins vs Nationals; Saturday May 21, 7:15 PM ET)
Jose Fernandez is the kind of generational talent that fans everywhere should love. In a phrase, the kid can do it all. He’s got a drool-inducing fastball that touches 99 MPH, and he pairs it with a knee-buckling curveball that just about nobody makes solid contact against. On top of it all, he’s one of the most likable players in the league. He has fun! Watch Jose Fernandez pitch as much as you can. Miami isn’t on national TV much, so be creative. Convince one person to buy MLB.TV and go visit them whenever it’s Fernandez’s day to pitch. Now, you get to see Fernandez, and you’ve made a friend. Good job! This would be Fernandez’s 8th career start versus Washington, in the first seven he has a dazzling 1.05 ERA.
This start would come on Joe Ross’s 23rd birthday. With respect to the assorted Seagers, Joe and Tyson Ross are (arguably) the best brothers in baseball. Tyson’s hurt right now, but Joe, the younger brother, more than makes up for it. In six starts this season, Joe has a 2.29 ERA with 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings. For a time, it looked as though Joe and Tyson would both end up atop the Padres’ rotation. However, Joe was traded to Washington in the in Wil Myers trade, quashing that opportunity (for now). Ross, similar to his older brother, throws a mid-90s sinker and a slider. Tyson, however, has yet to teach Joe his trademark wipeout changeup, though Joe flashes a workable one on occasion. This will be Ross’s sixth career appearance versus Miami, he holds a 2.20 ERA in those appearances.
1. Noah Syndergaard vs Max Scherzer
(Mets vs Nationals, Tuesday May 17, 7:10 PM ET)
Continuing the theme of Mets hurlers with superhero nicknames is Thor, a Norse God known for literally branding Kevin Plawecki with a ball to his chest guard earlier this season. A lot of the nicknames get out of hand at times, but the hullabaloo around Syndergaard makes one consider how otherworldly he might be. After all, this is the man who secretly got an MRI for a potentially balky elbow, then responded with two home runs (off Kenta Maeda) and eight innings of two-run ball. If his own arm can’t stop him, what can? Syndergaard stands at a 2.53 ERA on the season, using (primarily) a 97 MPH super sinker/fastball and a 91 MPH slider to carve through lineups with ease. Syndergaard has faced the Nationals three times, posting a 1.80 ERA.
Max Scherzer had one of the most memorable starts of recent memory last time out. The 31-year-old right-hander struck out 20 batters vs the Tigers, a number only matched by Kerry Wood, Roger Clemens, and Hugh “One Arm” Daily in a nine-inning game. As a barometer of Scherzer’s dominance, Jacob deGrom has 20 strikeouts this entire season (as of 5/15/16). Jacob deGrom! An actual good pitcher! Regardless, Scherzer still allowed two home runs and six hits among the 20 strikeouts, so maybe there’s a chance for the Mets. In fact, in his last two starts, Scherzer has allowed six home runs in 14 innings, almost a homer every other inning. Scherzer will try to ply his heterochromatic craft on the Mets, who he has a 2.23 ERA against in eight appearances.
FIVE BONUS MATCHUPS
Carlos Rodon (CWS) vs Dallas Keuchel (HOU); Tuesday May 17; 8:10 PM ET
Marcus Stroman (TOR) vs Chris Archer (TB); Tuesday May 17; 7:07 PM ET
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) vs Jered Weaver (LAA); Thursday May 19; 10:05 PM ET
Michael Wacha (STL) vs Jon Gray (COL); Thursday May 19; 7:15 PM ET
Francisco Liriano (PIT) vs Julio Teheran (ATL); Wednesday May 18; 7:05 PM ET