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. John Lackey vs Vince Velasquez
(Cardinals vs Phillies; Sunday May 28, 2:20 PM ET)
In 50 years, when everyone who played with him is long gone, people are going to look back at John Lackey and say he was underrated. The 37-year-old is in the middle of a late-career resurgence; his age 36 and 37 seasons have (arguably) been as good as his age 26-28 seasons. In fact, Lackey has posted a lower ERA since his 2012 Tommy John surgery (3.34) than before (4.10). There are differences in the two eras, of course, the earlier time being the tail end of the “steroid era” of baseball. But, enough of the past. Lackey has an easy role on the Cubs, he’s the #3 starter behind Jake Arrieta and former teammate and (alleged) fellow fried chicken aficionado Jon Lester. On the season, the right-hander has posted a 3.31 ERA; Sunday’s start would be Lackey’s 8th career start vs Philadelphia (3.13 ERA).
Philadelphia has been one of the biggest surprises of the early season, and Vince Velasquez is arguably the driving force. While the Phillies’ offense has been rather anemic, their young and dynamic rotation (headed by Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Velasquez) has kept them afloat. Velasquez, 24, was acquired from Houston last December in a package for reliever Ken Giles. While Giles has struggled (6.61 ERA in 16.1 IP), Velasquez has excelled to the tune of a 2.42 ERA in eight starts. Better yet, Velasquez has struck out well over a batter per inning, grading out to 11 batters per nine. He pairs a 94 MPH fastball with a classic 12-6 curveball; a changeup is also being used on occasion to (so far) positive results. It’s that kind of power stuff that can get a pitcher 16 strikeouts in a game, which Velasquez did on April 14th vs San Diego. The Cubs vaunted offense will be the young right-hander’s biggest test to-date.
4. Taijuan Walker vs Rich Hill
(Mariners vs Athletics; Monday May 23, 10:10 PM ET)
Taijuan Walker and Rich Hill occupy absolute opposite ends of the baseball spectrum. The former is a 23-year-old right-handed flamethrower, a 1st round pick out of his California high school. The latter is a 36-year-old left hander with a fastball that hovers just north of 90 MPH; he’s on somewhere around his 5th chance. Yet, they’re still here, two actors on the same stage. Walker was featured in this space two weeks ago for his matchup versus Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, a matchup Seattle won even without Walker in top form. In that article I lauded Walker’s (to that point) impeccable control; since then he’s walked five batters in 10.2 innings, nearly tripling his season walk total. The lesson is, as always: don’t try to predict baseball. This will be Walker’s 4th career start versus Oakland, his 6.45 ERA in those starts is inflated by a horrendous start (3.1 IP, 9 ER) in April 2015.
Rich Hill should not be here right now. He should be back home in Massachusetts, enjoying the post-baseball life, vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, and so on. After flaming out as a starter in his 20s, he was a “have arm – will travel” left-hander for five and a half years, closing that chapter with a release from Washington’s Triple-A club in June 2015. Most stories end there, a one-line transaction marking the end of countless years of dutiful – if often unseen – service. Instead, Hill kept writing new chapters. After all, the writer has the pen, not the audience. Given one last chance to start, Hill dominated for the Long Island Ducks, then the Pawtucket Red Sox, then the Boston Red Sox, culminating in a free agent contract with Oakland in November. Now, less than a year after his release, Rich Hill is the best pitcher on a Major League team. Hill has a 2.54 ERA on the season, striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings. He could be a first-time All-Star this July at age 36. Surely, he’s worked for it, and what a story it would be.
3. Jose Quintana vs Corey Kluber
(White Sox vs Indians, Wednesday May 25, 2:10 PM ET)
Since his emergence from the depths of minor league free agency in 2012, Jose Quintana has consistently been one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. Despite three straight 200 IP seasons and a 3.36 career ERA, Quintana has never made an All-Star team, nor received a Cy Young vote. How has a solid pitcher like Quintana stay hidden for so long? For one, he’s hid in Chris Sale’s shadow his whole career, always the “other left-hander” on the staff with a legendary one. But, it’s time for Quintana to get some recognition. The 27-year-old is in the midst of his finest season, accumulating a 1.98 ERA in nine starts this year. That’s a career-best ERA to go along with a career-best home run rate, walk rate, and his second-best strikeout rate. At this point, Quintana would have to regress significantly to not make the All-Star team, and he could even steal some Cy Young votes from his more famous teammate. This would be Quintana’s 13th start versus Cleveland, he holds a 2.58 ERA.
In case you haven’t tuned in since his Cy Young season in 2014, Corey Kluber is still one of the very best pitchers in baseball. The surface doesn’t say it (4.10 ERA), but Kluber has taken only a small step back since his historic year. He still strikes out nearly a batter per inning (58 K’s in 59 IP), and his walk rates and home run rates have escalated only slightly. Kluber’s stuff is down across the board since 2014, his fastball now at 92 (and touching 95) from 93 (and touching 97). The slider and curveball are still excellent out pitches for him, with 66% of his K’s coming on those pitches. Let it also be noted that Kluber’s breakout coincides perfectly with when he first grew a beard and also with when he first wore his socks up. These don’t make him a better pitcher per se, but they make him more aesthetically pleasing. This would also be Kluber’s 13th start versus the White Sox, his ERA against them is 3.94.
2. Carlos Martinez vs Jake Arrieta
(Cardinals vs Cubs; Wednesday May 25, 1:45 PM ET)
Carlos Martinez looks like he should be one of the best pitchers in baseball. The 24-year-old right-hander has a dynamic repertoire, his primary pitch being a fastball that can either two-seam or run up to 100 MPH. He also features two above-average breaking pitches: a curveball and a changeup. When he doesn’t get swings-and-misses, Martinez induces a ridiculous amount of weak contact. But, this season has been different for Martinez. His strikeout rate has sunk, from 9.2 K’s/9IP in 2015 to 6.6 K’s/9IP this season. The fastball is still fast, and the breaking pitches are still sharp, though. So, what’s wrong? Maybe he’s still feeling the effects of a late September shoulder strain, pushing to maintain high velocity by straightening out the fastball. On the other hand, it could be bad luck. Against Jake Arrieta and the Cubs’ high-octane offense, he’ll need to have it figured out. Martinez holds a 3.96 ERA in 15 appearances (5 starts) vs the Cubs in his career.
Two weeks ago, I was a bit worried about Jake Arrieta. He hadn’t really showed his dominant 2015 form just yet, despite his no-hitter versus Cincinnati. He had spotty command, and had been seeing far too many five-inning starts for a pitcher of his caliber. But recently, hyper-good Jake Arrieta’s been back. In 15 innings (two starts) since he was featured here, Arrieta’s posted a 1.80 ERA, limiting batters to a .137 average with 19 strikeouts against four walks. In retrospect, it looks ridiculous to think that anything was wrong with the 30-year-old right-hander. Arrieta features a fastball with so much arm side run (since he’s right-handed, to the right, from the pitcher’s point of view) that it’s classified as a sinker by pitch-tracking websites. Batters are hitting .164 against Arrieta’s slider, and .091 against his curveball. We’re watching one of the best pitchers in the modern era, folks. Arrieta has carved up St. Louis to a 1.63 ERA in nine starts.
1. Edinson Volquez vs Chris Sale
(Royals vs White Sox; Sunday May 29, 2:15 PM ET)
Edinson Volquez looked done in 2013. Then 29 years old, he posted a 5.71 ERA between 32 starts for the Padres and Dodgers, uninspiring numbers for a would-be free agent. But then, Ray Searage happened, and Volquez hasn’t looked back. Searage, pitching coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates, has become famous in recent years for rescuing the careers of struggling hurlers, with Volquez, Francisco Liriano, and Juan Nicasio as some of his most successful patients. Since his season with Pittsburgh, Volquez has posted a 3.36 ERA, culminating in a 2015 World Series title with Kansas City. Now 32, Volquez has found his way to the top of the Royals’ staff. He throws a sinker at around 93 MPH, along with a knuckle-curveball and a changeup. Volquez has made six starts versus the White Sox in his career, his ERA versus them is 2.63. That record, however, does not include his role in a bench-clearing brawl versus the White Sox last year.
Chris Sale isn’t throwing as hard as he can this year, but it’s on purpose. The lanky 27-year-old is featuring a fastball nearly two miles per hour slower than in 2015, but he’s posting career bests in ERA, walk rate, home run rate, WHIP, and batting average against. In fact, the only significant stat of his that’s seen regression is his strikeout rate, from a sky-high 11.8 per 9 IP to a still-great 8.2 per 9 IP. It’s interesting to see what Sale’s done; he traded in his 94 MPH fastball for a 92 MPH fastball, improved control, and tons of weaker contact. Sale is a three-pitch pitcher, the aforementioned fastball is paired with a slider and a changeup. The highest batters are hitting against any of his pitches is .193 against the changeup. The Randy Johnson comp gets thrown around quite a bit on the left-hander, but now he more closely resembles fellow active left-hander Clayton Kershaw. In fact, if both line up correctly, don’t be surprised if they face each other in the All-Star game. Sale has faced Kansas City 26 times (15 starts) and has held the Royals down to the tune of a 2.84 ERA.
FIVE BONUS MATCHUPS
Michael Wacha (STL) vs Stephen Strasburg (WSH); Sunday May 29, 1:35 PM ET
Chris Archer (TB) vs Masahiro Tanaka (NYY); Friday May 27, 7:10 PM ET
Julio Teheran (ATL) vs Jimmy Nelson (MIL); Tuesday May 24, 7:10 PM ET
Tanner Roark (WSH) vs Steven Matz (NYM); Wednesday May 25, 1:05 PM ET
CC Sabathia (NYY) vs Aaron Sanchez (TOR); Thursday May 26, 4:05 PM ET