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.
Last week’s version of this column went into print (e-print) Monday morning, meaning we missed the MLB debut of 19-year-old Julio Urias, and the 2016 debut of Yu Darvish. Unfortunately, Urias was optioned back to AAA before I could say my (many) words about him. He’ll be back, don’t worry. Fortunately, Darvish is sticking around; he (and nine other hurlers) are featured below.
As always, these matchups are subject to the whims of front offices, manager’s discretion, and, even during the week of Memorial Day, rain.
5. Mike Foltynewicz vs Jeff Samardzija
(Braves vs Giants; Monday May 30, 1:10 PM ET)
The fact that Mike Foltynewicz is pitching this season is remarkable. After a bout of pneumonia forced him out for the season last September, he developed blood clots in his right (pitching) arm. Those clots were eased by a daunting surgery to remove part of his right first rib. Now healthy, Foltynewicz has all the makings of a stud, but he’s not there just yet. The former first-rounder leaves his high-90s fastball up and in the zone far too much; in 20 career starts Foltynewicz has allowed 22 home runs. Still, he’s only 24, with a former top prospect pedigree, and he’s been more than serviceable for a rebuilding Atlanta club slogging through a rough season. In five starts, he has a 3.95 ERA, with 24 strikeouts and six walks in 27 1/3 innings. The Memorial Day matinee will be Foltynewicz’s third career start versus San Francisco, he holds a 5.68 ERA in that small sample.
Jeff Samardzija was undoubtedly bad last year. The 31-year-old led all of the Major Leagues in hits allowed, earned runs allowed, and home runs allowed, all while posting career worsts (as a starter) in those three categories, plus ERA, FIP, K/9, HR/9, and WAR. The only thing he did well was eat innings, as he posted his third straight 210+ IP season. Naturally, that led to a five-year, $90M contract from San Francisco. Fortunately for the Giants, Samardzija has largely regained his pre-2015 form. Samardzija’s strikeouts are back up, and the home runs are way down, his rate cut in half from last season. Surely, playing half his games in AT&T Park, a severe pitcher’s park, helps. In fact, considering the statistical evidence along with the in-person stuff, this writer feels comfortable saying that Good Shark is back. In ten appearances versus Atlanta (four starts), Samardzija has posted a 2.81 ERA.
4. Clayton Kershaw vs Julio Teheran
(Dodgers vs Braves; Friday June 3, 10:10 PM ET)
Clayton Kershaw is doing things never before seen in the history of baseball. His current K/BB ratio is 21.0, a mark which has never been done over a full season in all of recorded baseball history (dating back to 1871). In fact, the only pitcher anywhere near his stratosphere is Candy Cummings, who struck out 20.5 batters for every one he walked in 1875. 1875! Marty McFly going back in time to the Old West was still 10 years away! Plus, the point of the game in 1875 was to allow the batter to put the ball in play and let the defense work; walks required nine balls and were considered suboptimal to gameplay. So, what does this all mean? Well, Clayton Kershaw is breaking norms for pitching, plain and simple. Nobody has been this dominant in the history of the game. In fact, his ERA in the last four seasons is only a hair higher than Sandy Koufax’s ERA in his final four seasons (1.88 to 1.87). What did Koufax do those years? Not much, just three Cy Young Awards and an MVP. Kershaw, 28, will have a chance to add to his own legacy vs the Braves, he has 1.69 ERA against them in seven career starts.
Julio Teheran is nowhere near his astronomical counterpart, but that doesn’t mean he’s no good. The 25-year-old is in the middle of a solid run himself, posting a 2.57 ERA this year and a 3.32 ERA since 2014. If the Braves weren’t citizens of the cellar, he’d be looked at as one of the best young pitchers in the game. Comparing Teheran to, say, Sonny Gray, works well in Teheran’s favor. Even excluding Gray’s disastrous 2016, Teheran strikes out more batters, walks fewer batters, gives up fewer hits, and is younger. Interestingly enough, the right-hander’s fastball velocity has plummeted, early on in his career Teheran averaged 93 on his fastball and now it averages only 90; he’s lost velocity every year since 2013. The 90 MPH fastball is arguably better than the 93 MPH fastball, batters are hitting .222 against it this year. Teheran will face the Dodgers; his ERA against the ballclub is 5.63 in five starts.
3. Dallas Keuchel vs Zack Greinke
(Astros vs Diamondbacks; Thursday June 2, 2:10 PM ET)
On a personal level, your beloved writer is having an issue figuring out if Dallas Keuchel is broken. Yes, the stats are down from his breakout form in 2014 and 2015, as is the velocity, control, and command. The eye test screams “BROKEN” in all capitals. No, what your writer fears is that this is Dallas Keuchel’s real form, and the last two years were the anomaly. Here’s some stats:
2013: 5.15 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 1.2 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 7.2 K/9, 89.1 FB velocity
2016: 5.58 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.4 BB/9, 7.5 K/9, 88.2 FB velocity
That’s the year before his big breakout, and this season. While expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to replicate his Cy Young form every year from here on out is foolish, the regression down to backend starter has been incredibly swift. If this is all that Keuchel ends up being, it’s surely serviceable, but nowhere near the ace Houston thought they had. Keuchel has faced Arizona five times; he holds a 3.90 ERA against the desert’s team.
I have a friend who is a really good technical writer. Reading tons of research covering a multitude of theories and creating dozens of concise sentences fully-detailing the ins-and-outs of these minutiae is a breeze. It’s almost… fun?… for my friend. My friend is Zack Greinke. Not literally, of course, but that would be cool as well. During Greinke’s recent run of success, he’s shown an innate ability to plug in and mow down batters at the drop of a hat. To add a touch of flair, Greinke flips his bat on (just about) any occasion, and even got into a “slowest eephus” war with former teammate Randy Wolf. Plus, Greinke’s one of the smartest pitchers in the game, both on and off the field. 2016 hasn’t been as kind to Greinke, but the right-hander’s shown signs recently. Last week in St. Louis he looked like Good Greinke, tossing eight innings of one-run ball, racking up seven strikeouts. He’ll look to continue his way down the right track against Houston, who he holds a 3.16 career ERA against.
2. Yu Darvish vs Taijuan Walker
(Rangers vs Mariners; Friday June 3, 8:05 PM ET)
Yu Darvish is back, and hopefully to stay. Before the 29-year-old succumbed to Tommy John surgery in 2015, Darvish had cemented himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. The three-time All-Star would consistently send hitters back to the dugout in dismay, striking out well over a batter per inning (1.2). His first start back went very well, striking out seven Pirates in five innings of one-run ball, chalking up his first win. Usually, pitchers fresh off of Tommy John surgery struggle with command as the kinks are worked out, though Darvish’s five Minor League rehab starts displayed improved walk rates compared to his previous Major League norms. Even if his first start back is a mirage, the 6’5” Japanese-Iranian hurler still has his undeniably good looks to back him up (This is a suggestion for the not-at-work crowd: look up “yu darvish model” on your favorite search engine). Darvish will likely be limited to around 90 pitches versus Seattle, who he holds a 4.47 ERA against.
Taijuan Walker has all the stuff to be a superstar. This has been the company line the past two times your detestable writer spun webs about the California-grown hurler, and the line hasn’t changed. But, at some point, Walker will have to show more than the occasional flash of excellence. April was excellent; Walker posted a 1.44 ERA while striking out a batter per inning. May was much less kind to Walker, he went 0-5 for the month with a 4.91 ERA. Yes, the pitcher win is faulty, and he deserved to win at least one of those games, but it paints a serviceable picture. Luckily, the 6’4” right-hander is only 23 years old, so he’ll have a ton of time to figure this out. The smart money says he does, and with ease. This’ll be Walker’s fifth start versus Texas, he has a 3.47 ERA to date versus the team from the North side of the Lone Star State.
1. Jose Fernandez vs Gerrit Cole
(Marlins vs Pirates; Tuesday May 31, 7:10 PM ET)
For whatever reason, Jose Fernandez has been unstoppable at home throughout his career. In 31 starts at Marlins Park, Fernandez has registered a 1.64 ERA, compared to a 3.54 ERA on the road. Fernandez’s walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rates all improve dramatically when he’s home as well. Your benevolent writer cannot figure a reason for this, other than the general boost players get from playing at home. One could assume this bump would ease up as Fernandez’s career progresses, but for now, he loves Miami. Like Darvish before him on this list, Fernandez is a Tommy John survivor. He is one of the best comps for Darvish’s career post-Tommy John, for both are power pitchers who were at the top of their games when they were cut open. Another comp would be Matt Harvey, but that outcome is much sadder. Fernandez’s home date this time around is against Pittsburgh; Fernandez has a 2.77 ERA against them so far in his career.
Your well-connected writer has a relative whose friend went to UCLA and dated Gerrit Cole for a time. Or maybe it was Trevor Bauer. I could never recall exactly which, or if it was either. Regardless the two split ages ago, so it’s history. This is a very roundabout way to say that yes, Cole and Bauer were teammates at UCLA. Bauer has yet to deliver on the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011, but the 25-year-old Cole has. Cole has a 2.53 ERA on the 2016 season, and a 3.01 ERA for his entire career (82 starts since 2013). Very soon, Cole could find himself as one of the elder statesmen of the Pittsburgh rotation. Down in Triple-A, top prospects Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl have combined for a 1.71 ERA across 27 starts this season, and Cole is older than all three of them. Cole will look to continue being a solid role model against Miami; his four starts against the Fightin’ Fish have resulted in a 3.42 ERA.
FIVE BONUS GAMES
Matt Harvey (NYM) vs Jose Quintana (CWS); Monday May 30, 1:10 PM ET
J.A. Happ (TOR) vs CC Sabathia (NYY); Tuesday May 31, 7:07 PM ET
Jason Hammel (CHC) vs Alex Wood (LAD); Monday May 30, 5:05 PM ET
Aaron Nola (PHI) vs Joe Ross (WSH); Tuesday May 31, 7:05 PM ET
Junior Guerra (MIL) vs Carlos Martinez (STL); Monday May 30, 2:10 PM ET