Nights of the Pitcher

Last night was about the pitchers. Nearly every game had at least one good starting pitcher performance, and many of them we’re not even going to talk about today. Max Scherzer‘s 11 strikeouts? Nope. What about Tyson Ross‘ 11 strikeouts? Nope, not them either. We’re not even going to talk about Jeff Samardzija and Wei-Yin Chen, who combined to allow one run across 16 innings. No, we’re going to talk about the five pitchers who posted a Game Score of 75 or better last night — Corey Kluber, Marcus Stroman, Danny Duffy, Matt Garza and Cole Hamels.

Now, Samardzija and Chen each compiled Game Scores of 74 last night, so you might think I’m splitting hairs with the 75 distinction. And I am. If you would like to let me have it in the comments for the distinction, please, feel free. But in looking at last night’s Game Scores, I came across an interesting item. Last night was the 12th time this season that five such pitchers have compiled a Game Score of 75 or better. That sounds like a lot, right? It is. I went back and looked at the past five years, and found the following:

5+ SPs with Game Score of 75 or better in one day
– 2010: 4
– 2011: 8
– 2012: 2
– 2013: 13
– 2014: 12

Keep in mind, this season has a long ways to go before it reaches its conclusion, and we’re looking at a lot of nights with a lot of dominant pitching. In fact, last night doesn’t even hold a candle to the best day of the season, by at least one measure. That day was April 27. On April 27, starting pitchers posted a 75 Game Score or better nine times:

Johnny Cueto, 84
Adam Wainwright, 81
A.J. Burnett, 80
Collin McHugh, 80
Julio Teheran, 79
Dillon Gee, 78
Ryan Vogelsong, 77
Ian Kennedy, 76
Jason Hammel, 76

That’s hard to do. Of course, last night wasn’t too shabby either. Here is how the Game Scores fell:

– Corey Kluber, 91
– Marcus Stroman, 80
– Danny Duffy, 78
– Matt Garza, 77
– Cole Hamels, 75

Stroman kicked things off north of the border. The Red Sox have frequently fallen to doormat status this season, and yesterday was no exception. Not to take anything away from Stroman. After all, the Sox did post 14 runs on these very same Blue Jays on Monday. Stroman was hitting 96 in the first inning, and from there he kept the Sox off balance all day, as he had a no-hitter entering the seventh. The only member of the Sox who had any success against him was Shane Victorino, who walked in the first inning, and singled off of him in the seventh. Between those two plate appearances, Stroman set down 16 of 17, with Jackie Bradley Jr. walking to become the only other baserunner.

It was an impressive display from Stroman, as he was able to locate all of his pitches for strikes. Stroman did not fare well at all in the bullpen when he was called up initially, but since moving to the rotation he has been basically lights out. He has posted a 2.21 ERA, 2.93 FIP and 3.28 xFIP, and he has allowed two or fewer runs in eight of his 10 starts. Among starters with at least 60 innings pitched, Stroman’s ERA ranks seventh, his FIP 17th and his xFIP 25th. In short, he’s making it look easy.

Cole Hamels knows a thing or two about making pitching look easy. Given that he missed the first few weeks and was rusty upon returning and that the Phillies are terrible, no one has really paid Hamels much mind in 2014, but he’s been doing his thing since getting roughed up a couple of times in his first three starts. In those first three starts, he allowed 13 runs in 16.2 innings. Since, he has allowed 27 runs in 105.2 innings, for a 2.04 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 3.00 xFIP. Not too shabby. He had the good fortune yesterday to catch a Giants team that wasn’t at their best — no Brandon Belt, no Angel Pagan — but this is still a team that ranks ninth this season in terms of wRC+ against left-handed pitching. Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Michael Morse can pound lefties with the best of them, and Brandon Crawford has been even better than that trio this season.

Hamels was having none of it. As Eno Sarris noted on Twitter, Hamels’ velocity was up. And not just a little up either. Take a look:

Cole Hamels Velocity

Hamels’ average fastball velocity yesterday was the highest its been in three years. Perhaps he just wanted to put forth a good audition for potential trade suitors, even if the Phillies don’t want to deal him for some reason.

Perhaps the extra velocity made his changeup that much more effective. Hamels recorded 11 whiffs on his changeup, which is good even for him. Hamels generally gets whiffs on 29 percent of his changeups, but last night it was 39.3%. He barely gave the Giants air to breathe, as he threw at least 70 percent of his pitches for strikes in each of his eight innings on the bump. The Phillies gave him little margin for error, but on this night that was just fine.

Matt Garza, on the other hand, had plenty of room for error, as the Brewers had essentially thumped the Mets out of their game yesterday by the end of the third inning. That is when their win expectancy climbed back over 90 percent for good. Garza was surely thankful for the assist, but he had things well under hand, as he allowed just two hits and a walk across eight innings of work. Garza is another pitcher who has not attracted much attention this season, and perhaps rightfully so — his K-BB% rate is down 4.1 percent from last year, which would be the biggest drop of his career. On the other hand, there are just 40 qualified pitchers with 2 WAR or more, and Garza is one of them. He’s no star, but he’s no scrub.

Yesterday, he wasn’t completely fooling Mets’ hitters, but he was keeping them off balance. At the extremes, Garza’s fastest pitch was nearly 25 mph faster than his slowest pitch, and he was unpredictable to boot. As you can see here, he started hitters off in just about every quadrant inside and outside the strike zone, and he made an effort to work up and down and left and right pretty much all game.

That was all just a prelude though, for what is likely to be on the short list for game of the season. Corey Kluber never really was a touted prospect, and it’s been a few years since Danny Duffy was one, but they are both prime examples of players succeeding after the hype dies down. Their progress was on full display on Thursday night, as the two put on quite the show. The first 24 batters of the game failed to reach base, and after seven innings, just five players had reached base. Kluber was perfect through six, and Duffy was just as good.

Kluber threw what should have been one of the more memorable victories of his season, but then in the eighth inning this happened:

While that awful, awful, awful throw will assure that the game remains memorable for Kluber and the Indians, it probably isn’t the memory they wanted. Still, it shouldn’t obscure what was a dominant performance for Kluber. Perhaps it is a coding thing, but one of the things that sticks out right away about Kluber’s night is that he went to his four-seam fastball and not his sinker. Looking at his 2014 season page at Brooks Baseball, we see that he’s thrown his four-seamer 14.77% of the time, but last night he tossed his four-seamer 53% of the time. That’s obviously way higher. One of the things that Kluber has improved upon this season is that four-seam fastball. His overall value is low, but per 100 pitches, we have it as the 11th-best in the game among qualified pitchers.

Duffy was just as good. Working primarily off his four-seamer and his curveball, Duffy had everyone fooled, save Carlos Santana. Santana notched the two singles that Duffy allowed. Unlike some of the other pitchers that were so marvelous yesterday, Duffy mainly ignored one whole side of the plate:

Danny Duffy 7-24

Duffy busted righties in, and lefties out, and Cleveland had no answers. This is essentially the way Duffy works, though looking at his most recent strikezone plots it is apparent that last night he was burying more balls in that down-and-in to righties/down-and-away to lefties area. The fish were clearly biting, otherwise Duffy would have walked more than two batters. In general, this is the continuation of a season-long trend for Duffy. His K-BB% is up three percent this year, and that is mainly attributable to the five percent drop in his walk rate. Duffy’s ultra-low ERA is definitely aided by an ultra-low .232 batting average on balls in play, but he has still improved overall. And last night, he was remarkable.

On most days, two 11-strikeout performances would be a cause for celebration — 11-strikeout games don’t exactly grow on trees. But on Thursday, they were only part of the story. Mssrs. Stroman, Hamels, Garza, Kluber and Duffy put together quite a collective show for the baseball-watching public. While some are off trying to “fix” the offensive decline in the game, I would rather celebrate what we have. Baseball is ever-changing, and before you know it, it’ll change again. Perhaps you prefer five home runs a game, but if you love baseball, you can definitely appreciate these nights — and years — of the pitcher.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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“If you would like to let me have it in the comments for the distinction, please, feel free.”

Paul Swydan, you hereby have my permission to have it.

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