Welcome to the new series for pitching junkies, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.
This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel
EVERYBODY WHO’S ANYBODY
Yes, this is an insane idea that may lead to a mental breakdown by the fifth inning. If the subject-verb agreement starts to get a little iffy around then, and if the players’ names change into words like “mom” and “Obama,” that’s your clue to start feeling sorry for me. However, this will be a toned-down version of the normal diary, since to give all 18 pitchers the full treatment would take about 40,000 words and likely force my editors to kill me. Instead, I’ll be giving you the Most Impressive Stat on each pitcher and documenting their success against the game’s best hitters. We’ll probably never get to see these matchups again, and despite the growing disdain from the American sports opinion generators, I still love the All-Star Game. The best possible outcome, of course, is that Mariano Rivera gets the ninth-inning save for the American League. Let’s start with the man who just pulled off one of the funniest late-night TV stunts I’ve ever seen.
NL First Inning: Matt Harvey, New York Mets
Most Impressive Stat: In the category of Fielding Independent Pitching, which takes out the vagaries of team defense and tries to value a pitcher by only those elements he can control, Harvey is no. 1. That’s a fancy stathead way of saying that by one of the purest metrics around, he’s the best pitcher in baseball.
The Game: It’s a special moment when Harvey takes the mound in front of his home fans at Citi Field, and it lasts exactly one pitch. On a 97 mph fastball, Mike “The Perfect American Hero Boy” Trout hits a double into right and pulls off a gritty (and totally unnecessary) headfirst slide into second for good measure. Next, Harvey drills Robinson Cano in the front knee, which, depending on the severity of the injury, might represent the last time the Yankees organization allows its players to participate in this game. But really, let’s be honest. With the Mets in the national spotlight, did you expect a good start?
Harvey bounces back with a dirty sinking change to Miggy Cabrera and then sits him down on a 92 mph slider. That’s the man we know — steady diets of high 90s fastballs, and devastating off-speed stuff. With Cabrera gone, here comes Chris Davis, he of the mighty 37 homers. Harvey’s strategy is sound: 98 mph fastball, 99 mph fastball, 89 mph changeup. On the last, Davis can only reach at the tailing ball and fly out to center. Part of what makes Harvey so devastating is that his change actually has more right-to-left action than his fastball. It’s like a slow screwball, and it’s third-nastiest among righties in MLB. Joey Bats is next, and it’s the slider for him too. Another strikeout, and a great recovery.
AL First Inning: Max Scherzer, Tigers
MIS: Scherzer throws a fastball 55 percent of the time, but his two prominent junk pitches, slider and changeup, move at the exact same speed while behaving very differently — almost a foot differently — on the horizontal plane. The slider produces the third-best whiff percentage in the game, and the changeup is the only one in baseball that actually sinks relative to a spinless pitch. Only curves are supposed to do that.
The Game: A nasty tailing fastball produces a popout from Brandon Phillips (among right-handed starters, nobody gets more horizontal tailing action on the heater). He runs the count full on Carlos Beltran with mostly fastballs and gets him to reach and ground out to first. To Joey Votto, he throws the filthy slider, two fastballs to set him up, and K’s him on 0-2 with 99 mph heat that catches the corner on its journey to the right. Super efficient. For the full Scherzer treatment, see last week’s diary.
NL Second Inning: Harvey
The Game: Does anyone call Matt Harvey “Harvey Danger”? We should, right? Big Papi strolls up to the plate, and Harvey freezes him with a slow curve, gets him chasing on a fading change, and survives when Ortiz just misses crushing a 97 mph fastball and flies out to center. Clearly Papi was just sitting dead red. Not a bad strategy. Adam Jones falls to 1-2 on a fastball-change combo. But then he gets feisty, working the count to 3-2 before Harvey says, “HOW ABOUT 98 MPH AT THE NECK, HONCHO?” Result: swinging strikeout, as manly as possible. Joe Mauer’s at-bat is less eventful — squeaky clean Joe hits a 96 mph pitch hard, but directly to Carlos Gonzalez in left.
AL Second Inning: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
MIS: The big, sweeping lefty is all about horizontal movement on his pitches. Here’s how he ranks in MLB for each, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus: fastball, first; sinker, third; changeup, first; slider, fourth (first among lefties). And by the way, the slider also drops more than any other pitcher’s. That’s almost too good.
The Game: Hometown boy David Wright swings at the first pitch — a four-seamer — and grounds out to third. Against Gonzalez, we get to see the slider, which is just a gruesomely awesome pitch against a left-handed batter. CarGo flails — and I mean flails — at pitches that end up more than a foot outside the strike zone. No surprise that lefties are hitting .133 against Sale this year. He stays away from Yadier Molina but gets him to fly out to center on a 2-1 changeup that chases away to the left. 1-2-3. Now that’s what I call an … easy Sale. (Shit, that joke was the first sign of the meltdown, wasn’t it?)
NL Third Inning: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
MIS: This one’s easy — he’s the only guy with an ERA below 2.00. Done.
The Game: Kershaw throws fastballs at one of the highest rates in baseball — 61.98 percent. Only Shelby Miller has thrown more total on the year. He comes with lots of them to J.J. Hardy and tries to finish him with a changeup that promptly gets launched almost to the warning track, where Bryce Harper tracks it down. Kershaw, by the way, is the Greg Maddux of our generation, constantly just outside the strike zone, pitching to contact and only rarely lighting up the radar gun. He gets a 2-0 flyout from Trout, and when he gets ahead of Pedroia 0-2, he picks at the outside corner, almost K’s him with two gorgeous, drooping 74 mph curves, and finally retires him on a slider that Pedroia lofts to right. As usual, nothing spectacular from Kershaw, just brutal efficiency.
AL Third Inning: Sale
The Game: He faces Troy Tulowitzki first, and right away a changeup and fastball demonstrate how absurd it is that the southpaw practically throws sidearm, and yet the ball moves left with some of the best movement in baseball. He sets Tulo up with another fastball and then crosses him up with the rightward diving slider for a strikeout. I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t justice. Michael Cuddyer gets the same start: fastball, change, change, fastball — but on 1-2 Sale teases him with a changeup that wanders away from the righty and elicits a weak grounder to the pitcher. Harper lays off two sliders — lefties get them from Sale at a much higher rate — and hits a liner on a 2-2 fastball that Sale’s divisional rival Cabrera snares for the third out.
NL Fourth Inning: Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
The Game: One of the things you don’t do in life is hang a changeup to Cabrera. Corbin forgets this essential rule of survival, and the best hitter in the game smashes a double to the gap. Also, don’t hang sliders to Davis, apparently, because that doesn’t work either, as the Oriole rips a single to left. Maybe just don’t hang pitches at all? I hate to be a total hardass about that, but it just seems smart. Joey Bats comes up next, and since Corbin can’t locate his fastball, Bautista sits back on a 2-0 pitch and breaks the shutout with a sac fly to center. That’s 1-0 to the junior circuit. Corbin gets it right with Ortiz, painting the corner with two straight mid-90s fastballs and producing a double-play ball with a sinker.
AL Fourth Inning: King Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
MIS: There’s just so, so much to choose from here, but I’m most impressed that his changeup averages only 3 mph less than his fastballs (89 mph???) but drops 5-7 inches lower. Like, what are you supposed to do with that as a batter, except cry?
The Game: Felix starts Phillips with the changeup, and I can’t tell, but I do think Phillips begins crying. On a 1-1 count, he messes up his timing with an 83 mph slider and gets a groundout to third. Beltran doesn’t weep at the changeup, though. Instead, he slaps a single just past shortstop to get some action started for the NL. It looks hopeful when Votto goes up 2-0 and pinch runner Andrew McCutchen steals second on Perfect Joe Mauer. But Votto weakly grounds a change to second, and Wright gets stumped by a sinker running in on his hands, disappointing his Queens supporters yet again when he dribbles a slider for the third out.
NL Fifth Inning: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
MIS: Since movement is the theme of the day, let’s give this one to Lee’s curve, which dives in on right-handed batters more than any other lefty curve.
The Game: Adam Jones sees a litany of fastballs — Lee relies heavily on the sinker, but also loves the cutter that moves in the opposite direction. Jones likes the cutter, too, ripping it down the left-field line for a double. Demigod Mauer survives the fastball onslaught before grounding one off Tulowitzki’s glove, and it’s first and third for Lee. We finally see a curve from Lee, and it’s pretty, but it’s so far outside that Hardy isn’t remotely tempted; a sign that Lee just isn’t locating. But a lovely change gets Harvey to ground to second, nearly producing a double play. Jones scores, though, and now it’s 2-0 to the AL. Trout gets a perfectly located fastball, a curve painting the outside corner, and a beautiful cutter that he can only ground to short. This time, Phillips barehands the relay, and Lee’s out of the inning.
AL Fifth Inning: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
The Game: Much like Sale, Moore’s strength comes from the horizontal movement he gets on every pitch. Unlike Sale, he doesn’t have a devastating slider to counteract the leftward-moving pitches. The southpaw’s tailing change gets CarGo to ground out to second, his high curve does the same to Molina, and a first-pitch sinker does Tulowitzki in when Pedroia corrals the lazy fly. That was quick, and as of now, the NL has just two base runners on the night.
NL Sixth Inning: Jose Fernandez, Florida Marlins of Miami
MIS: He’s 20 years old, the youngest All-Star pitcher since Doc Gooden in 1985, and a token Miami pick. Because his fastball is a little too straight, his strikeout rate is low considering that (MIS alert!) he has the 10th-fastest heater in the game. (By the way, the top 18 all have one thing in common: They’re righties.)
The Game: Fernandez basically throws only fastballs and curves, and he gets Pedroia looking on a 2-2 96 mph heater. Miggy sees three straight 98 mph four-seamers, and fouls the third one out to first. Fernandez breaks out the curve for Davis, and WOW, it’s a doozy. As it turns out, it breaks left more than any other curve except the one belonging to Clay Buchholz, and two pitches later, Davis swings over the same pitch. No prayer. I’m officially excited to see how Fernandez develops.
AL Sixth Inning: MAGICAL FAST-FORWARD
OK, guys, we’re getting into relief pitcher territory, and the managers are about to start throwing out guys for a batter at a time. Call me a cheater if you will, but we’ve covered the stud pitchers, we’re getting on the long side, and so we’re going to skip ahead straight to the moment we’ve all been waiting for …
AL Eighth Inning: Mariano Rivera!!!
MIS: The most impressive stat is that he’s the greatest closer in world history. But since it’s the All-Star Game, here’s the one we’ll use today: In All-Star Game history, he’s thrown eight innings and allowed zero runs. One more scoreless inning here would give him a career complete-game shutout.
The Game: Wait a second … why the hell is he pitching in the eighth inning??? OH MY GOD I’M SO ANGRY AT JIM LEYLAND WHY IS HE SUCH A SON OF A — oh, it’s because if the NL scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth against someone else, he might not get a chance to pitch. OK, OK, fine. I guess that makes sense. But I mean, we’ve got Neil Diamond singing a Red Sox theme song just before Mo comes on in the eighth inning. This feels wrong. It gets worse when Fox shows a Yankee fan doing the “so good, so good!” part.
OK, shaking it off. The song ends, we hear the opening strains of “Enter Sandman,” and holy shit, for the last time in his career, Mariano runs in from center field at an All-Star Game. There’s nobody else on the field, a tribute from the other players that leaves him alone in the spotlight. I am seriously emotional right now. He reaches to the mound and takes off his hat. All the players line up at the dugouts to applaud him, and cynicism disappears from the world because this is really, really special. Great, great, great job by Fox for staying with the game to let us see that moment.
The game? Rivera throws his cutter. Hitters ground out. Nobody reaches base. It’s the same story that’s played out his entire career, and the last no. 42 walks off the mound with another perfect inning.
7.2. Joe Nathan closes it out, and the AL wins 3-0. Together, AL pitchers tossed a three-hit shutout, and the new pitchers’ era lived up to its name.