The 5 Best Pitching Performances of the Week: Syndergaard Stifles the Royals

Noah Syndergaard shut down the reigning world champions on Tuesday, giving one of the best performances of the young season. What other hurlers excelled in their season debuts?

The first week of the 2016 MLB season is wrapping up, and it has featured no shortage of strong pitching performances.

In the least surprising news ever, Clayton Kershaw led the way, after fanning nine Padres and allowing one walk and one hit on Monday. While San Diego’s lineup is hardly Murderer’s Row, it was a still a line befitting the Cy Young frontrunner.

The game marked Kershaw’s 33rd outing with a Game Score greater than 80, which is the most in the big leagues since he made his debut in 2008. Game Score is a Bill James invention that measures the quality of each individual start, crediting the pitcher for outs recorded and deducting points for hits, walks and runs allowed, while giving extra credit for strikeouts and pitching deep into games.

Kershaw and four other pitchers posted Game Scores of 73 or better last week, and they are shown below along with their RE24 scores (which measure the pitcher’s impact on run expectancy) and how many FanDuel points they produced.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Opponent: San Diego
Result: 15-0, W
Game Score: 83
RE24: 3.4
FanDuel Points: 60

Ho-hum, just another nine-strikeout, one-walk day for Kershaw.

I suppose it might be more exciting had he not done this 43 other times in his career (only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Felix Hernandez have more starts with at least nine strikeouts and one walk or fewer).

Picking up where he left off last year, Kershaw got a ton of whiffs on his slider, generating a whiff-per-swing rate of 44.4% on the pitch, according to Brooks Baseball (last season, his slider’s whiff-per-swing rate was 45.0%).

There was a case to be made that Kershaw should have won the Cy Young last season, and it’s not difficult at all to envision the 28-year-old actually winning the award for a fourth time in 2016.

Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

Opponent: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Result: 9-0, W
Game Score: 78
RE24: 3.0
FanDuel Points: 51

The actual 2015 Cy Young winner is no slouch himself, and Jake Arrieta got off to a good start in 2016.

Arrieta struck out six and allowed a walk and two hits, and even held Mike Trout to an 0-for-4 night.

The biggest part of his transformation into one of the game’s elite pitchers has been improvement in his strikeout and walk rates (after posting a 7.3% K-B% rate in his first four big league seasons, he has boosted this to 21.1% in his last four), but he also upped his groundball rates.

From 2010 to 2013, he posted groundball rates of 42.2%, 45.7%, 43.8% and 40.4%; in 2014 and 2015, he posted grounder rates of 49.2% and 56.2%, and this trend was evident again on Monday. Half of Arrieta’s balls in play were on the ground, thanks in large part to a sinker he threw over 56% of the time versus the Angels.

Last season, his sinker was his most used pitch (42.9%), and it generated a groundball 57.9% of the time it was put into play.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Dodgers

Opponent: San Diego Padres
Result: 3-0, W
Game Score: 75
RE24: 2.9
FanDuel Points: 45

Poor San Diego.

The night after getting dominated by Kershaw, they were dominated again by Scott Kazmir. It will not be the last time a pitcher shuts down the Padres at Petco Park (FanGraphs projects San Diego to finish last in MLB with 4.03 runs per game), but a strong outing by Kazmir had to be welcomed by Dodgers fans.

With an unusually high number of starters already on the Disabled List, Kazmir will play a more important role for our World Series favorites, and got off to a nice start. In his Dodgers debut, the 32-year-old lefty struck out five, walked none, and allowed one hit in six innings.

The results were good, but Kazmir did little to alleviate concern about his velocity decline last year that continued into Spring Training, as he averaged 90.6 miles per hour on his fastball Monday, per Brooks Baseball. During the exhibition schedule, his fastball averaged 91.3.

His average fastball velocity dropped from 93.4 in the first half of his season with Oakland to 92.6 from late July through the playoffs with the Astros. His ERA- (104), FIP- (127) and xFIP- (120) with Houston all marked drops from his 61/79/90 rates in the first half.

Scott Kazmir

Also, on Monday, Kazmir only generated a 15.6% whiff-per-swing rate, which will make it hard to produce a high strikeout rate going forward.

Because we’re only looking at a half a season worth of data, it may not be cause for panic, but his declining whiff rates and velocity are worth monitoring.

That said, if he can duplicate Monday’s results, there won’t be anything to worry about it.

Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Result: 2-0, W
Game Score: 74
RE24: 3.0
FanDuel Points: 57

Noah Syndergaard, meanwhile, might be the last player in the big leagues who needs to worry about fastball velocity. After leading MLB starters in average fastball velocity (97.7) as a rookie last season, “Thor’s” heater averaged 98.8 on Tuesday against the reigning world champions.

Beginning his sophomore season in style, he struck out nine, allowed three hits and one walk in six shutout innings. As was the case last year, his blazing fastball set up a devastating slider, which fanned six Royals and produced a 53.3% whiff-per-swing rate.

Looking to build off a 3.1 fWAR season last year, Syndergaard could be on the verge of joining the game's upper tier of pitchers.

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Opponent: Cincinnati Reds
Result: No Decision, Cincinnati won 3-2
RE24: 2.4
FanDuel Points: 42

The only pitcher on our list to not pick up a “Win,” Aaron Nola nevertheless delivered a strong season debut, which came on the heels of a an impressive 13 starts as a rookie in 2015.

Nola struck out eight, walked none and allowed four hits in seven innings, and his only blemish was a first-inning home run by Eugenio Suarez.

Last season, he posted a 92 ERA-, 102 FIP-, and 92 xFIP-, with solid strikeout (21.4%), walk (6.0%) and groundball rates (47.6%). His biggest problem was an unsustainably high 15.1% home run per fly ball rate, which led to a 1.3 home run per nine innings rate.

This particular bug bit him again on Wednesday, but if his HR/FB% regresses like we would expect it to, he could be headed for a very solid season.