By Dalton Brown
Last week saw us go 1-1 after the Blue Jays blew a 5-1 lead in the 8th to lose 6-5 to Baltimore. While we certainly prefer a 2-0 weekend, looking on the bright side we haven’t seen an 0-2 week in just about two months of baseball action. So let's dive right in with two picks for our Independence Day weekend:
Last Week: 1-1
Friday, July 2, 6:05 pm ET
San Diego Padres (Chris Paddack) @ Philadelphia Phillies (Zack Wheeler)
When the San Diego Padres head to Philadelphia to play the Phillies and start a three-game series on Friday evening, they’ll be doing so following a late night flight from Cincinnati after a 7:10 p.m. ET game on Thursday. They’ll likely arrive at their hotel in Philly sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. and will take on a Phillies team that continues an extended homestand after the Marlins leave town Thursday night.
Travel details aside, the Padres will have their work cut out for them on Friday night against Phillies ace pitcher Zack Wheeler. As far as I’m concerned, Wheeler has passed Aaron Nola atop the Phils rotation in 2021, finally fulfilling the potential many saw for him previously as a member of the New York Mets.
He’s pitched to an impressive 2.20 ERA in 2021 and presently holds a WHIP of 0.96, both of which represent far and away the best marks of his career. These excellent numbers haven’t come as a result of luck, either - the .283 BABIP allowed by Wheeler falls closely in line with his career averages. One contributor to Wheeler’s rise is his fastball velocity increase - since 2017, he’s added 2 mph to a fastball that now averages 97.5, making it one of the hardest among MLB starters. Wheeler takes on a Padres team that has put up excellent offensive numbers this season, posting a solid wRC+ of 105 against righties. A look deeper, however, reveals that San Diego's lineup is significantly more pedestrian outfit when they leave home - on the road, they’re 19-18 with a slightly below average 97 wRC+ against RHP.
The Padres, on the other side, will send Chris Paddack to the mound to oppose Wheeler. Once viewed as a future ace in his own right, Paddack hasn’t been the pitcher the Padres had hoped for since his 2019 breakout season. June was a particularly rough month for the righty as well, as he posted a 5.59 ERA over 4 starts to see his season mark jump to 4.64. Paddack’s Baseball Savant page tells the story of a below average pitcher as well - he’s below the 50th percentile in 11 of their 15 measured categories.
The Padres are a particularly trendy team packed with star power, and given their 9-1 run heading into Thursday, I can understand why fading them isn’t the flavor of the month. In this spot, I believe the pitching matchup/travel situation make it potentially valuable, and relish the opportunity to be contrarian.
The Pick: Phillies First 5 innings (-130 or better)
Saturday, July 3, 4:15 pm ET
Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw) @ Washington Nationals (Paolo Espino)
In one of the premier MLB series matchups of this July 4th weekend, the Los Angeles Dodgers head cross country to Washington for a four-game series with the red hot Nationals. Saturday’s contest intrigues me in particular because I believe it shapes up to be a better pitching matchup than most would imagine here.
Clayton Kershaw’s career exploits have been well documented - he’s a future first ballot MLB Hall of Fame pitcher, also posting some of the best career pitching numbers in the live ball era. He’s pitched against the Nationals 18 times, making 17 starts, and over those outings he’s 13-3 with a 2.11 ERA, the most wins he’s amassed against any team outside of the NL West. Kershaw's most recent start this past Sunday was arguably his best in almost three years, pitching eight innings of one-run ball while striking out 13 against a potent Chicago Cubs lineup. He did face the Nationals early this season too - on April 11, he out-dueled Max Scherzer in a 3-0 victory, pitching six scoreless innings. Assuming he can avoid a Kyle Schwarber leadoff HR, there’s little reason to believe Kershaw won’t have a successful outing Saturday evening.
Kershaw is opposed by Paolo Espino for the Washington Nationals, a relatively unknown name heading into 2021. Espino is 34 years old, but you wouldn’t know it by the back of his baseball card. Entering this season he’d made just six total big league appearances for the Milwaukee Brewers and the Nationals, the bulk of them coming in 2017. In 2021, however, Espino has made 18 appearances (including three starts) while pitching to an excellent 2.02 ERA over 35.2 innings. He’s pitched even better in those three starts too, which have seen him allow a total of onoly two runs over 14.1 innings. The limiting factor for Espino here is going to be how heavy of a workload he’s able to shoulder as well. His last start against the Mets only saw him throw 67 pitches as he continues the adjustment from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
While I don’t expect Espino to pitch deep into the game against an L.A. Dodgers lineup built to push pitch counts, I do believe he has a good chance at success in this matchup. The Dodgers’ hitting philosophy is one of patience, pushing pitchers to their limits by waiting out walks and hitting mistakes. Espino won’t likely play into that approach though. On the season he’s only walked a total of four batters. He may struggle if left in the game for a second and third trip through the lineup, sure, but I look for Espino to manage to give Washington four to five solid innings of baseball and to keep them in it against Kershaw.
The Pick: First 5 innings UNDER (4 or better)