The season's first matchup between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets lived up to the hype. Noah Syndergaard outdueled Max Scherzer in a 2-0 victory, striking out 10 in seven innings, including Bryce Harper twice, the second time with two outs and two runners on in the sixth inning.
That was a fun game with a playoff-like atmosphere at Citi Field. Meanwhile, a couple of hours away in Philadelphia, the most surprising team of the season continued to hang close in the NL East. That's right, the Philadelphia Phillies are only a half-game out of first place.
Tuesday's hero was Vince Velasquez, who struck out 10 in five innings in the Phillies' 3-1 victory over the Marlins. You'd like to see a little better pitch efficiency; he threw 103 pitches and had to leave early. But eight of his strikeouts came on fastballs, and seven of those eight came on swinging strikes.
That's the key to Velasquez's game; hitters will swing and miss on his fastball, even though he throws it in the middle of the zone. In some ways, that's similar to Scherzer, who also throws a lot of fastballs in the middle of the zone, which is one reason he has been having some home run issues. Here's Velasquez's fastball location in 2016:
Vince Velasquez's fastball location looks hittable, but he gets misses. Seven swinging K's tonight on fastballs. pic.twitter.com/w7CsgVYtg3— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) May 18, 2016
Here's the leaderboard in 2016 for starting pitchers on swing-and-miss rate on fastballs:
1. Rich Hill, 37.4 percent
2. Jimmy Nelson, 28.6 percent
3. Velasquez, 28.5 percent
4. Rick Porcello, 28.2 percent
5. David Price, 27.8 percent
6. Drew Smyly, 27.8 percent
7. Jose Fernandez, 26.3 percent
8. Scherzer, 25.4 percent
Those guys all throw high fastballs, even Porcello, who is known as a sinkerball pitcher but actually throws his fastball up in the zone. Anyway, like Scherzer, Velasquez depends not only on mid-90s velocity but sort of a late movement. Consider this quote from Padres manager Andy Green after Velasquez struck out 17 back in April:
"There's riding life in the zone with [Velasquez’s] fastball. It was explosive, reminds me of when I saw Scherzer going as well as he goes, and that fastball is literally exploding through the zone."
Both rank in the top 10 among starters in what ESPN Stats and Info labels horizontal velocity vector. That's the "exploding" part of Green's description. Both rank in the top 15 in fastball velocity. The only other starter whose fastball appears that high on both lists is Nathan Eovaldi.
Here's a stat line to consider:
Velasquez: 8 GS, 48 1/3 IP, 33 H, 3 HR, 15 BB, 59 SO, .191 AVG, 2.42 ERA
Syndergaard: 8 GS, 53 1/3 IP, 44 H, 3 HR, 9 BB, 65 SO, .227 AVG, 2.19 ERA
Maybe Velasquez isn't quite as dominant as Syndergaard ... but he's pretty close. Both have been stingy with the home runs, and Velasquez has actually been a little tougher to hit. I guess that's the point: There's another second-year right-hander in the NL East who warrants our attention, even if he lacks the comic-book nickname.
As for the Phillies, they remain a long shot to stay in the race, let alone win the division or make the playoffs. They've been outscored by 30 runs, yet are six games over .500; that's basically an impossible thing to keep going. They're 14-3 in one-run games and 0-6 in blowout games. The offense is feeble. FanGraphs' playoff odds give the Mets a 49.8 percent chance to win the division and the Nationals a 45.8 percent chance. The Phillies? Zero percent.
Those are the odds. But the games are decided on the field, and the Phillies are at least making the NL East a little more fun that we all expected.