The Monday Takeaway
When members of the Baseball Prospectus staff submitted our breakout-player predictions back in February, only two pitchers, Matt Moore and Mike Minor, made the list. With Moore off to an 8-0 start and Minor sporting a 51-to-12 K:BB, those were fine choices. But if we were to do it over, a third lefty, the Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin, would undoubtedly join them.

Corbin took the Coors Field mound yesterday with a 1.52 ERA through eight assignments, a number that was scrutinized by those skeptical of his emergence as a mid-rotation stud. The southpaw’s strikeout rate had increased modestly, from 18.9 percent last year to 19.5 percent in the early going of 2013, but his walk rate had climbed more significantly, from 5.5 percent to 8.1 percent. His opponents’ BABIP was .259. He had stranded 89.2 percent of the runners who reached base. All of those are often indicators of impending regression.

But, despite pitching in a setting known for exposing fluky starts, the 23-year-old actually managed to lower his ERA to 1.44. And he did so by delivering arguably the most impressive outing of his young career.

The mile-high air threatened Corbin’s greatest asset to date—his ability to keep the ball in the yard. But after nine innings of work, his home-runs-allowed total, which stood at two through his first 53 1/3 frames on the mound this year, had not increased. Not only did the Rockies fail to clear a fence against Corbin, but they also notched only three hits, struck out 10 times, and hit into 11 ground-ball outs, looking helpless throughout the contest as the lefty relentlessly pounded the zone.

Corbin threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of the 31 batters he faced, and in total, a whopping 74 of his 97 offerings resulted in strikes. Thirty-six of those strikes were either foul balls or whiffs, and Corbin’s slider mesmerized the Rockies from the first inning through the ninth.

In his first eight starts, Corbin’s slider elicited a swing and miss on an impressive 25.27 percent of its uses. Last night, it was even more dominant: The Rockies who offered at it hit nothing but air nearly half of the time. Combine that with an effective sinker, a key tool for success at Coors Field and in Corbin’s home park in the desert, and you’ve got an outing that, given the context, is historic.

Before Corbin’s three-hitter, no pitcher in Coors Field’s 18-plus-year existence had recorded 27 outs and struck out 10 or more batters without exceeding 100 pitches. Meeting those three criteria requires a starter to pitch efficiently while avoiding mistakes and still missing plenty of bats. On Monday night, Corbin—who issued five walks in his previous start and whose season high in strikeouts was seven—showcased the stuff and command necessary to check off all of them.

During his prospect days—first with the Angels, then with the Diamondbacks following the Dan Haren trade—Corbin was projected as a back-end starter or a reliever, with evaluators, including Kevin Goldstein, wondering if he had enough velocity to complement his polish. But as assistant general manager Buddy Ryan pointed out to ESPN’s Teddy Mitrosilis, Corbin is now throwing harder than he did earlier in his professional career. The PITCHf/x data confirms that claim, showing a considerable uptick from 2011, when Goldstein wrote that Corbin’s fastball “sits in the upper 80s and scrapes the 90-91 mph level at times.”

Corbin averaged 90-91 mph on the hard stuff last night, and reached back to touch 92-93—an increase that has been consistent throughout the first month and a half of the season, and that, as Mitrosilis noted, has bolstered the effectiveness of his wipeout slider. If it holds into the summer and fall, Corbin could be much more than the number-five starter most foresaw him becoming.

The Diamondbacks, 26-19 on the season and atop the National League West, are 9-0 behind Corbin, with victories in both of his no-decisions. Time after time, the lefty has done his fair share, proving as reliable as any pitcher has been through nine starts over the past two decades. Despite an offseason during which nearly every move that general manager Kevin Towers made was panned, Arizona is favored to capture the division crown.

Corbin’s breakout has brought the Diamondbacks to the top. If it proves robust, even with the defending-champion Giants lurking, the Rockies trending upward, and the Dodgers getting healthy, Kirk Gibson’s team could stay there.

Matchup of the Day
Whether it’s walking off or going off on Cy Young Award winners, the Indians—who have won 19 of their last 23 games—are on a roll. Terry Francona’s team enters its two-game date with the Tigers in first place, 2 ½ games ahead of second-place Detroit, and the bat of catcher Carlos Santana has been one of the driving sources behind the Tribe’s success.

Santana, who went 1-for-5 with a double in yesterday’s 10-inning win over the Mariners, carries a .296/.403/.548 triple-slash line into the series. His on-base percentage ranks second among catchers, trailing only Joe Mauer, and his slugging mark leads all players at the position, with a 30-point cushion on the runner-up, Buster Posey. Add it all up, and you’ve got 2.0 WARP just 38 games into the season, a total that makes Santana one of the early favorites in the American League Most Valuable Player race.

But for all of the success that Santana, who was worth 3.4-3.6 WARP in his first two full major-league seasons, has enjoyed in the box, he hasn’t done much damage off of Max Scherzer, who is scheduled to take the mound for the Tigers in game one. Santana will carry a 3-for-23 (.130/.259/.174) line into his first plate appearance on Tuesday, and that 433 OPS represents his second-lowest mark among all pitchers that he has faced at least 20 times. Only Scherzer’s teammate, Doug Fister, against whom Santana owns a 431 OPS, has fared better.

As you can see on his Brooks Baseball player card, Scherzer is essentially a two-pitch hurler against opposite-handed batters, and Santana, a switch-hitter, will bat from the left side. True to form, the matchup page linked above shows that Scherzer has pounded the Indians backstop with heaters and changeups, using his slider and curveball sparingly, typically as get-me-over offerings to keep Santana on his heels in early counts.

All three of Santana’s hits versus Scherzer—a single on August 19, 2011, another one-bagger on August 5, 2012, and a double 10 days ago—have come on the changeup, and two of those pitches painted the outside black. One of Santana’s many skills at the plate is his ability to handle off-speed stuff, whether it’s hammering mistake pitches down the middle or being unfazed by changeups on the corner, and Scherzer has seen it firsthand. But in their most recent meeting on May 11, Santana also twice (one, two) grounded out on changeups well off the outside edge, and Scherzer would do well to test his discipline again tonight. 

In fact, rolled-over changeups have done the trick for Scherzer throughout their head-to-head history; besides the three hits, seven of the eight changeups that Santana has put into play have stayed on the ground and been converted into at least one out. The fastball, on the other hand, has typically (seven of nine) ended up in the air. Expect Scherzer to keep that track record in mind and use it to his advantage, based on the situations in which Santana comes to the plate tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • With free agency just a few months away and a mounting list of injuries on his medical history, this could be a critical season for Matt Garza, and the Cubs right-hander makes his first regular-season start tonight. Garza missed the first month-and-a-half with a lat strain that he suffered early in spring training, after spending 74 days on the disabled list in 2012 to nurse a stress fracture in his elbow. The 29-year-old right-hander enjoyed a career-best 3.9 WARP in 2011, his first year with the Cubs, and while another campaign of that ilk is unlikely, Garza will take the mound in Pittsburgh hoping to make a strong first impression in his bid for a long-term contract. The Pirates are set to counter with Wandy Rodriguez, who has permitted only one run in each of his last two starts, lowering his ERA from 4.02 to 3.25 along the way (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Zack Greinke looked no worse for wear in his return from the disabled list last week, tossing 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball to defeat the Nationals, and this evening, he’ll return to his former home in Milwaukee to take on the Brewers. The 29-year-old, who needed only 33 days to shake off a broken collarbone suffered in his brawl with Carlos Quentin and the Padres, carries a 14-to-1 K:BB into this duel with Hiram Burgos. A 25-year-old righty, Burgos has been touched up for 15 runs (13 earned) over his last two starts, though he met the minimum criteria for a quality start in Chavez Ravine on April 26 (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • Among the pitchers who have struggled to showcase their dominant form this season are Stephen Strasburg and Matt Cain, who will square off at AT&T Park in the middle match between the Nationals and Giants. Strasburg’s 2.83 ERA is impressive enough, but the flamethrower’s strikeout rate has plummeted from 30.2 percent to 23.3 percent, and he has already been charged with nine unearned runs. Cain, meanwhile, has not been able to keep the ball in the yard, serving up 13 gopher balls in just 56 1/3 innings—good for an 18.3 percent HR:FB, which is more than double his career clip of 7.2 percent. Both will try to get back on track tonight, and though the opposing lineups would generally be tough assignments, both teams have scuffled at the plate in recent days, a factor that may bode well for the dueling righties (10:15 p.m. ET).