Scouting Game Three of the ALCS: Charlie Morton

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Despite allowing four runs total in Games One and Two of the ALCS in Houston, the Yankees return home to New York for Game Three down 0-2 in the series. Annoying! Very annoying, really. The Yankees have been here before though. They came home down 0-2 to the Indians in the ALDS, and that was a best-of-five series. Not a best-of-seven. The current situation is not ideal. It is not insurmountable, however.

The good news: the Yankees don’t have to face Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander in Game Three tonight. Those two held the Yankees to one run total in 16 combined innings in Games One and Two. They are: good. Tonight the Yankees will face sinkerballer Charlie Morton, who threw 146.2 innings with a 3.62 ERA (3.46 FIP) during the regular season. His strikeout (26.4%) and ground ball (51.8%) rates were excellent. His walk rate (8.1%) was about average.

Morton’s lone ALDS start against the Red Sox did not go particularly well. He allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.1 innings, and, on top of that, six of the 12 balls in play against him left the bat at 100+ mph. The Red Sox hit some rockets for outs. Needless to say, it would be swell if Morton were that square-up-able again tonight. Let’s preview Houston’s Game Three starter.

History Against The Yankees

This is Morton’s first season in the American League, so he has limited exposure to the Yankees. Players on the ALCS roster have hit a combined .326/.396/.600 with eight homers in 135 plate appearances against him in his career. A lot of that, including all eight homers and 87 of those 135 plate appearances, are tied up in Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Todd Frazier. They faced Morton a ton when they all played in the NL Central.

Here is how Yankees on the ALCS roster have fared against Morton the last three seasons, via Baseball Reference.

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Hicks 6 4 1 0 1 0 2 2 1 .250 .500 .750 1.250
Starlin Castro 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Todd Frazier 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 3 2 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000
Didi Gregorius 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 3 3 1 0 0 1 3 0 1 .333 .333 1.333 1.667
Aaron Judge 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 .000 .333 .000 .333
Gary Sanchez 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .667 .500 1.167
Jaime Garcia 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Ronald Torreyes 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 31 25 5 0 1 1 6 4 9 .200 .333 .400 .733

Not nearly as much success as the overall career head-to-head numbers would lead to believe. Like I said, a lot of overall success comes from Holliday (Cardinals), Castro (Cubs), and Frazier (Reds) when they faced Morton (Pirates) on the regular as NL Central. A lot of the career head-to-head history is very old and not indicative of who these guys are as players today.

The Yankees did face Morton once this season, scoring four runs in 5.2 innings against him in May. His final line: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 10 K. That is a bit misleading though, because Morton dominated the Yankees for four innings before falling apart in the fifth. A walk, two singles, and a Holliday homer put four runs on the board quick. Prior to that, Morton manhandled the Yankees.

Current Stuff

Over the years Morton has gone through several transformations. He went from four-seam pitcher to straight sinkerballer with the Pirates years ago, when he literally copied Roy Halladay’s delivery, hoping it would work for him. He also scrapped his changeup in favor of a splitter. And over the last two years, Morton has added basically two full miles an hour to his fastball. From Brooks Baseball:

charlie-morton-velocity1

Huh. It’s not often you see a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 add velocity like that, but then again, everyone seems to be adding velocity these days, so maybe it’s not that unusual. Morton’s sinker and four-seamer sit in the mid-90s these days, and his top secondary pitch is a hard low-80s curveball. He’ll also throw a few upper-80s cutters and mid-80s splitters per start, though they’re not crucial to his success. For all intents and purposes, he’s a sinker/curveball guy.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Morton’s pitch selection against righties and lefties this season:

charlie-morton-pitch-selection

Get ahead with the sinker and put away with the curveball. Fairly standard. Morton isn’t as good at peppering the bottom of the strike zone as Keuchel (few are), though he generally does a very good job locating down in the zone. Verlander crushed the Yankees with fastballs up and down, and breaking balls at the knees. With Morton, almost everything is at the knees. Part of me wonders if the Astros will look to change up the scouting report by having Morton pitch upstairs with four-seam fastballs, even as waste pitches to change eye level. We’ll see.

There aren’t any good 2017 Morton videos out there, so here are his ten strikeouts against the Yankees in that May start. You can get a good enough look at the sinker and curveball here.

During his ALDS start last week, Morton’s location was pretty crappy and he left a lot of pitches belt high. The end result would have been much worse than two runs in 4.1 innings if a) the Red Sox had any power, b) some hard-hit balls didn’t find gloves, and c) Morton didn’t have enough movement on his pitches to occasionally miss the sweet spot even when he makes mistakes.

Platoon Splits

Morton went from having an extreme platoon split from 2015-16 to having a reverse split this year. Weird. Verlander had something similar happen — he went from a slight platoon split to a slight reverse split this year — though not nearly as drastic. Check out Morton’s numbers.

2015-16 vs. RHB: .235/.291/.335 (.274 wOBA) with 17.9 K%, 6.3 BB%, 61.7 GB%
2015-16 vs. LHB: .295/.382/.497 (.378 wOBA) with 18.4 K%, 9.0 BB%, 54.0 GB%

2017 vs. RHB: .272/.263/.298 (.345 wOBA) with 20.9 K%, 7.9 BB%, 45.6 GB%
2017 vs. LHB: .172/.263/.298 (.249 wOBA) with 32.8 K%, 8.4 BB%, 56.1 GB%

While I’m sure there is some sample size noise and general randomness at play here — Morton had a .347 BABIP against lefties from 2015-16 and a .244 BABIP against them this year, though that doesn’t explain the big uptick in strikeouts — it is worth noting the Astros got Morton to use his curveball more often against lefties early in the count. That makes him less predictable and, in theory, leads to fewer balls in play early in the count. If you know a guy is very likely to throw his fastball 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, or whatever, it’s easier to zero in.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

The Astros have the worst throwing catcher tandem in the league (by far), yet through two ALCS games, the Yankees have attempted zero (0) steals. Obviously a lack of opportunity is part of that. In the two games so far the Yankees have had only seven stolen base opportunities, meaning a runner on first with second base unoccupied. Two of the seven were slow as hell Greg Bird, another was slow as hell Gary Sanchez, and another time the runner moved to second base on a wild pitch on the first pitch of the next at-bat. So, really, it’s only three stolen base opportunities.

Morton allowed only four stolen bases in five attempts this year, but throughout his career, he has been very susceptible to basestealers. Runners are 32-for-38 (84%) stealing bases against him since 2014. So yes, the Yankees can run on him. Should someone who can run (Gardner, Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, even Judge) reach base, they should test Brian McCann‘s (or Evan Gattis’) arm. The offense is not clicking right now, so those extra 90 feet can be very valuable.

* * *

If the Yankees are going to come back to make the ALCS interesting, it has to start tonight, at home against Houston’s third starter. They’re not going to see Keuchel or Verlander until at least Game Five — ‘Stros skipper A.J. Hinch has already all but confirmed Keuchel will not start Game Four on short rest — so this is the time to make a move. Against the third and fourth starters at home. Morton had a very good regular season overall, but he’s also had some stinkers, including last time out in the ALDS.

Thoughts prior to Game Three of the 2017 ALCS

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

After two close games at Minute Maid Park, the ALCS now shifts to Yankee Stadium for Games Three and Four and, hopefully, Five. The Yankees are down 0-2 in the series and hey, they’ve been here before. They just came back from down 0-2 against the Indians in the ALDS. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it again. But it shows it can be done. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. The Yankees are down 0-2 in the ALCS because their best players are getting outplayed by Houston’s best players. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa have outhit Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez (by a lot), and Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander have outpitched Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino (by a lot). Heck, Altuve and Correa are 8-for-15 (.533) with a double and a homer in the series, and all the other Astros combined are 3-for-43 (.070) with a double. Good grief. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Judge and Sanchez producing, the same why the Cubs aren’t going anywhere without Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo producing (they’re 1-for-14 combined in the NLCS). They survived Judge’s brutal ALDS. They won’t survive this series against the Astros with Judge and Sanchez doing nothing. The Yankees’ best players are getting outplayed by the Astros’ best players. Plain and simple. That’s why they’re down 0-2 in the series.

2. Another reason the Yankees are down 0-2: poor execution. The Astros are making every single play and even going above and beyond to make great plays. Brett Gardner getting thrown out at third on the would-be triple last game? It was a bad send by third base coach Joe Espada, but it also took an excellent set of relay throws by the Astros to get the out. They executed. Greg Bird getting thrown out at the plate in Game One? Marwin Gonzalez made a wonderful throw from left field while Bird didn’t get the best jump from second base, especially considering it was a 3-2 count with two outs. Gonzalez executed and Bird did not. At this point of the postseason, the talent gap between the remaining teams is quite small. I know the Astros won ten more games than the Yankees this season, but the Yankees had the better run differential. The talent gap isn’t enormous by any means. So, then, when the talent gap is small, the difference in a short series comes down to execution. The team that makes more plays — and this could be executing relay throws, or executing a single pitch, or fielding a ground ball, whatever — is the team that often wins, and right now, the Astros are the team making the plays in the ALCS. Not the Yankees.

3. Speaking of poor execution, that final play of Game Two was straight up bad by Sanchez. It was bad. I know the throw short-hopped him and everything, but that’s a play a Major League catcher has to make, and Sanchez didn’t. Look where Altuve was when the ball reached Sanchez:

bandicam-2017-10-15-08-11-43-421

Altuve would’ve been out by a mile, which I’m sure would’ve been spun into “wow how’s so amazing look at the aggressive play and how small he is like Marcus Stroman and give him the next three MVPs” even though it would’ve been inexcusably awful to get thrown out at home on that play, with one out in the inning, when you would’ve represented the winning run at third. Anyway, that play by Sanchez was terrible, and the weird thing is that prior to that play, I thought the last five games were his best defensive stretch of the season. It all started in Game Three of the ALDS, when Gary blocked the hell out of all those Tanaka splitters in the dirt, most notably when Tanaka struck out Jose Ramirez and Jay Bruce with a runner on third and one out. Sanchez was fantastic behind the plate basically since the start of ALDS Game Three through the penultimate play of ALCS Game Two. And as bad as that play was, it would be absolutely crazy to move Gary out from behind the plate going forward. You don’t give up on a dude with these tools behind the plate because he struggling to block balls in the dirt at age 24, the same way you don’t give up on a kid like Severino as a starter just because he had some success out of the bullpen.

4. As for Severino, I have zero problem whatsoever with him being pulled from Game Two even though he felt healthy and strong. I was shocked to see, in our comments and on social media (less shocked to see it in the tabloids), some people saying it was mistake and that Severino should’ve stayed in the game if he said he was fine. That is insane to me. One, you can’t trust players to be honest about their health. There’s that “you better be out there unless your arm fell off” tough guy mentality that exists in baseball that pushes players to play hurt even when it is a detriment to themselves and their team. And two, this is your 23-year-old franchise pitcher, who is already in uncharted workload territory. Severino is up to 204.2 total innings this year between the regular season and postseason. His previous career high was 162.2 innings. Then he windmills his arm and gives the trainer and Joe Girardi reason to believe something is up, and some people didn’t want him pulled? Crazy talk. I’m happy and very relieved there is nothing seriously wrong with Severino. Even during a postseason game, I am 100% cool with Girardi playing it safe and pulling Severino. I don’t care how mad Severino was. The Yankees will have to protect the kid from himself at times, and this was one of those times.

5. The strikeouts are, obviously, very bad. They’ve become extreme of late too. And it’s not just Sanchez and Judge. Gardner is 2-for-7 with five strikeouts (1.000 BABIP!) in the ALCS. Bird and Starlin Castro are both 2-for-7 with three strikeouts. The strikeouts are a problem up and down the lineup. The Yankees have struck out 10+ times in their last seven games this postseason — the only game they didn’t strike out 10+ times was the Wild Card Game — and in Game Five of the ALDS, they became the first team in history to win a postseason game while striking out 16 times. Overall, the Yankees have a 31.6% strikeout rate this postseason. Remove Judge and it’s still a 28.8% strikeout rate. That’s just too much. (The postseason average is a 25.0% strikeout rate.) And the solution is not simply make more contact. It has to be quality contact. The Astros had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season and they’ve struck out only nine times in two ALCS games, yet their offense is hardly firing on all cylinders. Which team had the second lowest strikeout rate during the regular season? The Indians, and they’re sitting at home. Ramirez (10.7%) and Francisco Lindor (12.9%) had two of the 15 lowest strikeout rates in baseball during the regular season, and they went 4-for-38 (.105) combined in the ALDS. It’s not just contact. It’s quality contact. The Yankees aren’t getting enough of it right now.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

6. On one hand, going to Houston and allowing four runs total and leaving down 0-2 in the series is beyond frustrating. That’s tough to swallow. On the other hand, seeing the pitching staff handle that deep power/contact lineup the Astros run out there has been reassuring. The Yankees can hang with the Astros. As bad as Judge and Sanchez have been, and as good as Keuchel and Verlander were, these were two one-run losses and very winnable games. A bounce here or a borderline call there changes everything. The Yankees could’ve easily left Houston with the series tied 1-1. Heck, it wouldn’t have taken much to leave up 2-0. It can be easy to overlook the pitching staff given how the series has played out, but man, they’ve been phenomenal. The pitchers have done their part so far. All postseason, really.

7. Remember when Aaron Hicks wasn’t going to play in the postseason? Gardner and Judge sure as heck aren’t going to come out of the lineup, then Jacoby Ellsbury had that late season hot streak that had everyone thinking he’d start in the postseason. Instead, Ellsbury faded in the final two weeks of the regular season, and here’s Hicks playing wonderfully on both sides of the ball again. He’s 8-for-29 (.276) with two doubles and a homer in the eight postseason games, and he’s catching everything in center field. I am a Hicks believer. I think the Aaron Hicks we saw in the first half is the real Aaron Hicks. Maybe he won’t post a .420 OBP and a .550 SLG or whatever it was over a full season, but I think the tools for .280/.380/.480 with very good defense are there. Aside from Gardner and Didi Gregorius (and Bird), Hicks has been the Yankees’ best player this postseason, and it wasn’t that long ago that it looked like he would be stuck on the bench. Funny how that works.

8. These next two games are crucial for obvious reasons. The Yankees have to win to keep their season alive, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. If the Yankees are going to make a comeback in this series, it has to start these next two games, which are at home against Houston’s third and fourth starters. Don’t underestimate Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock! They’re good. They combined for a 3.31 ERA (3.10 FIP) in 278.2 innings during the regular season. But they’re not Keuchel and Verlander. Morton and Peacock are as easy as it’s going to get for the Yankees in terms of opposing starters this series. They’re facing them at home in Yankee Stadium. Want to win the series? These are the pitchers you have to beat and the games you have to win before the rotation turns over and Keuchel and Verlander are back out there. At some point the Yankees have to beat Keuchel or Verlander and win a game in Houston to win the series. That’s just how the math works. And that’s only if they beat Morton and Peacock at home. So do that today and tomorrow.

Yankees 1, Astros 2: Correa’s walk off and Verlander’s gem sink the Yankees in Game Two

Um, yeah. Holy hell. What was that ending? Well, before that, the Yankee bats got completely owned by Justin Verlander for the entirety of nine innings. They did manage back-to-back doubles in the fourth to score a run but that was about it. After Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson put in a strong relief effort, the game unraveled in the ninth thanks to Jose Altuve’s extra-hustle and, uh, what Gary Sanchez did. Let’s not put the blame solely on Sanchez though. The lineup has not been… good. Not at all. Let’s recap this thing.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Starting pitching duel part deux

It’s Severino vs. Verlander. I don’t know of any more possible matchups that could be as exciting. Two of the best fireballers in the baseball going at each other in a high-stakes playoff game. Inject it into my veins. And, of course the first few innings lived up to that hype. Both teams were scoreless for the first three innings. Luis Severino did not record any strikeouts but outs are outs. You can’t be too picky about them in the postseason.

In the third inning, the Yankees bats came close to getting the big hits but were befallen. With one out, Chase Headley got a fastball down low and middle and drove it towards the right field fence. Normally, maybe 8 out of 10 times, that’s a home run or a double. However, Josh Reddick had it played beautifully and robbed Headley of a big hit with a jump catch. A batter later, Brett Gardner pulled a line drive down the right field line. He got to second easily and it seemed like he had a legitimate chance to reach third. However, the Astros turned a great relay from outfield to infield to make it very close at the third base. Third base umpire initially called it safe. But… was it?

bandicam-2017-10-15-06-01-56-211

Nope. Again with the game of inches! Upon replay, the umpires determined that Alex Bregman just got Gardner. That was the third out and ended the frustrating half inning for the Yankee bats.

In the bottom of the fourth, just like yesterday, the Astros struck first. With one out, Carlos Correa hit a 99 mph fastball up and away from the zone over the right field fence. Look at the location here. The fact that he hit it squarely enough for a home run is nuts:

bandicam-2017-10-15-06-23-55-917

Or… did it actually go out? The ball bounced out of a kid’s glove right above the wall and the umpires decided to see if it’s a Jeffrey Maier situation. However, the ball was clearly going over the fence before it hit the kid’s glove. The umpires ruled it a home run and Astros took a 1-0 lead. I thought that Aaron Judge might have had a chance to make a leaping catch to rob it but he did not get back there in time – probably because that liner was scorched.

The Yankees got one back (a run!) the next inning. With two outs, Aaron Hicks squared up a 97 mph fastball up in the zone for a double. Todd Frazier followed it up with a deep flyball to left-center. In a normal ballpark, that very well could have been a home run, but instead, it got stuck in the fencing under the seats. I don’t know if that has ever happened before. The ball got stuck in there so neatly that you’d think that someone placed it by hand. The umpires ruled it a ground-rule double and that brought Hicks home for a 1-1 tie game.

Going into the bottom of the fifth, Yankees put in Tommy Kahnle to relieve Severino. Wait what? Sevy had thrown only 62 pitches but he was hit by Yulieski Gurriel’s comebacker in the fourth. If there’s any bright spot, he was hit on the non-throwing arm wrist. Also, prior to that, Girardi visited the mound after a pitch sailed way outside. Fortunately, Severino was only removed as a precaution. They would rather have him be 100% for the next start (if there is one). Also, because of the array of arms that they have in the ‘pen, it makes it easier to chew up innings while keeping the game close.

Kahnle took care of the fifth and sixth and Robertson got the seventh and eighth – and they were masterful. Both of them combined for a 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB and 3 K performance to keep the game tied. Now, if only the bats could take advantage of the pitchers balling out.

However, besides that one run that they scored, the offense got manhandled by Justin Verlander. His fastball was classic Verlander, his slider and curve kept the hitters off balance all throughout the game, etc. In nine innings that he pitched today, he allowed only 5 hits, 1 earned run and struck out 13. While it’s remarkable that the Yankee pitchers were able to hold the powerful ‘Stros lineup to one run in the first eight innings of the game, it is very frustrating that the bat has scored only two in the first 17 innings of the series. That is not a good strategy – and they paid for it.

The bitter end

Because the Astros’ best hitters were coming up, Joe Girardi decided to put in Aroldis Chapman, who has, as you may have noticed, very good for about a month and half.

Chappy struck out Reddick rather swiftly. Against Altuve, aka the human hitting machine, he allowed a single on the first pitch 100 mph fastball because it’s Jose Freakin’ Altuve. There’s not a lot of things that you can do when the hitter is 15-for-27 in the postseason. Up came Correa, who had driven in the lone Astros run of the game. Correa hit a liner to right-center that Judge cut off and tried to take a chance to getting Reddick out at second. Meanwhile, Altuve was sprinting past third and going home. Didi Gregorius‘s throw to Sanchez looked like Altuve was going to be out by a mile. Take a look:

bandicam-2017-10-15-08-11-43-421

However, Sanchez could not handle the ball in time and as he tried to pick it up, Altuve slid past him to score the walk-off. I really thought he was dead meat when the throw came in but man, that was some brutal defense from Sanchez. I still believe his long-term future is at catching but that was not a good display.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Leftovers

It is really hard to win when your 2, 3, 4, 5 hitters in the lineup (Judge, Gregorius, Sanchez and Bird) combine for a 1-for-15 effort with 5 strikeouts. We all talk about how bad Judge has looked this postseason (rightfully so) but Sanchez also looks lost against the Astros pitching. Today, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and, of course, was involved in the game-ending play. Gotta think that it was the worst game of his career.

Here are the box score and video highlights. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs


Up Next

The Yankees are heading back to Bronx to host at least the Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS. The streak stopper CC Sabathia will be on the mound, trying to rescue the Yankees’ season, against Charlie Morton.

Update: Severino exits ALCS Game Two with shoulder injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

7:25pm ET: Following Game Two, Joe Girardi said Severino checked out fine. They were worried more about his shoulder than his hand following the comebacker. Severino didn’t want to come out of the game, but the Yankees pulled him anyway. “I feel great. I feel 100%,” he said after the game. He’s going for precautionary tests anyway.

5:53pm ET: Luis Severino left Game Two of the ALCS this afternoon with a possible injury. The trainer came out to talk to him in the fourth inning after he windmilled his arm and grabbed for the rosin bag, then, later in the inning, Severino was hit in the left wrist area by a hard comeback chopper. So who knows what exactly is wrong with him.

Throughout the start, Severino’s stuff look fine and there was no drop-off in velocity after the trainer came out to talk to him. I’m pretty sure it’s the wrist, though. I hope it is, anyway. The comebacker got him good and Severino grimaced. He was pretty clearly in pain. Severino threw 62 pitches in four innings before exiting the game.

If the injury is anything serious, a) aw crap, and b) the Yankees can replace Severino on the ALCS roster. If they do that though, he will not be eligible for the World Series roster should the Yankees advance. The Yankees have not yet announced an update on Severino, so stay tuned.

2017 ALCS Game Two: Yankees at Astros

2017-alcs-logoOnce again, the Yankees are down 0-1 in a postseason series. They’ve lost Game One in each of their last three postseason series, you know. They were swept by the Tigers in the 2012 ALCS, but did come back to win the ALDS against the Indians this year. Dating back to the 1996 World Series, the Yankees have lost Game One of a postseason series 14 times. They’re 10-4 in those series.

That’s not to make light of last night’s loss, of course. Losing Game One stinks. Historically, the team that wins Game One of a best-of-seven has gone on to win the series 64.1% of the time. It’s just a reminder that hey, losses happen, and dropping Game One of the series doesn’t mean it’s over. The Yankees were thoroughly dominated by Dallas Keuchel and the Astros still needed 37 pitches from their closer to nail down the 2-1 win.

This afternoon the Yankees will have Luis Severino, their best starting pitcher, on the mound to try to even up the series. The Astros blasted Severino when they faced him back in May. They also blasted Masahiro Tanaka literally the same day as part of a doubleheader, but that didn’t mean much last night. The bullpen is rested and ready to go. The Yankees may only need five from Severino. Hopefully he gives them more. Here are the starting lineups:

New York Yankees
1. LF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. SS Didi Gregorius
4. C Gary Sanchez
5. 1B Greg Bird
6. 2B Starlin Castro
7. CF Aaron Hicks
8. 3B Todd Frazier
9. DH Chase Headley
RHP Luis Severino

Houston Astros
1. CF George Springer
2. RF Josh Reddick
3. 2B Jose Altuve
4. SS Carlos Correa
5. LF Marwin Gonzalez
6. 1B Yulieski Gurriel
7. DH Carlos Beltran
8. 3B Alex Bregman
9. C Brian McCann
RHP Justin Verlander

It is another hot and sunny day in Houston. The Minute Maid Park roof will be closed again. Game Two will begin at 4pm ET and FOX will have the broadcast. That’s regular old FOX. Not FOX Sports 1. Enjoy.

Scouting Game Two of the ALCS: Justin Verlander

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Last night, in Game One of the ALCS, the Yankees were unable to solve Dallas Keuchel en route to 2-1 loss. The good news: the Yankees were overwhelmed by Keuchel and still made it a very close game. The bad news: the Yankees lost and are now down 0-1 in the ALCS. I know they came back from down 0-2 against the Indians, but they don’t want to make a habit of having to come back in series.

On the mound for the Astros in Game Two this afternoon will be former Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who came over in an August 31st trade, literally minutes before the deadline to add players and have them be postseason eligible. Overall, Verlander had a 3.36 ERA (3.84 FIP) in 206 innings this season, including a 1.06 ERA (2.09 FIP) in five starts and 34 innings with Houston. His strikeout (25.8%), walk (8.5%), and grounder (33.5%) rates were typical Verlander. He’s always been a weak fly ball/pop-up guy. Not a ground ball pitcher.

Verlander is starting Game Two of the ALCS rather than Game One because he came out of the bullpen in Game Four of the ALDS on Monday. It was his first career relief appearance. He never pitched out of the bullpen in college or the minors. Verlander threw 40 pitches in 2.2 innings in that relief appearance, and will be on regular rest this afternoon. Let’s take a look at the former Cy Young winner, shall we?

History Against The Yankees

Verlander has been around a while and he has a history with most of the Yankees, though, weirdly, he did not face them at all this season. The Yankees missed him during both regular season series against the Tigers, and by time he was traded to Houston, the Yankees were already done playing the Astros.

The Yankees faced Verlander in the 2006 ALDS, the 2011 ALDS, and the 2012 ALCS. He allowed nine runs in 22.2 total innings those series. And of course that means nothing now, because he’s facing the 2017 Yankees, not the 2006 or 2011 or 2012 Yankees. Here is what New York’s hitters have done against Verlander the last three seasons:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Todd Frazier 14 14 4 0 0 2 2 0 5 .286 .286 .714 1.000
Brett Gardner 7 7 4 0 0 1 2 0 1 .571 .571 1.000 1.571
Didi Gregorius 6 5 2 1 0 1 1 1 1 .400 .500 1.200 1.700
Chase Headley 6 6 2 0 1 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .667 1.000
Starlin Castro 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Jacoby Ellsbury 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .333 .000 .333
Aaron Hicks 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 42 40 12 1 1 4 5 2 9 .300 .333 .675 1.008

Huh. Well how about that. Verlander has only faced seven Yankees currently on the ALCS roster within the last three years. He’s never faced Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez. The head-to-head numbers in the table are pretty top heavy — all of the success is tied up in four players — but that’s fine. If nothing else, maybe the recent history makes the Yankees feel more confident going into Game Two tonight.

In his Game One start against the Red Sox, Verlander allowed two runs on six hits and two walks in six innings, striking out three. A good performance but not a dominant performance. He did allow a two-run home run in his 2.2 innings relief appearance in Game Four. Weirdly, he walked two and did not strike out a batter in that game.

Current Stuff

A few years ago it looked like Verlander was losing it. His fastball was trending down and after years of throwing 220+ innings a season, it was understandable. It happens to everyone. Then Verlander’s stuff bounced back — his velocity isn’t all the way back, but it is close — and he went back to being a bonafide ace. Go figure.

Here is Verlander’s average velocity over the years, via Brooks Baseball. It’s not often you see a pitcher over 30 lose velocity, then regain it all of a sudden. At least not without there being an injury involved.

justin-verlander-velocityThese days Verlander’s fastball will sit in the 94-97 mph range and touch 99 mph. His days of hitting 100 mph each and every time out are pretty much over, though 99 mph is still plenty good. And besides, with postseason adrenaline, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 100 mph at some point today. Verlander’s secondary stuff is as good as ever. He still has that great overhand curveball, as well as a quality slider and changeup. Even at age 34, Verlander still brings some of the best raw stuff in baseball to the mound.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Verlander’s pitch selection against righties and lefties:

justin-verlander-pitch-selection

When you throw in the mid-to-upper-90s for 100+ pitches a game, why not lean on your fastball? Verlander sure does. Also, the fact Verlander has two quality breaking balls makes it awfully tough to zero in at the plate. You can’t go up there and sit fastball-slider as a righty or fastball-changeup as a lefty. The curveball is an equalizer. He can and will use it at pretty much any time.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen Verlander before, so perhaps embedding a video is a waste of time. I’m going to do it anyway. Here is every pitch from Verlander’s Opening Day start against the White Sox. He allowed two runs in 6.2 innings.

It seems counterintuitive, because you want to get his pitch count up as quickly as possible, but being aggressive and swinging early in the count is a good strategy against Verlander. He throws a ton of fastballs early in the count, and you don’t want to fall behind and have to deal with that nasty breaking stuff. Plus you know Verlander is going to end up throwing 100-something pitches and getting the ball into the sixth inning away. If he throws a fastball over the plate on the first or second pitch, swing away. You might not get anything to hit otherwise.

Platoon Splits

For the first time in a very long time, Verlander had a platoon split this season. From 2011-16, a stretch of nearly 1,300 innings, Verlander had a reverse split. He was better against lefties than righties. This year, lefties had more success than righties. The numbers:

2011-16 vs. RHB: .246/.295/.387 (.299 wOBA) with 22.2 K%, 5.5 BB%, 39.6 GB%
2011-16 vs. LHB: .209/.273/.339 (.271 wOBA) with 25.0 K%, 7.7 BB%, 37.5 GB%

2017 vs. RHB: .221/.277/.337 (.267 wOBA) with 23.4 K%, 6.8 BB%, 35.2 GB%
2017 vs. LHB: .219/.304/.408 (.304 wOBA) with 28.4 K%, 10.4 BB%, 31.3 GB%

Fundamentally, Verlander is the same pitcher this year as the last few years. Yeah, he’s lost a little velocity and maybe some movement as well due to normal age-related decline, but there is no glaring reason that would explain the sudden platoon split. It’s not like his changeup suddenly went from great to terrible. I suspect this is a one-year blip and sample size noise more than an actual change to Verlander’s skills.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

Yes indeed. Not only do the Astros have terrible throwing catchers, but runners also went 9-for-10 stealing bases against Verlander during the regular season. All while he was with the Tigers, weirdly. No one tried to steal against him following the trade to Houston. Verlander has a history of allowing stolen bases because he’s a big guy with a slower than usual delivery to the plate, even from the stretch. The Yankees can and should run against him.

* * *

This is not the Cy Young and MVP winning Justin Verlander of old. He’s still very, very good though. Verlander, as always, will be a difficult assignment. He is not going to get serious Hall of Fame consideration by accident. If he gives you a fastball in the zone, you better hit it, because his secondary pitches are damn near untouchable.

Thoughts prior to Game Two of the 2017 ALCS

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Last night the Yankees opened the ALCS with a Game One loss (again) to Dallas Keuchel (again). Keuchel’s annoying, isn’t he? He’s the new Cliff Lee, who was the new Chuck Finley. The Yankees will look to even the series at a game apiece this afternoon. This group is pretty resilient. They’ve bounced back from tough losses all year. That didn’t even feel like a tough loss last night anyway, did it? Not to me. Whatever. Here are some thoughts.

1. Joe Girardi learned from the non-challenge fiasco in Game Two of the ALDS! Following the game last night, Girardi said the Yankees thought Greg Bird was out on the play at the plate, but he decided to challenge it anyway. His exact quote: “Well, we thought he was out. But God knows I’m not doing that again.” By “that again” he means not challenging a big play. Just because replay guy Brett Weber may not see enough evidence to overturn something doesn’t mean the replay crew in New York will see it the same way. To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, 100% of the calls you don’t challenge don’t get overturned. Bird getting thrown out was a huge play in the game. To wit:

  • Bird is thrown out: 15.7% win probability for the Yankees
  • Bird is called safe: 32.1% win probability for the Yankees

Big swing! It’s not just that the run scores, remember. The run scores and the inning continues with two men on base for Gary Sanchez, who was seeing Keuchel for the third time. The challenge didn’t work, but I’m glad Girardi asked for the review. This is the kind of challenge I’ve been hoping to see more of over the years. It’s a bang-bang play that could go either way and have a big impact on the game. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s no bonus points for unused challenges. Shoot your shot.

2. The Yankees pitched the Astros very well in Game One. Masahiro Tanaka did not have his Grade-A splitter, yet he still held Houston to four singles in six innings, three of which bounced before passing the pitcher’s mound. The ‘Stros have a great lineup and the Yankees held them to two runs on six singles and one walk in the game. Continue to do that and things will be just fine the rest of the series. As a team, the Yankees have a 3.09 ERA (3.23 FIP) in the postseason so far. Aside from Game Two of the ALDS, which was a disaster for multiple reasons, they’ve held the Indians and Astros to no more than six hits in their five meetings. That’ll work. The pitching has been phenomenal in the postseason so far, even with Luis Severino‘s dud in the Wild Card Game and Sonny Gray‘s dud in Game One of the ALDS. I feel like this is not being talked about enough. The pitching staff has been on point.

3. Good to see Chad Green get back into a game and look like regular season Chad Green last night. He gave up the grand slam to Francisco Lindor in Game Two of the ALDS and hadn’t been heard from since. It seemed like he earned a temporary demotion out of the Circle of Trustâ„¢. And, given how flat his stuff looked in that Game Two meltdown, it was fair to wonder whether he hit a wall after appearing in so many games and throwing so many high-leverage innings this year. Green had six days off between appearances and it seems to have served him well. He was throwing fire and missing bats last night. That’s huge. A back-to-normal Chad Green makes the Yankees that much more dangerous, especially since these two teams will play three games in three days next week. Girardi won’t be able to ride David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman as much those days, so someone else will have to pick up the slack. Green will be one of those someones.

The DH situation in picture form. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
The DH situation in picture form. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

4. Seriously, what in the world are the Yankees going to do at DH? Matt Holliday returned to the lineup last night and went 0-for-3 on seven pitches. Jacoby Ellsbury pinch-hit for him in a one-run game in the ninth inning, which I don’t understand at all. At least Holliday has a chance to run into a fastball and hit a game-tying home run. He did it against Craig Kimbrel right after the All-Star break. Remember that? Holliday also took a right-hander deep in the regular season finale. Holliday’s upside there is a game-tying homer. Ellsbury’s upside is … a catcher interference? Anyway, including last night, the DH spot is now an unfathomable 0-for-24 with three walks and nine strikeouts in the postseason. (And one catcher interference.) It’s not like these guys are hitting into bad luck. The at-bats aren’t all that competitive. There’s a decent chance the best DH candidates right now are Tyler Austin, Clint Frazier, and Miguel Andujar, but none of them are on the ALCS roster. Do the Yankees keep running Holliday and Ellsbury and Chase Headley out there and hope one of them finds it? What about Ronald Torreyes? Do you consider him at some point? Torreyes might be worth a try. Oh geez, I can’t believe I just said that. I know one thing for sure: the Yankees are going to have a very hard time advancing if this whole Designated Out-Maker thing continues. The Astros are too good.

5. A #thingtowatch in Game Two: Severino’s fastball against the Astros. They’re a great fastball hitting team. During the regular season they hit .281 (5th in MLB) with a .229 ISO (4th in MLB) against four-seam fastballs. They crush fastballs. (The league averages were a .269 AVG and a.155 ISO against four-seamers in 2017.) I get the sense Severino is going to rely on his slider quite a bit this afternoon. This isn’t the kind of team you can beat with the heater only. And with Robertson and Chapman ready to go (and Tommy Kahnle too), presumably for more than one inning each, the Yankees might only need Severino to go through the lineup twice. Hopefully he dominates and it’s not a problem. But just watch the Astros and how they handle Severino’s fastball. We might see more foul balls and comfortable swings against the pitch than usual because they’re such a good fastball hitting team.

6. Is it weird that I think (hope?) the Yankees will have more success against Justin Verlander in Game Two than they did against Keuchel in Game One because he’s more conventional? Don’t get me wrong, Verlander is still very good. But Keuchel is an outlier in today’s game. He’s a finesse pitcher who doesn’t crack 90 mph with his fastball all that often. Keuchel succeeds by pounding the bottom of the zone with pitches that cut, sink, fade, you name it. Verlander is a more conventional mid-90s fastball guy with a nasty breaking ball. The Yankees just finished a series with the Indians, who have a rotation full of Verlander types. That’s what they’re used to seeing. Not finesse pitchers like Keuchel. Hopefully the return to normalcy (so to speak) leads to more success for the offense today.