ALCS Pitching Preview: Justin Verlander

Up two games to none in a best-of-seven series with the best pitcher on the planet scheduled to start Game Three is one hell of an enviable position. Unfortunately the Yankees are on the other side of that coin, down two-zip in the ALCS and slated to face Justin Verlander in his home ballpark tonight. That ain’t pretty.

Verlander, 29, put together another brilliant regular season — 2.64 ERA and 2.94 FIP in 238.1 innings — and seems to have gotten the postseason monkey off his back with a dominant ALDS showing. He came into 2012 with a 5.57 ERA in eight starts and 42 playoff innings but held the Athletics to one run in 16 total innings last week. Verlander was the worst possible matchup for the free swinging and strikeout heavy A’s, a description that unfortunately fits the Yankees’ offense at the moment as well.

2012 Performance vs. Yankees

Date Tm Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA BF Pit
Apr 27 DET @ NYY L,6-7 6.0 7 5 4 0 4 2 0 2.41 26 102
Jun 3 DET NYY L,1-5 L(5-4) 6.1 9 5 3 4 4 2 0 2.67 30 114
Aug 6 DET NYY W,7-2 W(12-7) 8.0 9 2 0 1 14 0 0 2.51 35 132
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/15/2012.

The Yankees saw Verlander in all three series against Detroit in the regular season, beating him twice before that career-high strikeout total-tying performance in August. That game broken a stretch of six consecutive starts (playoffs included) against New York in which the right-hander allowed at least one first inning run.

The Yankees have actually hit Verlander harder than any other AL team in his career, a span of 13 starts and 345 batters faced. The problem is that his career started in 2005 and most of that information is irrelevant. The Yankees managed to hang five runs on him twice this year, but that still isn’t encouraging. Even if the offense was clicking on all cylinders at the moment, beating Verlander would still be a tall order. Now that they’re mired in a team-wide mega-slump, it seems like generating offense off him with take a miracle.

Pitch Selection (via Brooks Baseball)

There is no mystery here. Verlander gets ahead with his mid-to-high-90s fastball (he famously adds velocity in the later innings) and puts hitters away with his knee-buckling upper-70/low-80s curveball. He’ll also throw a mid-80s slider to righties that breaks more down-and-away (like Joba Chamberlain‘s) than side-to-side. Verlander’s mid-80s changeup has morphed in a knockout pitch against lefties because he throws it with the same arm speed as his fastball. Felix Hernandez might have something to say about it, but there’s a very strong case to be made that the Detroit right-hander has the best pure stuff in the business. Two top of the line pitches in the fastball and curveball plus two other above-average offerings in the slider and changeup. Just filthy.

Performance & Results

vs. RHB 420 0.265 3.06 23.6% 6.0% 44.1% 35.7% 20.3% 7.8%
vs. LHB 536 0.266 2.86 26.1% 6.5% 40.8% 35.5% 23.7% 8.7%

Well, I hope you weren’t looking for a platoon split because Verlander dominates everyone. Maybe right-handed batters have a slightly better chance against him because he strikes out a touch fewer, but … nah. The guy is a machine and any team that faces him should run their very best lineup out there and forget all about platoon splits. The problem is that the Yankees don’t have a very best lineup right now, at least nothing outside of Mark Teixeira and Raul Ibanez in the middle of the order. The only thing I have to add here is that Verlander will let you steal a base, so anyone who reaches base tonight should be thinking about a stolen base as soon as possible.

UPDATE: Sabathia available in Game Five, but not Verlander

Update (Oct. 6th): You can rest easy now, Verlander will in fact not be available tonight. He threw a total of 56 pitches during his between-start bullpen session this afternoon. Max Scherzer, who shut the Yankees down in Game Two, is available in relief tonight, however.

Original Post (Oct. 5th): Via George King, CC Sabathia will be ready to go out of the bullpen in Game Five if needed. “It’s my bullpen day, so I will be ready to go,” said Sabathia. Remember, Sabathia was available in relief in Game Six of the ALCS last year, but Joe Girardi never gave him the ball. Being ready is one thing, being used is another. I think the bullpen is deep enough and rested enough that CC won’t be needed unless it goes crazy extra innings, or something.

As for Justin Verlander, he will be ready to pitch in relief tomorrow night as well, but Jim Leyland insists he won’t use him. “I wouldn’t do anything foolish,” said Leyland. “I try not to do anything foolish with any of my pitchers, let alone an arm like that.”

2011 ALDS: Previewing Justin Verlander

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Barring something completely unexpected, Justin Verlander will win the AL Cy Young Award this season. He might even win it unanimously, but part of me hopes the two New York voters vote for CC Sabathia just to troll like the two Detroit writers who voted for Magglio Ordonez as the AL MVP in 2007 despite Alex Rodriguez‘s otherworldliness. The Yankees are going to have their hands full in Game One tonight, so let’s take a look at just how full…


You’re not going to run away with the Cy Young without being dominant, and Verlander obviously is. His flashy 24-5 record distracts from a brilliant underlying performance, one that includes almost a strikeout per inning (8.96 K/9) and just over two walks per nine innings (2.04 BB/9). Verlander is a fly ball pitcher (40.2% ground balls this year, 40.0% career), so that helped keep his batting average on balls in play down a bit (.236 vs. .285 career). He has a bit of a platoon split, but nothing crazy. All told, the 28-year-old from Virginia pitched to a 2.40 ERA with a 2.99 FIP, contributing 7.0 wins to his team according to FanGraphs (8.6 according to Baseball-Reference).

Pitch Selection

(via Texas Leaguers and FanGraphs)

You can make a pretty strong argument that Verlander has the best stuff in the world. He uses four pitches regularly, and according to linear weights, all four are at least 1.36 runs better than average for every 100 thrown (that’s the wR/100 column). Based on those values, Verlander had the sixth best fastball, the sixth best curveball, the 12th best changeup, and the 20th best slider in baseball this season (min. 150 IP). That’s pretty insane.

The breakdown is pretty basic, more sliders to righties and more changeups to lefties. Because his velocity is so elite, hitters almost have no choice but to start their bats early, which will lead to some ugly swings on the slow stuff. Verlander has a quick and deceptive delivery, and he really sells the changeup with his arm action.

Pitching Pattern

(via FanGraphs)

Verlander is a very simple man. He uses that high-octane fastball to get ahead in the count, then he goes to town with all those swing-and-miss offspeed offerings. Because his stuff is so good, Verlander can throw fastballs in fastball counts (0-0, 2-0, 3-1) and still dominate.

How To Attack Him

There’s no easy answer here. The simplest thing to do would be to wait him out and attack either him with a high pitch count or the bullpen, but that’s much easier said that done. He’s a strike-thrower, and being passive will mean a lot of quick strike ones and strike twos. You’d almost be better off gearing up for the fastball early in the count rather than try to hit the stuff that breaks later in the at-bat.

Verlander averaged 7.38 innings and 115.9 pitches per start this year, so he’s a workhorse of the first order. He famously holds his velocity deep into games; it’s not uncommon to see 98+ with his pitch count over the century mark. The Yankees could work the count and elevate his pitch count early, and he still might be out there in the seventh.

The Justin Verlander factor

By the end of this weekend, the Yankees will have a far better sense of their potential ALDS opponent. For three games, the Tigers and Twins face off in Minnesota, and while these two opponents still have four games left in Detroit, if the Tigers grab this series, the Twins will face long postseason odds indeed.

If the Yanks draw the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs, it will mark the second time in four seasons that these two teams face of in the Division Series. In 2006, a post-season marred by Joe Torre’s decision to hit A-Rod eighth in the order, the Tigers downed the Yanks three games to one. That season marked Justin Verlander’s first full year in the Bigs, and in his one ALDS start, he was decent. He gave up three runs in 5.1 innings but allowed 11 baserunners. The Yankees couldn’t capitalize on his shaky outing.

Since then, Verlander has matured into one of the AL’s top pitchers, and this year is his big breakout season. He is 16-8 with a 3.34 ERA. He leads the AL with 239 and his 10.2 K/9 IP rate is tops among Junior Circuit pitchers. Opponents are hitting just .240/.295/.373 off of him.

Today, The Times’ Ben Shpigel profiles the hard-throwing right-hander. Verlander, writes Shpigel, throws hard. He throws hard in the first inning and can still hit 99 and 100 on the gun in the 7th and 8th. With his off-speed arsenal, Verlander has emerged as a true artist on the mound, and the Yankees are well aware of his presence. Writes Shpigel:

The Yankees, presuming they finish with the best record in the A.L., can opt for a division series schedule featuring an extra day off, allowing them to use only three fully rested starters. Sabathia would be in line to pitch in Games 1 and 4, but, then again, so would Verlander. In two starts against the Yankees this season — both opposite Sabathia — Verlander has held them to two runs in 14 innings. In his July 18 start at Yankee Stadium, Verlander did not allow any of the Yankees’ seven left-handed hitters to pull a fly ball until the sixth inning.

“He knows that our season revolves around how well he pitches,” reliever Bobby Seay said. “He’s taken that to heart every time out.”

While the Twins have Scott Baker fronting their rotation, Justin Verlander is why I’m rooting for Minnesota this weekend. The dominance of Verlander and the threat of him will make Detroit very tough to beat in a five-game set, and his performances this year against the Yanks have shown, the league’s top offense is pretty powerless against a pitcher of his caliber.

There is one way to counter the Verlander effect: In the past, I’ve advocated for shaking up the rotation. Save CC Sabathia for Game 2 when the match up more heavily favors the Yankees. He could still pitch a potential game 5, and if the Yanks manage to win a Verlander start without CC on the mound, all the better. If they lose, they will have wasted their ace.

But CC ain’t exactly chopped liver. After all, CC Sabathia, our ace, has out-pitched Verlander since the All Star Break. Verlander is 6-4 with a 3.29 ERA and 90 Ks in 12 starts spanning 87.2 innings while Sabathia is 9-1 with a 2.75 ERA and 83 Ks in 12 starts spanning 85 innings. If the final score is 3.29-2.75, the Yankees win.

The Yankees lost to the Tigers in 2006 when they had to put their season into the hands of Jaret Wright. This year, the Yanks’ rotation, while featuring some question marks, is better than the pitchers backing up Verlander. All the speed in the world on a Justin Verlander fastball can’t change that fact.