The best way to beat Justin Verlander in Game Six could be swinging early in the count

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

Tonight the Yankees have a chance to advance to the World Series, and they’re in this position because they beat up on Dallas Keuchel in Game Five. Keuchel shut the Yankees down in Game One, which he’s done throughout his career, but the tables were turned in Game Five and he didn’t make it through five innings. Keuchel said the Yankees hit good pitches. The Yankees said they hit mistakes. Whatever.

In Game Six later tonight, the Yankees will again look to flip the script against a pitcher who dominated them earlier in the series. Justin Verlander was vintage Justin Verlander in Game Two, holding the Yankees to one run on five hits and one walk in nine innings. He struck out 13 and threw 124 pitches, something that basically never happens anymore. Only 17 times did a pitcher throw 120+ pitches in a game during the 2017 regular season.

“I know this is one of the main reasons I was brought here. I think so far I’ve done what they’ve asked or what they’ve needed of me to help the rotation and help get deep in the playoffs,” said Verlander yesterday. “This is obviously the biggest game for the Astros up to this point for this season. The expectations are there. My teammates, I’m sure, are expecting a lot of me. And I expect a lot of myself. So this is why we play the game. And I love these opportunities to pitch in these atmospheres, these type of games. It should be a lot of fun.”

Even at age 34 and with more than 2,600 innings on his arm, Verlander’s stuff is still as electric as ever, and he was on in Game Two. The fastball was humming, the curveball started up above the zone and finished down below the zone, and that new-ish slider he has started down the middle and finished in the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box. When Verlander is on, there’s not much you can do to beat him. You just have to wait him out.

That said, the Yankees are seeing Verlander for the second time in the span of a week, which could help them in tonight’s game. As I mentioned prior to Game Five, pitchers who make two starts in a postseason series haven’t seen their performance slip in the second game, on average. On average is the key phrase there. In an individual game, anything can happen, and the Yankees could zero in on something Verlander did in Game Two and adjust.

“I’m sure there will be some adjustments, yes. I think as any pitcher you don’t want the team, if you’re going at the same team twice in a row, you don’t want them to see the exact same guy or same game plan, so there will probably be some adjustments on my end,” added Verlander. “But also I have to trust my instincts and what my eyes tell me more than anything.”

Verlander dominated in Game Two for two reasons. One, his stuff was electric. That’s always a good start. And two, he was ahead in the count all night. Verlander faced 32 batters and 22 saw a first pitch strike. Thirteen of the 32 batters saw an 0-2 count, and that’s no way to hit. How did Verlander get ahead in Game Two? With his fastball. Only six of those 32 batters did not get a first pitch fastball. Here are his first pitches in Game Two, via Baseball Savant:

justin-verlander-first-pitches

Thirty-two batters, 26 first pitch fastballs. Furthermore, the first pitch non-fastballs were thrown to specific batters. Gary Sanchez saw three first pitch curveballs in his four at-bats and Greg Bird saw two first pitch curveballs in his four at-bats. Chase Headley saw a first pitch slider, and he was struggling mightily at the time, so I guess Verlander just felt like piling on. But yeah, six first pitch non-fastballs and five were thrown to Sanchez and Bird.

During the regular season Verlander threw 69.8% first pitch fastballs, so seven out of ten times he’d throw a heater on the first pitch to try to get ahead. That’s what he does. Verlander has a great fastball and he uses it to put the hitter on the defensive. Luis Severino, who will oppose Verlander tonight, does the same thing. Because Verlander throws so many first pitch fastballs, this seems like something the Yankees might be able to use to their advantage in Game Six tonight.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should go up to the plate and look to an ambush a first pitch fastball. But in select situations, say with a runner on base or in scoring position, sitting dead red on a first pitch fastball might be the best way to get something to hit against Verlander. Of course you want to work the count, especially with Houston’s bullpen being shaky. Then again, Verlander is probably going to throw 110+ pitches anyway, so how much does that help?

Verlander has such a great fastball that you could sit on the pitch, get it, and still not do anything with it. That’s why he’s so great. But the Yankees are a very good fastball hitting team. They hit everything well, but especially fastballs. Their .355 xwOBA on fastballs was seventh best in MLB during the regular season. Knowing Verlander is going to throw so many first pitch fastballs seems like a possible advantage. It’s something to hunt in a specific count given how often he goes to his heater to start an at-bat.

With any luck, Verlander will be worn down a bit following his high-intensity 124-pitch outing in Game Two, and he won’t be quite as sharp tonight. Even with an extra day of rest. If the Yankees hunt first pitch fastballs in certain situations and capitalize, great. If not, well that’s okay too. As good as Verlander was in One Two, he’s not unbeatable. The Yankees got to Keuchel in Game Five and they have the talent to do the same to Verlander in Game Six.

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.

Trade Deadline Rumors: Starter, Verlander, Alonso, Duda, Reed

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

The 2017 non-waiver trade deadline is now only eleven days away and the Yankees have already made one big move, acquiring Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox. I get the feeling they’re not done. That doesn’t necessarily mean a blockbuster is coming, but I don’t think the Yankees are going to stop here. Anyway, here’s the latest from the trade rumor circuit.

Yankees still looking for a starter

Not surprisingly, the Yankees are still looking for rotation help, reports Ken Rosenthal. They’re casting a wide net. Controllable guys and rentals. They’re all in play. Michael Pineda is out for the season and I don’t think the Yankees want to continue running Bryan Mitchell or Luis Cessa out there every fifth day. You don’t go out and make that trade with the White Sox only to skimp on the rotation, you know?

“I’m going to stay engaged. We are going to remain careful buyers. We want to maximize our present while protecting (our) future,” said Cashman to Meredith Marakovits following the White Sox trade. Unless the Yankees budge on their unwillingness to trade close to MLB prospects, it’s hard to think they’ll land a high-end controllable starter. And that’s okay. They could really use one of those guys, but I am totally cool with keeping the top position player prospects. Build around bats. Even after trades and graduations, the Yankees still have plenty of depth in the farm system to land a useful starter.

“No indication” Yankees are after Verlander

There is “no indication” the Yankees are after (former?) Tigers ace Justin Verlander, reports Jon Morosi. Detroit is very bad this season (43-50) and there’s been plenty of talk they will sell at the trade deadline. Verlander, 34, has a 4.54 ERA (4.25 FIP) in 20 starts and 117 innings this season, though just last year he was the runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting thanks to a 3.04 ERA (3.48 FIP) in 227.2 innings.

Including the remainder of his $28M salary this year, Verlander is still owed roughly $70M through 2019, and his contract includes a $22M vesting option for 2020 based on Cy Young voting. Morosi says the Tigers are willing to eat some money to facilitate a trade, but how much? I doubt it’ll be a ton. I feel like there’s way too much downside here. Verlander was great just last season, sure, but he’s entering his mid-30s and has a ton of innings on his arm. Trading for mid-30s past prime Verlander feels like an old Yankees move.

Yankees talked Alonso, Duda, Reed, Neshek

Before the trade with the ChiSox, the Yankees were talking to the Athletics about Yonder Alonso, and to the Mets about Lucas Duda and Addison Reed, report Morosi and Mark Feinsand. They were also in the mix for Pat Neshek, per Rosenthal. I suppose the Yankees could still go after Reed or Neshek because there is no such thing as too many good relievers, but it seems very unlikely with Robertson and Kahnle on board. Alonso and Duda? There’s no need for those guys now. Not unless someone gets hurt.

With Greg Bird out for most of the rest of the season, it only made sense for the Yankees to explore the first base trade market. Ji-Man Choi and Garrett Cooper had some success this month, though Cashman wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t looking for upgrades. One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees were pretty much the only team with a need at first base (or DH). There was plenty of supply (Alonso, Duda, Matt Adams, Justin Bour, etc.) but very limited demand, so they were able to let the market come to them, then take the most favorable terms.

Reed. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Reed. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

A’s scouting Low-A Charleston

In a crazy coincidence (nope), the A’s have had a top scout watching Low-A Charleston recently, according to Rosenthal. There’s no need for Alonso now. Sonny Gray is still out there though. With Blake Rutherford traded, the best prospect on Charleston’s roster is outfielder Estevan Florial by a mile. Others of note include catcher Donny Sands, infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Jun Park, and righties Nick Nelson, Freicer Perez, and Nick Green.

Unlike the White Sox trade, I have a hard time believing the Yankees could swing a deal for Gray using a Single-A kid as the center piece. Gray is too in demand for the A’s to take someone that far away from the big leagues as the headliner in a trade. Oakland can and will insist for a closer to MLB prospect and the Yankees will probably decline. That said, the A’s have made some weird trades lately, and if the Yankees can get a deal done for Gray with a Low-A kid fronting the package, they should jump all over it. Prospects that far down in the system aren’t close to helping at the MLB level and they’re so risky because they still have so much development left ahead of them.

Yankees were “in strong” for Quintana

Before he was traded to the Cubs, the Yankees were “in strong” for lefty Jose Quintana, according to Feinsand. “They were quietly deep in it,” said one executive. Rosenthal hears the Yankees did make an offer for Quintana, and Cashman told Brendan Kuty the White Sox asked the Yankees for players similar to the ones they received from the Cubs. So I guess that means an elite prospect (Gleyber Torres?), a very good pitching prospect (Chance Adams? Justus Sheffield?), plus two lesser pieces.

It was reported following the White Sox trade that the Yankees offered Rutherford to Chicago for Quintana, though the rest of the package is unknown. If Rutherford was the headliner, then it’s easy to understand why the ChiSox passed and went with the Cubs’ package. I think the Yankees were willing to give up a really nice package to get Quintana, but even then they would set a limit and not increase their offer. I guess that’s why Quintana is a Cub now. For shame. He really would have been a nice get from a pure “he’s a good pitcher” perspective.

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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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

TBF wOBA FIP K% BB% GB% FB% LD% HR/FB%
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…

Performance

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.