Sep 29, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

ALDS 2013: Will Justin Verlander Dominate the Oakland A's Again?

Sep 23, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander (35) delivers a pitch during the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure you recall the slap in the face Justin Verlander delivered upon the Oakland A’s a little over a year ago.

In case you need a bit of a refresher on the situation, well, here we go: Game 5 of the American League Division Series. It was all even at 2-2 after the A’s climbed out of an 0-2 hole to win two at home, forcing a Game 5. Which means…Justin Verlander.

And boy did Verlander muster a typical Verlander-like performance. The right-hander tossed a complete game shutout, fanning 11 Oakland hitters while yielding just four hits. The Tigers offense tacked on six runs just for laughs, and the A’s and their seemingly invincible momentum were sent home in a snap.

That should paint a pretty general picture as to how good Verlander was against Oakland. His Game 1 performance that put the A’s in an 0-1 hole wasn’t too shabby either–11 strikeouts over seven innings of one-run ball.

In English: Verlander flat-out carved up the A’s. If you despise short sample sizes, then (yes, just 16 postseason innings is a shot sample size) let’s put some emphasis on this nugget: Verlander owns a career 2.48 in 15 career starts against the A’s, which equates to roughly half a season’s worth of a sample size (98 innings, to be exact).

Again I say, Verlander has flat-out carved up the A’s, no sample size caveats implied.

Now that that’s out of the way, there’s one big question that needs to be answered. It goes something like this: Will Justin Verlander live up to his impressive track record against the A’s?

There’s a long and short answer. First, however, it’d probably be wise to get some basic facts out there, so let’s turn to some basic and advanced stats.

Warning: If you’ve paid very little attention to Verlander’s 2013 campaign, there’s a good chance you’ll mumble, “hmmmm” to yourself more than once.

Behold (MLB Rank):

ERA: 3.46 (37th)

FIP: 3.28 (21st)

xFIP: 3.67 (37th)

The general vibe of those three numbers and their rankings falls along the lines of “meh.” For your everyday starter, they’re certainly not bad. Heck, they’re significantly better than average.

But for Verlander, well, those aren’t Justin Verlander-esque numbers. Even saying the numbers in the same sentence with Verlander’s reputation just doesn’t feel right. If you need a refresher on Verlander’s reputation, I suggest you head over to his Baseball-Reference card and scroll over the “Awards” column. That should do it.

Predictably, just glancing over three stats based over the entire course of the season wouldn’t be the best bet to determine how well Verlander has pitched recently, not way back in May.

Behold…another table:

   ERA    FIP    xFIP    K%    BB%    FB Velo
April-August    3.73    3.49    3.77    22.7    8.5    93.7
September    2.27    2.04    2.83   30.6   6.4    94.5

 

The improvements should be very easy to spot, because Verlander has been better in all six hand-chosen categories. Among the notables is the extra pop to his heater. No, I wouldn’t chalk up his improved K% entirely due to that extra mile-per-hour, but a bit more fastball life certainly can’t hurt.

There’s some perspective. We now know where Verlander stands statistically. Next up is why he will/won’t carve up the A’s in this year’s ALDS.

FanGraphs’ pitch linear weights will give us a good starting point. For some background, these linear weights basically measure how valuable a particular pitch is. Zero is average. Anything upwards of zero is, you guessed it, above average. It can get a bit more technical, but that’s the gist of it.

With that in mind, consider this: Verlander owned baseball’s 10th-best fastball in 2012, along with the American League’s best curveball. Those linear weights measured out to 14.2 and 11.4, respectively.

Flip the calendar to 2013 and the numbers are lower. Much lower. His fastball value sits at 1.7, and his curveball value, surprise, sits at -0.3. To put that into words: his curveball went from the best to 43rd-worst. Yeah, quite the drop off indeed.

And how do these fancy linear weights relate to predicting his performance against the A’s?

Well, it just so happens that the A’s offense does quite well against heaters and hooks. For this, FanGraphs’ linear weights again come in handy. There’s no need for a table either: Oakland, by wCB, is the eighth-best curveball hitting team in baseball and the sixth-best fastball hitting team.

So it’s kind of like the perfect storm for the A’s. Right? Almost.

During his recent six-game stretch in which he has mustered a 2.27 ERA, Verlander, as you might expect, has found more success with his fastball and curveball.

Observe:

   BA vs. CB    BA vs. FB    CB Whiff%    FB Whiff%
April-August    0.183    0.294    11.1    8.5
September    0.212    0.241    12.9    11.9

 

You’ll notice that his curveball was actually better through August, at least by batting average. But that’s just batting average. The linear weights combine multiple factors to produce one number, much like the infamous WAR (Win Above Replacement) statistic.

It’s also worth noting that through August 31, Verlander threw his Uncle Charlie a grand total of 407 times, per Brooks Baseball, good for the lowest usage among all of his four core pitches. In September, however, it’s been his highest-used off-speed pitch. One can speculate, but it wouldn’t be a wild guess to say that he’s feeling more comfortable with the pitch, even if the numbers don’t immediately portray that.

Conclusion

So, there’s your long answer. In a condensed form, it would be that the effectiveness of Verlander’s curveball and fastball has fluctuated, but he enters the ALDS riding a hot streak.

But will he dominate the A’s once again? Dominate is a strong word. That’s equivalent to eight scoreless or one-run innings. I’ll say Verlander will be good, but not dominant.

Tags: Detroit Tigers Justin Verlander Oakland Athletics

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