You know the narrative by now: Justin Verlander flat-out carved up the Oakland Athletics in this year’s American League Division Series.
Sound familiar? It should.
If you’ll recall, Verlander fired a complete-game shutout in Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. Add in the seven innings of one-run ball in Game 1 of that series, the seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the 2013 ALDS and the eight shutout innings in the aforementioned Game 5, and you get a 0.29 ERA. That’s a video game ERA. Heck, that’s unworldly.
In two of those gems, both of the elimination variety, Verlander delivered the knockout punch…easily, if I may add. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Thursday evening until Yoenis Cespedes chopped a grounder up the middle for a single. A little less than a year ago, the A’s managed just four hits against the Tigers righty.
So yeah, Verlander’s been dominant against Oakland, both in the postseason and regular season (2.48 lifetime ERA against A’s in 15 regular season starts).
The better question: Just how did Verlander slice and dice the A’s lineup?
That’s a very good question. For the sake of things, we’ll just focus on his two starts in this year’s ALDS, not last year’s. Although, there should be some similar themes.
A Dominant Fastball
It starts with the fastball. And boy did Verlander have a good one in his two starts against the A’s.
After having a relatively “off” regular season with his fastball (opponents had .283 batting average against the pitch), Verlander yielded a .097 average to A’s hitters. No, you didn’t misread that.
The raw numbers are perhaps a bit more dizzying: Of the 144 heaters the A’s saw out of Verlander’s hand, they collected a mere three singles. No extra-base hits. Thirteen strikeouts. Just three singles.
And for some more dizzying numbers: Verlander’s fastball Whiff% more than doubled from the regular season, skyrocketing from 9.13 percent to 21.53 percent. The Whiff/Swing rate also doubled, plus a bit more.
A Dominant Fastball, Part 2
Yeah, Verlander’s fastball was just so good that we need to talk about it a bit more. After all, he did use it more than 60 percent of the time in his two ALDS starts, considerably more than any of his other weapons.
And for good reason.
It had more pop. It had more movement. It was essentially his 2011 fastball, which, by FanGraphs’ Pitch Values, was the AL’s best fastball.
During the regular season, Verlander’s heater averaged out at 93.91 miles-per-hour during the regular season. In two starts against the A’s it was 95.39. While two extra ticks may not seem like a lot on the surface, let me assure you, it is.
In case you’re wondering, the short sample size caveat does not apply. Dig through his monthly velocity logs at Brooks Baseball, and you’ll clearly see that his velocity has been on the rise, increasing from 93.68 in June to 94.79 by season’s end.
Probably a good portion of the uptick in Verlander’s fastball velocity stems from a more steadier release point. A handy article on FanGraphs detailed Verlander’s troubles and adjustments with his release point. Hint: They were all over the place. Lately, he’s found a consistent arm slot, and the positive results have been pouring in since.
Had we been paying attention to the September Verlander was putting together instead of analyzing the “disastrous”–by his standards, of course–early-season version of the former MVP, his 2.27 ERA in September and 0.29 mark against the A’s would’ve seemed inevitable, at least to some degree.
Location, Location, Location
You here the phrase “it’s all about location” tossed around a lot.
Just connect the dots. Consistently making perfectly located pitches usually makes for good results. An outing with more than a few hanging breaking balls and fastballs floated over the plate, well, take an educated guess.
Games 2 and 5 of the ALDS saw Verlander do precisely none of the latter and a ton of the former. The numbers (0.29 ERA, 13 strikeouts), which we drooled over in the opening, can confirm.
A visual representation would be good, and that’s where Texas Leaguers comes in handy.
Verlander’s fastball to lefties:
Note: I would show the zone to righties, but per Texas Leaguers, right-handed hitters saw just 23 fastballs.
The zone above is from a catcher’s perspective, so Verlander was painting his fastballs. The result: A’s lefties managed just three hits, all of which came off his changeup and curveball. Thus, his heater was untouched by lefties in the ALDS.
Now, constantly pounding the edges of the plate isn’t a surefire plan of success, as variation is always good. Still, it’s a very, very good starting point, because it sets up other locations and pitches. That too is good.
Think about this sequence: A pitcher gets a called strike on the outside of the plate. The next two pitches are close but called balls. He has the hitter thinking about the outer-half, and just like that, he throws a heater on the inside corner for a strike, setting up some sort of an off-speed pitch for the kill.
Easier said than done, of course, but that’s basically what Verlander was doing. It wasn’t much of a picnic for A’s hitters.
Limiting Damage in Two-Strike Counts
The A’s were darn good with two strikes against them during the regular season. By OPS’ reckoning, only the St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox were better.
And here comes the “but”…It didn’t carry over to the playoffs, against Verlander.
Of the 228 pitches Oakland hitters saw from the Tigers right-hander over two starts, they mustered a whopping two hits with two strikes on them. So no, we’re not staring at a sparkly ratio.
A surprise? Just a little.
In terms of solid two-strike approaches, the A’s are right up there with the elites. They’re patient. They can grind out at bats and take walks (third-highest BB% in MLB). Plus, they don’t strike out or chase pitches outside of the strike zone much ( fourth-lowest O-Swing% in baseball). It’s the perfect storm.
But…Justin Verlander isn’t your everyday starter, nor he does he posses your average platter of put-away pitches. The A’s witnessed that firsthand.