Justin Verlander’s Location Problem

Headed into last night, the Tigers were the favorites to win the World Series in large part because they had Justin Verlander, and people tend to favor teams who have ace starters in the playoffs. Last night, however, Justin Verlander did not pitch like an ace, and the Giants jumped on him for five runs in four innings of work – as many as he’d allowed in his previous seven starts combined.

So, what went wrong for Verlander last night? At the risk of oversimplification, his problems can essentially be traced to two factors:

1. Bad location
2. Good hitting

We’ll start with Pablo Sandoval, because he’s really the guy who did all the damage, and Verlander’s results were mostly fine if you exclude his match-ups against Kung Fu Panda. In the first inning, Verlander threw Sandoval a first pitch fastball on the outside corner in a perfect location for strike one, then got him to chase a change-up low that he fouled off for strike two. Having gone down and away twice with good results, Alex Avila calls for him to do it again, and sets up well off the plate and holds his glove low aiming for another down and away fastball.

Verlander misses his spot entirely, and the pitch ends up here instead.

You see Avila reaching back across to try and catch it — never a good sign — but the ball never gets to him because Sandoval deposited that high fastball into the seats in center field. This pitch basically sums up Verlander’s day – the ball didn’t go anywhere close to where he wanted to to, but he also didn’t get a typical result based on the pitch he actually threw.

There’s no question Verlander missed his spot, but the result was an 0-2 fastball at 96 mph that is well out of the strike zone. The hard high fastball is one of Verlander’s main out pitches, and he regularly gets swinging strikes by going upstairs with two strikes. Had Avila set up in that exact location, no one would be calling this a bad pitch – it was simply an act of great hitting from Sandoval. Had Verlander not centered it so much — that pitch is basically right over the heart of the plate — Sandoval might not have been able to turn on it like he did, but a high fastball is thrown to generate a swing, so centering it in order to entice the batter to chase is pretty common. It’s a bad pitch in that it’s not what Verlander wanted to do, but 96 at the letters doesn’t get turned around for a home run too often, especially on an 0-2 count where the hitter has been setup to look low and away. That pitch was both bad location and good hitting.

I won’t spend too much more time on Sandoval’s next home run because — spoiler alert — Jeff is working on a separate post about his performance, but suffice it to say that it followed a similar pattern. Sandoval didn’t hit meatballs – he hit good pitches that were out of the zone.

But, I’m not here to let Verlander off the hook entirely. There was some good process in his bad results, but there were also some lousy pitches mixed in there, even if they didn’t go over the wall. Besides the home runs, Verlander gave up four other hits as well, though one of them was Angel Pagan‘s cue shot that hit the third base bag and resulted in a double. We’re not going to hold that against Verlander, but he gave up hits to both Barry Zito and Marco Scutaro that were more bad pitching than good hitting.

First, here’s Scutaro’s RBI single in the third inning that preceded Sandoval’s second home run.

This is the eighth pitch of the at-bat, and Scutaro was doing his pesky foul-everything-off routine, so Verlander attempted to put him away with a slider down and out of the zone, only the pitch never gets there. It ends up as a dead-center hanging off-speed pitch that Scutaro can easily smash right back through the box. Scutaro deserves credit for a good at-bat, hanging in there until he got something to hit, but this is also just a lousy pitch from Verlander.

Then, the next inning, Zito came to the plate with two outs and a man on second. Barry Zito’s not much of a hitter, but there’s a man scoring position who can take off on contact, so a base hit here scores a run. This isn’t your typical groove-one-to-the-pitcher at-bat. Verlander has a chance to make sure he strands that runner by just blowing Zito away like he did the previous inning, but instead, he gets him to 2-2 and throws this.

Okay, it’s a 97 mph fastball to a guy who has 30 base hits in 375 plate appearances, but the location is awful. That pitch is the definition of middle-middle. A little higher and Zito probably gets under it or swings through it; a little closer to the side of the plate and it’s probably a weak tapper towards an infielder. Instead, Zito lines it past Miguel Cabrera, and since Delmon Young can’t throw, Brandon Belt scores easily. It was the final nail in Verlander’s coffin, and ensured his day was done after just four innings of work.

Any time a pitcher throws 98 pitches in four innings, you can bet that he didn’t have great command that day. While we usually talk about command problems in terms of missing the zone and falling behind hitters, Verlander’s command problems were more about leaving the ball over the heart of the plate, and the Giants made him pay when he did. However, we also have to note that Verlander actually didn’t pitch all that badly, especially on the two home runs. He threw some bad pitches, but he also threw some good pitches that got hit over the fence.

This is part of why baseball is essentially impossible to predict in a single game. Some days, you can do everything right and still get beat. Verlander didn’t everything right last night, but he pitched better than his final line indicates. For one night, Pablo Sandoval was just better than he was, and he paid for throwing some bad pitches to low power singles hitters in critical situations. It shouldn’t cause the Tigers to worry about their ace, or think that he’s any less likely to pitch well in Game 5, but it does reinforce the point that on any given night, anything can happen. Including Barry Zito beating Justin Verlander in the World Series.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Daniel
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Daniel
3 years 9 months ago

“Justin Verlander did not pitch like an ace, and the Tigers jumped on him for five runs in four innings of work…”

I do believe you mean the Giants. ;)

Bigmouth
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

Maybe he meant the Tigers’ bullpen, lol!

Desertfox
Guest
Desertfox
3 years 9 months ago

Having another moment like in the chat! What was it? Mind faster than the fingers?

Michael
Guest
Michael
3 years 9 months ago

After Sandoval’s first homer, Tim McCarver commented about how Verlander executed the pitch just how he had intended to. That’s Hall of Fame broadcasting right there.

Ken
Guest
Ken
3 years 9 months ago

Yeah, but after the game Verlander said that he meant that pitch to be up and didn’t get it high enough. So maybe he just didn’t bother shaking Avila off on the location.

jpg
Guest
jpg
3 years 9 months ago

Its also not all that uncommon for catchers to intentionally set up their targets away from the intended location if they think the batter likes to take peek once in a while. It’s especially true when the pitcher is ahead in the count and has no intention of throwing a strike. Otherwise it’s avoided because strikes are often called balls if the catcher has to reach back across to catch the ball.

AJP
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

Thank you for this, I was getting tired of all the comments about how Verlander made good pitches, but just got hit hard. His fastball location was off the whole night, I kept telling myself it was only a matter of time before those mistakes turned into gopher balls.

Dan
Guest
Dan
3 years 9 months ago

As a Tigers fan living in the Bay Area, I’m just glad to see everyone so happy. I can only imagine how exhilarating that 2nd World Championship in 3 years can be.

joe bananas
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joe bananas
3 years 9 months ago

You’re a class act, sir

Darrell Berger
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Darrell Berger
3 years 9 months ago

Avila was very clear that Verlander could not command his fastball. Therefore he threw more breaking pitches than usual, which got fouled off because they were not mixed with his usual scary and well-located heater.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 9 months ago

The Barry Zito hit was egregious; we all gaped and said “wow, Verlander is really off.”

However, I did defend both of his home run pitches to Sandoval – maybe they weren’t where Avila wanted them, but they were very good pitches. The swings were simply better.

Bip
Guest
Bip
3 years 9 months ago

I don’t think they were good pitches. For a player other than Sandoval those might have jammed them or got swinging strikes. But we know what sort of player Sandoval is, and he hits the type of pitches Verlander threw. When Pablo is batting, you can expand the strikezone by about half a foot in every direction, so looking at it that way, the first home run pitch was a high strike and the other one was on the mid-outer part of the plate. Both perfectly hittable.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
3 years 9 months ago

Great article, Dave, but couldn’t you have included the .gif of Young’s throw to the plate just to improve the humor element just a little? Would’ve taken this from a 9 to a 10!

Tyler
Guest
Tyler
3 years 9 months ago

Honest question, but since when can’t Delmon Young throw? I’m a Rays fan and haven’t seen a whole lot of his defense since he left, but when he was here, he had probably the best OF arm on the team and that is a team with BJ Upton on it. He had an absolute cannon.

Steve
Guest
Steve
3 years 9 months ago

Are you talking about throwing balls or bats?

RationalSportsFan
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

Delmon CAN throw just fine. That was just one instance of a god-awful throw.

Mike
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Mike
3 years 9 months ago


A GIF is worth a thousand stats.

Calvin
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Calvin
3 years 9 months ago

The throw was hideous, but nobody was gunning down Belt there.

chris p
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chris p
3 years 9 months ago

does verlander throw 2 fastballs? if he was planning to throw a 2-seamer away and missed over hte plate and up, that wouldn’t be optimal. although a 96 mph 2-seamer is something …

Ben
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Ben
3 years 9 months ago

Pretty sure he only throws the 4-seamer.

Eric Cioe
Guest
Eric Cioe
3 years 9 months ago

He throws both but they pretty much do the same thing. You can see all kinds of photos of him gripping a two seamer. I wonder if he throws mostly four seamers to his arm side and two seamers to his glove side. It’s probably more a comfort issue with him than thinking of it like two different pitches. Pitch f/x is pretty terrible at telling the two apart, too.

Bip
Guest
Bip
3 years 9 months ago

PitchFX says he throws them about 7% of the time. I think his fastball has above-average armside movement though, which is characteristic of a two-seamer, so classification is beside the point perhaps.

Kate Upton
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Kate Upton
3 years 9 months ago

I’m dumping him.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
3 years 9 months ago

Re: “Justin Verlander’s location problem”

C’mon, Detroit is not *that* bad…

wobatus
Guest
wobatus
3 years 9 months ago

Does the pitch to Scutaro look like a hanging slider because he hit it? If he’d missed it, it would look like it had decent drop at least. I often wonder about the results dictating our opinion of the pitch.

Bip
Guest
Bip
3 years 9 months ago

It looked bad to me. It didn’t have much drop or lateral movement, though it could have been worse. However, more egregious is it’s location right over the middle of the plate, as the article theme suggests. Even a good slider looks good over the middle of the plate, which is why they’re generally used in the “backdoor sense” – thrown outside to cut in and catch the corner – or to be thrown so as to break out of the zone and become unhittable.

ElJimador
Guest
ElJimador
3 years 9 months ago

I wonder about that too. And even more than it dictating our opinion of those particular pitches, I wonder if we can really conclude that Verlander struggled with his location overall just by highlighting 2 pitches that led to singles. I mean location mistakes happen in every game, it’s just that very often pitchers will get away with them (especially a pitcher with the kind of stuff Verlander has). If anybody ever did a piece like this after a pitching gem (like for example, Cain’s perfect game earlier this year) I bet they could likewise highlight the same location mistakes or worse that were simply taken, fouled away, or produced routine outs. What you would need for context is some way to quantify how many location mistakes a pitcher makes in a typical outing (regardless of the outcome of those pitches) so you can have that as a baseline to be able to know when they’ve really made more mistakes or fewer than they normally do. Until then it’s just way too easy to always conclude that location dictated the outcomes even if it’s not necessarily the case.

HPJoker
Member
HPJoker
3 years 9 months ago

The one thing I noticed about Verlander’s location was how often he was missing high and out to his arm side. He didn’t have that perfect understanding of his release point by any means last night. I wish I could prove this using pitch f/x, but the data on here only goes to the end of the regular season.

MLB Rainmake
Guest
MLB Rainmake
3 years 9 months ago

First off, I swear by turning off the brain trust that is Buck/McCarver and listening to the WS like your grandpa on AM radio. Shulman/Hershiser are 1000x better.

Anyway, before the 2nd Panda bomb, when the Tiger pitching coach hit the mound, Orel called it that the advice was to go back to more fastballs. Next pitch….fastballl. Gone. I think the bigger issue wasn’t location as much as Verlander trying to be perfect for the big stage. He lost both his WS start in ’06 and it seemed like he was trying to make up for that.

Kyle
Guest
Kyle
3 years 9 months ago

First of all, Verlander got squeezed a little, and suddenly got killed by Sandavol on a decent but not perfect 0-2 high fastball. Some bad luck, a few pitches that could have been called strikes, and Sandavol hitting Babe Ruth will get a guy a loss most times. Oh, and his offense didn’t help.

Zito deserves a lot of credit, because this is his second start out of nowhere due to Lincecum not being Lincecum anymore but keeping his composure. His fastball can barely hit 87 but he baffled the Tigers most the night(and his vintage curve was seen and as ridiculous as ever.) One guy hit his spots, didn’t lose his cool if a close pitch wasn’t called a strike, and proved he’s not done yet. Avila and Verlander never seemed on the same page when you see where he’d set up and pitches ended up. The past two games with Zito, while not being the ace he once was, stepped UP again.

Juan Chapa
Guest
Juan Chapa
3 years 9 months ago

Okay, I don’t like making excuses, especially for superstars that
get paid all that money, but these guys just finished a 162 game
regular season schedule, two layers of play-off series, and now
the World Series. These players are worn out, and us fans have
to put up with less than quality performances, just so the
greedy owners and the networks can make extra money! Well,
neither the Giants or Tigers are my favorite teams, but follow
Cabrera, Fielder, and Verlander, and furthermore, did not
watch the Game. And now, I’m glad I did not waste my time
watching it.

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