The New York Yankees find themselves in the unenviable position of trailing the Detroit Tigers two games to zero in the ALCS, having given away home-field advantage. The Yankees do have the consolation of not yet having lost with ace CC Sabathia, who could still make two starts. But then, the Yankees have the anti-consolation of not yet having lost to Justin Verlander, who could still make two starts. It’s Verlander who’s taking the hill Tuesday night, as the Tigers look to take a truly commanding lead in the best-of-seven.
The Yankees have struggled to hit in the playoffs so far, and they’ve struggled to hit against a bunch of pitchers who aren’t the best starting pitcher in the world. I don’t need to tell you that Justin Verlander is a little excellent. On top of that, he’ll be pitching Tuesday night at home, against a struggling lineup, on a cool October evening that should only depress offense even further. Tigers fans couldn’t possibly be happier with the way things are set up. Yankees fans, therefore, couldn’t possibly be less happy.
For any given game, you try to come up with a plan. Doesn’t really matter what sport you’re playing — if it’s organized, then you come up with a plan of attack, such that you might better be able to defeat your opponent. The Yankees, surely, have tried to work out a plan to defeat Justin Verlander, but I’m going to go ahead and tell you right now that no such plan really exists, not with any legitimacy. You don’t beat Justin Verlander by sticking to some kind of plan, unless your plan is simply “hit Justin Verlander.” That’s the real key, but that’s rather difficult to pull off.
During the ALDS, we heard a lot about how the A’s were trying to drive up Verlander’s pitch count in an effort to get into the Tigers’ bullpen. This is a typical plan when a team is going up against an awesome starting pitcher; do what you can to get rid of the awesome starting pitcher. In Game 1, Verlander threw 121 pitches over seven strong innings. In Game 5, Verlander threw 122 pitches over nine shutout innings. The A’s had a plan, but I wouldn’t say it worked, and it’s because it’s not actually a good plan. Especially under these circumstances.
This isn’t going to surprise you, but: this year, 186 starting pitchers threw at least 50 innings. The median was just about 95 pitches averaged per start. Justin Verlander had the highest average out of all of them, at 114.2. That was more than four pitches higher than the runner-up, James Shields. You can try to drive up Verlander’s pitch count, I suppose, but he might be more tolerant of a high pitch count than anybody, and he’s no stranger to reaching or exceeding 120. See, the thing everybody’s learned about Justin Verlander is that he knows how to pace himself.
This might be the telling graph, and you’ve probably seen something like this before. Here’s how Verlander paced himself with his fastball this past regular season.
In first innings, Verlander’s fastball averaged 94.1 miles per hour. Come the end, it shot up to 96 and 97, and what this ignores is Verlander’s variation pitch-to-pitch. At any given moment, he’s capable of throwing a fastball pretty much anywhere between 90-100. He always seems to have something left, and never visibly seems to wear down.
Research by Tangotiger and MGL and probably others has shown how starting pitchers get worse with subsequent trips through the lineup, due to fatigue, or batter familiarity, or something else, or plenty of things. This is one of the main arguments for replacing a starter with a reliever before he reaches the magical 100-pitch mark. I like to look at Verlander’s performance since 2009, since that’s when he ascended to ace-hood, and here’s how Verlander has done each time through the order since 2009:
You see a spike the third time through the order, but a lot of that is simply due to BABIP increase, and we don’t know how much to read into that. Verlander’s been nails the fourth time through the order, in limited opportunities. Taken at face value, the first two times through the order, Verlander has turned opponents into 2006 Cesar Izturis. The third time through the order, he’s turned opponents into 2008 Cesar Izturis. The fourth time through the order, he’s turned opponents into 2012 Cesar Izturis. A lineup full of various Cesar Izturises wouldn’t score a lot of runs. Also, fun fact: Cesar Izturis played major-league baseball in 2012.
Verlander doesn’t show any pattern of wearing down, and in fact he seems to do the opposite as he’s learned to pace himself with experience. He doesn’t have much in the way of an exploitable platoon split, owing to his four dominant pitches. And while you can try to knock him out of the game by elevating his pitch count by taking pitches and fouling pitches off, that theoretical approach falls apart quickly. For one thing, batters have shown little ability to foul pitches off on purpose, and for another, it does little good to take pitches when those pitches are strikes, which Verlander usually throws. Against a pitcher with good control and command, the key to driving up a pitch count isn’t patience, but generating base-runners. Against Verlander, you need to get base-runners.
Hell, even if you have a bunch of longer plate appearances that result in outs, those are lower-stress pitches, and therefore less taxing pitches. Just taking pitches against Verlander isn’t going to accomplish much of anything. You can take the balls, but then you should always take the balls, and that isn’t as easy a thing to do as it is a sentence to type.
If anything, if anything, the Yankees might want to be aggressive. According to Brooks Baseball, Verlander throws 69-percent first-pitch fastballs to lefties, and 75-percent first-pitch fastballs to righties. Once Verlander gets ahead, he’s lethal, because he balances all of his pitches. The Yankees could key in on first-pitch swings. But Verlander might well adjust to that, and additionally, not all of his first-pitch fastballs are the same, since he varies his velocity. Knowing that Verlander throws 75-perfect first-pitch fastballs to righties seems exploitable; it seems less exploitable when you realize those fastballs fall within a broad range.
The key is basically prayer. The Yankees are left praying that Verlander has a rare bad game, their hitters generate some lucky balls in play, or Phil Hughes is absolutely brilliant. If Verlander posts zeroes, but Hughes also posts zeroes, then Verlander is effectively negated. But Hughes gives up a lot of fly balls, and a lot of fly balls turn into home runs, so that could go out the window in a jiffy. I will note that, on six occasions this year, Verlander allowed at least five runs. Additionally, over four appearances in last year’s playoffs, he allowed 12 runs in 20.1 innings. Those opponents were left having to pray, and their prayers were answered. October Justin Verlander was mortal.
But you can’t really count on Verlander’s mortality. All pitchers are mortal, but no starting pitcher is less mortal than Justin Verlander. The Yankees’ odds of winning Game 3 Tuesday night are higher than you might think they would be. But, because of Verlander, they’re a lot lower than the Yankees would like them to be, and we’re one dominant outing away from the Tigers being on the verge of an ALCS sweep.