MLB: ALDS-Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics

Reports of Justin Verlander‘s demise were grossly overstated. You know this and I know this. Anyone who claims Justin Verlander had a down year in 2013 is selling something. Sure, he didn’t match the numbers he put up during seasons in which he first won the Cy Young award and then finished second in the voting, but he is still one of the ten best starters in baseball. He threw a lot of innings and struck out 200 more batters. Par for the course.

In the NBA, there seems to be a tacit understanding that it isn’t neccesary for a player to give their all every night. San Antonio Spurs coach/maestro Gregg Popovich is famous for strategically resting his star players during the regular season with an eye towards the long playoff journey. Baseball doesn’t tend to work this way thanks to current league model of making the regular season “not a total waste of time and space.” It’s hard to earn a playoff berth in baseball. The margin for error is slight enough that taking games or weeks off can undo six months of work.

I don’t know that I can connect the two paragraphs above effectively, but it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility to suggest Justin Verlander “saved” himself for the postseason. Stranger things have happened. To folks like you and me and Rob Neyer, it looks an awful lot like Justin Verlander flipped a switch when the calender flipped to September – even if we know it isn’t exactly true. It’s unlikely he did anything differently, things just worked out a little better for him against worse competition. Then again, if anybody could pull off “changing gears” midseason, it’s Justin Verlander.

Across two starts versus the A’s in the Division Series, Justin Verlander looked every bit the best pitcher in the league. He struck out batters at will and basically allowed no base runners. 15 innings, 21 strikeouts, two walks, six hits, zero runs allowed. Nobody just decides to be that good but the Tigers are still playing today because Justin Verlander mowed down the Oakland A’s.

Everybody knows about Justin Verlander’s stuff. He throws really hard – often increasing his velocity as the game progresses, touching the upper nineties when he needs to. Everybody knows about his bananas curveball, dastardly changeup and quietly effective slider. All these pitches are fine on their own, but what makes a great pitcher an ace, and an ace the best in the game, is sequencing and execution.

In 15 innings of playoff baseball this season, Justin Verlander threw 228 pitches. His pitch selection breaks down about like this: 63% fastballs, 16% changeups, 15% curveballs, and approx. 5% sliders. This is mostly consistent with his seasonal numbers, though only facing a single team that loads its lineup with lefties, bringing down his slider usage.

Justin Verlander throws so hard yet can offer two different offspeed pitches so batters almost need to pick their poison. Looking fastball and adjusting to the slower stuff isn’t really an option for most mortals. It is this paradox that Justin Verlander exploited so well against Oakland.

Because Verlander had all his pitches working in these two starts, batters couldn’t eliminate one of his options from their mind at any time. With his full arsenal his disposal, Verlander took advantage of the A’s by doubling up.

If we separate his stuff into hard (fastballs) and soft (change, curve, slider), Verlander’s domination comes into clear view. Whenever the Tigers’ ace chose to “double-up” on his pitches, batters were defenseless. 32 times Verlander followed an offspeed pitch with something else “soft” – the Tigers put just five balls into play with only one landing safely. He registered five of his strikeouts this way, four swinging and one looking.

The same principle applied with fastballs. When one fastball followed another, Oakland only picked up one hit in the series, putting the ball in play 10 times out of 77 pitches. ESPN Stats & Info classified just one of these balls as “well hit.”

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

The breaking ball image below demonstrates another Verlander pitching truth – it is as much about where as when. So few offspeed pitches left over the plate, all at the bottom of the zone or below it. If a batter looks fastball after seeing one breaking pitch, this is pretty much game over.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

While interesting, this is just window dressing. The fact of the matter is Justin Verlander totally and completely shoved against the Detroit Tigers. He shoved it in Game Two and he shoved it in Game Five. The Whys and Hows keep our attention but the Whats – complete domination – keep the Tigers playing postseason baseball.

Any pitcher throwing three plus pitches for strikes can sequence them however he likes – his team is going to win when has it working. Like Game Five of the Cardinals/Pirates series, it only took one mistake by the opposite number (Sonny Gray, who wasn’t his sharpest but certainly keep the game as close as he could) to all but end the game in the fourth.

Maybe Justin Verlander won’t pitch this well again this postseason. For all his heroics against the A’s, this is the same guy the Giants rocked for five runs in four innings to kickoff the 2012 World Series, en route to their sweep of the Tigers. It is after games like last night, keeping Oakland’s hitters off-balance with a deadly mix of stuff and sequence, that we must reminder ourselves that Justin Verlander isn’t invincible – even as he appears to be just that.