A lot has been made of the Oakland Athletics’ decision to start Sonny Gray in Game Five over Bartolo Colon, who had the second-lowest ERA in the AL this year. I fully agree with the Athletics’ decision for the simple reason that I believe Gray is better. However, with all the discussion about Gray, people are overlooking the man who will take the mound opposite him, Detroit Tigers hurler Justin Verlander.
Much was made of Verlander’s so-called off year in 2013. Sabermetric evangelist/blowhard Brian Kenny suggested the Tigers should move Verlander to the bullpen for the playoffs. His fastball velocity dipped to an average of 93.3, down from 94.3.
Still, at the end of the year, Verlander had a 3.46 ERA and 3.28 FIP. His strikeout rate was not quite equal to that of the last four years, but it was still among the league’s best. His whiff rate was the third best of his career, and better than his CY Young 2011 season.
Throw in his usual workhorse amount of innings, and Verlander finished 7th in the MLB among pitchers in fWAR. Maybe it was a decline, but this was still a very good pitcher.
His Game Two start against the A’s should have reminded anybody that was watching that Verlander is still an ace that can deal with any pitcher. According to BrooksBaseball, Verlander’s fastball averaged 96.1 miles per hour, and topped out at 99.1. Only Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole can top that velocity.
It’s not just fastball velocity though. Cole’s fastball averaged slightly over 97 miles per hour in the postseason. However, it generated a total of six whiffs on 95 pitches. Verlander threw his fastball 71 times in Game Two, and it resulted in 13 whiffs, an 18.3% rate. No pitcher this postseason can top the whiff rate on Verlander’s fastball.
Verlander has other pitches that are pretty effective too. He didn’t lean very heavily on his slider against an A’s lineup that featured seven lefthanded hitters. His changeup might not have been as good in 2013 as in previous years, but the A’s looked befuddled by it, missing on more than half their swings.The curveball was working as well, and Verlander dropped it in for a strike on 16 out of 23 offerings.
All told, Verlander generated 20 whiffs in Game Two. Only Clayton Kershaw, who had 21 whiffs in Game One, has had more this postseason.
Don’t let his ‘down’ season fool you, Verlander is still an ace, and one of the five best pitchers in baseball. I hope we see a rematch of Game Two.