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October 24, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game One Preview: Tigers at Giants

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tigers roared past the Yankees and spent the past five days working to stay fresh. The Giants needed seven games to oust the Cardinals and spent the past five days outscoring them 20-1. Which team will continue its winning streak in Game One of the World Series?

Tigers (Justin Verlander) vs. Giants (Barry Zito) – 8:00 p.m. ET

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Zito (L)

Giants vs. Verlander (R)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Delmon Young, LF (R)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

Avisail Garcia, RF (R)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Gerald Laird, C (R)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Justin Verlander, P (R)

Barry Zito, P (L)

The world-record time for a one-mile run is 3:43, a pace of just over 16 miles per hour. How is that relevant here? It’s also the gap between the maximum fastball velocities of the Game One starters: the triple-digit machine, Verlander, and the man perpetually mired in Ronald Reagan’s first term, Zito.

Verlander has lived up to his Cy Young resume in the postseason, holding the A’s and Yankees to two runs on 10 hits in 24 1/3 innings while issuing five walks and recording 25 strikeouts. Both runs scored on solo homers—by Coco Crisp, leading off Game One of the Division Series, and by Eduardo Nunez in the ninth inning of Game Three of the ALCS—and apart from those two blemishes, the 29-year-old has been virtually untouchable.

Besides Nunez’s big fly, the only knock on Verlander’s most recent outing was the relative dearth of strikeouts. After fanning 11 in each of his first two playoff assignments, Verlander only managed three Ks in the 2-1 victory over the Yankees, tying a season low set in a six-inning loss to the Angels on September 8. What happened?

As the pitch breakdown above shows, the low strikeout total was not a manifestation of subpar stuff. Verlander’s heater touched 99 mph, and his off-speed offerings had their typically sharp break.

Instead, it may have been driven by two other factors: the Yankees’ game plan and Verlander’s aim, which was slightly askew, resulting in an uncharacteristically high volume of pitches down the middle of the zone and well off the left-hand corner. Notice in the table above, for example, that Verlander threw seven sliders, all of which went for strikes but none of which elicited a swing-and-miss. That suggests a dead-red approach from New York’s batters, enabled by Verlander’s spotty control, which resulted in him throwing first-pitch strikes to only 14 of the 28 batters he faced.

Verlander kept the Yankees off-balance by mixing his pitches, and his world-class arsenal helped him to escape hitters’ counts by inducing weak contact. He wasn’t “on,” by Verlander standards, but he was plenty good enough to shut down a lineup replete with threatening, albeit ice-cold, bats. And there’s little reason to think that Verlander won’t be at least that effective again tonight.

Zito, on the other hand, is a wild card, thoroughly dependent on his ability to pound the strike zone without making the middle-middle mistakes that Verlander got away with in the aforementioned outing. Unlike in 2010, when the $126 million southpaw was left off the post-season roster entirely, Zito played a pivotal role in prolonging the Giants’ playoff lives by winning Game Five of the Championship Series.

The 34-year-old tossed 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball, scattering six hits and a walk while collecting six strikeouts. And he did it against an offense laden with opposite-handed sluggers, not entirely dissimilar from the lineup Jim Leyland will field tonight. Fielder gives the Tigers a lefty masher that the Cardinals lacked, but Leyland, like Matheny, figures to stack his order with righties, with seven of the eight non-pitchers in the projected lineup batting from that side of the plate.

Opposing righties knocked Zito around to the tune of a .281/.355/.823 triple-slash during the regular season. So, how did he keep the Cardinals in check last week?

Zito threw the kitchen sink at Beltran, Holliday, and company, but the pitch most critical to his success was the cutter, both under the hands and on the outside edge. He opened nearly half of his showdowns with righties by throwing a cutter or a two-seamer, using it to set up his changeup—often the second or third pitch in a sequence—and his curveball, typically a put-away pitch in deeper counts. If Zito has good bite on (and command of) his cutter, he’ll be able to neutralize the Tigers’ greatest threats; if he doesn’t—as was the case in this clunker versus the Diamondbacks on September 3—Lincecum, Kontos, and company may get the call early.

That brings us to the Matchup of the Game: Zito versus Infante, who bats second in Leyland’s order against lefties, bridging the gap between Jackson and the big bats. Infante was a National Leaguer for five years before a midseason trade sent him back to Detroit, and he is just 3-for-20 with no extra-base hits or walks and four strikeouts in his past meetings with Zito.

In the eight plate appearances tracked by the Matchup Tool, Zito has actually thrown more off-speed pitches (24) than fastballs/sinkers (14), and he has started his last four encounters with Infante with a slider or changeup. Given that this approach has proven effective to date, expect Zito to continue to pitch the Tigers’ second baseman backward until Infante adjusts and forces him to use the “hard” stuff.

Finally, Gerry Davis, the crew chief for the World Series and the home plate umpire in Game One, won’t do Verlander and Zito any favors. The 28-year veteran has one of the smallest strike zones in the league, often trimming both corners and strictly enforcing the knee-high boundary. Assuming that Davis holds true to his reputation, his stinginess is likely to benefit the overpowering Verlander while troubling the soft-tossing Zito, who needs every inch he can get.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

Related Content:  World Series,  Playoffs,  Giants,  Justin Verlander,  Barry Zito,  Tigers

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