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October 11, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Five Recap: Tigers 3, Athletics 0

by Paul Sporer

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It wasn’t the season that the Tigers mapped out for Justin Verlander. The undisputed king of the pitching world in 2011 was no worse than runner-up in 2012, when Clayton Kershaw made it clear that he deserved to be in any conversation about the best in baseball. But by the end of the 2013 season, Verlander had undisputedly ceded the throne to Kershaw and seemingly even lost the torch as the bona fide no. 1 on his own team in light of the emergence of Max Scherzer.

His season didn’t start that way, though, and Verlander made sure his lasting impression in the regular season was one that reminded everyone just how good he can be. The righty bookended his season with a 1.83 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings in April and a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings in September. But the 4.26 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings during the other four months tested the faith of many.

If Verlander’s Game Two didn’t restore that faith, then his Game Five outing definitely did. A day away from the anniversary of his 2012 ALDS Game Five clincher—also in Oakland—Verlander constructed an almost perfect replica of last year’s shutout, with the only notable difference being that he departed after eight innings instead of completing the effort again.

FASTBALL
Verlander threw 73 heaters on Thursday night, with 49 going for strikes and 38 of those drawing a swing. Of those 38, a whopping 18 missed entirely. That tops the total number of swings-and-misses he had on all pitches combined in the 2012 gem (17). Verlander was just a little shy of his 2012 velocity level—he averaged 95.4 MPH this year after sitting at 96.0 in the outing a year ago, although if the O.co gun was at the -0.2 MPH differential it usually has (per our own Dan Brooks), you can put Verlander at around 95.6. Either way, the difference is negligible.

The bevy of left-handers in the Oakland lineup—seven in all when you count switch-hitters—combined with the generosity of umpire Tom Hallion on the high fastball just above or to the right (from the pitcher’s perspective) of the zone coaxed Verlander into peppering that portion of the zone early and often.

If you think of the strike zone as a 1-9 keypad with dead center being the 5 key, the upper right part of the zone would be the 3-key. Verlander dropped eight of his fastballs there (11 percent), another five directly above (6.8 percent), nine to the immediate right (12 percent), and four more to the upper right (5.5 percent), not to mention another five in the 6 key of the zone and 10 immediately to the right of it.

And yes, the overwhelming majority of those 41 fastballs were to lefties, with exactly six of them being delivered to righties.

The final tale of the tape for Verlander’s fastball in the two Game Five clinchers, per Brooks Baseball:

SECONDARY PITCHES
With his fastball cooking, Verlander is absolutely lethal, and the Athletics became acutely aware of that early on in this contest. He leaned on his fastball nearly two-thirds of the time, throwing it at a 65.8 percent clip, but the changeups, curveballs, and sliders he sprinkled in were able to inflict damage well beyond their 34.2 percent usage rate.

Verlander threw just 14 off-speed pitches in the first four innings, generating five outs, including three groundouts, a flyout, and a strikeout. Only four of the 14 pitches were called balls, though he also induced four swings on off-speed pitches out of the zone, netting a strikeout, groundout, foul ball, and regular swinging strike.

The changeup was his second-favorite pitch of the night. He threw 19 of them, averaging exactly 85.4 MPH (exactly 10 MPH slower than the fastball). He got 14 strikes, 12 swings, and four misses on those swings. He threw 17 of the 19 changeups to lefties, and not a single one was on the inner third of the strike zone. In fact, only five made their way into the strike zone at all.

The changeup was also his best off-speed tool in 2012. He threw 24 of them in all, with six swings-and-misses. Three of those six went for strikeouts. In both outings, the A’s put just five changeups into play, with four resulting in outs. In both years, the only hits off of changeups came in the bottom of the eighth off the bat of a Josh. In 2012 it was Donaldson with a line drive single to left, and on Thursday it was Reddick with a line drive back up the middle to center field.

As pretty and devastating as Verlander’s curveball can be when it’s on, he doesn’t overuse it. He threw it 14 times on Thursday night, getting a groundout and two swinging strikeouts; the latter were inning-enders in the seventh and eighth. He threw 16 curves in 2012, earning just two outs with it: a groundout and a strikeout looking of Seth Smith.

SUMMARY
While not all no-hit bids are created equal, many of them are clear indications that the pitcher was dealing. That Verlander held the A’s hitless through six and two-thirds on Thursday, until Yoenis Cespedes ended all of the drama with a clean base hit, should convey just that to anyone who wasn’t able to watch. In fact, Verlander was perfect before allowing a walk to Josh Reddick an out into the sixth.

NOTES:

  • At times a shell of himself due to what seems to be an array of lower-body ailments, MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera shone brightest when it mattered most, hitting a two-run homer that turned out to be the difference.

  • Sonny Gray has nothing to hang his head about. He was a major reason that this series went five in the first place, as he spoiled an amazing effort from Verlander in Game Two, outlasting him by an inning and matching him pitch-for-pitch. Nothing short of a repeat was going to be enough on Thursday, which is asking a lot of a rookie with fewer than 75 major-league innings on his arm. We saw a similar scenario play out with Gerrit Cole in the Pittsburgh-St. Louis series.

  • In a short series, there isn’t always enough time for managerial moves to pan out, but Jim Leyland inserting Jhonny Peralta in the lineup, first in left field and then at his normal shortstop, paid off early and often to the tune of a 5-for-11 effort with five RBIs, including a score-evening three-run homer in Game Four.

  • The one constant in the lineup—even when Detroit couldn’t seem to generate anything offensively—was Victor Martinez. He had just one hitless game (0-for-4 in Game Two) and capped off the series with a pair of three-hit efforts. He also hit .367/.418/.519 in the final 80 games of the season after July 1st.

  • Cespedes played that part for the A’s, producing hits in all five games, including a pair of hits in Games One, Two, and Four. He combined with Smith to carry the offense and hide the overall inefficiency of Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, and Brandon Moss, who combined to go 8-for-59 (.136) with 28 strikeouts. If it weren’t for the big homers by Moss and Lowrie in Games Three and Four, respectively, this trio would be feeling a lot more heat.

  • Despite an 0-for-4 on Thursday night, Coco Crisp still ended the series with a tremendous .389/.455/.611 line after causing trouble throughout the five games. However, it was surprising that he stole just one base despite having a clear bag ahead of him in seven of his 10 times on base.

  • Even with the Anibal Sanchez meltdown, the Tigers still won on the strength of their rotation. They needed relievers for just 11 2/3 of the 45 innings in the series. The Cardinals, who needed just 11 in their 44 series innings, were the only team less reliant upon relievers as a percentage of total innings.

  • There is no way that the Tigers can expect to topple the Red Sox without a better effort from Austin Jackson. He went just 2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts, including three in each of the final two games of the series.

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

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