Of all the pitchers the Nationals will face in the World Series, Verlander is the most versatile. His fastball can appear at any time and hitters are almost guaranteed to see his slider when he is ahead in the count or in two-strike situations. His curveball is used less often against right-handed hitters than it is against lefties but it is effective against both. And, just to keep hitters honest, Verlander will flash a change-up every once in a while. Yes, it’s effective, too.
Let’s start with his fastball. Verlander is 36, but his four-seam fastball still hits almost 100 mph on the radar gun. It averages 95 mph this year, just a few ticks off his career-high set in 2009 (96 mph).
“It sets up everything else,” Sean Casey, Verlander’s teammate in 2006 and 2007 and a current broadcaster and commentator for MLB Network, said in a phone interview with The Post. “That’s why that’s his best pitch. As a hitter I need to respect that first, and then if you are throwing the curveball, change-up and slider, I am in trouble.”
Verlander’s effectiveness with the fastball comes from his ability to use the pitch around the upper part of the strike zone. Among the 190 pitchers who threw at least 500 four-seam fastballs this season, only five got more vertical movement than Verlander. (He got about three more inches of rise on the pitch — or 21 percent more — than similar MLB fastballs at his velocity.) The more rise a pitcher gets with his fastball, the harder it is to hit, especially for hitters using an uppercut swing.
Verlander can thank the Astros organization for helping his fastball evolve into something fierce.
“When I first got to the organization, they kind of showed me some of the stuff that they can do, and try to do,” he told USA Today last October. “When you get older, every competitive advantage is an advantage, and I wanted that. I joke with guys in the organization that I was probably the first pitcher to come over and ask for more information, because they can kind of give you a lot. I want more. Give me everything you’ve got.”
One piece of information he receive suggested he throw his fastball from a higher release point, and he incorporated that message. Since joining the club in 2017, he started throwing his fastball from a higher and higher arm slot. The results have been phenomenal. His whiff rate on the pitch has risen from 20 percent in 2017 to almost over 31 percent in 2019. His strikeout rate has seen a similar improvement (24 to 32 percent). Plus, he has no fear of using his fastball as his first pitch (63 percent) or even in the heart of the strike zone (58 percent). Overall, Verlander’s fastball saved the Astros more than half a run per 100 times thrown (0.6), according to FanGraphs, the 11th best mark among the fastballs used by American League starting pitchers.
Because his fastball is so effective up in the zone, Verlander can keep his breaking pitches low. His slider registered in the strike zone only about 40 percent of the time in each of the past two seasons, the lowest two marks of his career, yet the swinging strike rate on the pitch has seen a sharp increase over the past four years. Batters had a .134 batting average against his slider this season, with an obscene 41 percent strikeout rate. This pitch saved Houston more than three runs per 100 times thrown, making it the fifth-best slider in the majors this season, according to FanGraphs.
Verlander’s curve is also nasty. It’s a traditional 12-6 curve that oftentimes makes opposing batters look silly when they try to make contact. In 2019, his curveball dropped 57 inches, two inches more than similar MLB curveballs at his velocity. Batters are hitting .197 against his curveball (10th best) and a third of batters facing Verlander end their at-bat on the pitch (33 percent). Here he is punching out future Nationals infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera with the hook in April, and the smirk on Cabrera’s face tells you everything you need to know about facing the pitch.
The velocity difference between his fastball and change-up, his least-used pitch, is about seven miles per hour, three miles per hour short of the ideal difference of 10 mph. That makes the pitch “firmer,” meaning it induces more groundballs than whiffs. But the key is its deception: Verlander throws it from a similar release point as his fastball, making it difficult for batters to pick up the change of speed until it is too late. This season, including the playoffs, batters are 6 for 41 (.146) in at-bats ending with Verlander’s change-up, with 13 strikeouts.
Put it together with Verlander’s fierce competitiveness, and the Nationals should have a fitting challenge in Game 2.
“He is as focused as anyone I have ever seen,” Cole said of Verlander to the Houston Chronicle. “His preparation is second to none.”
“I’m just trying to win a championship because that’s what I want to do in my heart. I want to win,” Verlander said. “I want to win for my teammates. I want to win for myself. I want to win for the city."