ALCS Game 2 Notes

The New York Yankees will face thirty-six year old right-hander Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2019 American League Championship Series on Sunday night. Verlander posted a 3.17 FIP, 2.95 SIERA, and 2.51 DRA in 223.0 innings pitched in 2019. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Verlander ranked third in strikeout rate (35.4%), third in chase rate (37.2%), sixth in contact rate (68.8%), and fourth in swinging strike rate (16.1%).

Verlander does it with a four-seam fastball (49.2%), slider (28.2%), curveball (18.5%), and changeup (4.1%).

Pitch TypeAvg. Velo.Vert. Break vs. Avg.Hor. Break vs. Avg.
Four-Seam94.6 mph2.9 inches3.2 inches
Slider87.5 mph-2.3 inches0.3 inches
Curveball79.4 mph2.0 inches1.5 inches
Changeup86.9 mph-1.9 inches3.5 inches

The elite rise and arm-side run on Verlander’s four-seam fastball get tons of balls in the air: between 25.3% line drives, 55.6% fly balls, and 25.5% infield fly balls, only 19.2% of Verlander’s four-seamers wind up on the ground. With the 2019 ball, Verlander gave up his fair share of home runs when throwing the four-seamer (21.8% home run per fly ball rate), but the suspected change in the baseballs may have eliminated that weakness from Verlander’s 2019 game in the playoffs. The movement on JV’s four-seamer has also resulted in a 14.3% swinging strike rate in 2019.

Verlander’s slider has absolutely devastated hitters this season. The pitch gets hitters to chase out of the zone 53.4% of the time and has a 24.0% swinging strike rate. Verlander’s .178 xwOBA against on the slider ranks second among the 106 pitchers to throw sliders against at least 100 hitters in 2019.

The curve has also been ultra-effective for Verlander this season, with a .247 xwOBA against. He’s able to drop the pitch in for a strike as he’s done so 46.3% of the time in 2019.

Verlander’s fastball is so overpowering that it remains effective despite his predictable usage of the pitch. He starts lefties off with four-seamers 65% of the time. Righties see first pitch fastballs from JV 61% of the time. When hitters are ahead in the count, Verlander leans even more heavily on the fastball at 67% (vs. lefties) and 66% (vs. righties) clips. He locates those fastballs up in the zone, playing on the extreme “rising” action of the pitch.

The Yankees will probably be looking to jump on fastballs early in the count or when ahead, hoping to get balls in the air to the short porches in left and right field at Minute Maid Park, but it’s likely going to be much more easily said than done against Verlander.

When he gets ahead, Verlander moves to his slider and curveball almost evenly to lefties (28% and 26% of the time) but still forces hitters to protect against fastballs, throwing them at a 39% rate. With two strikes against lefties, he throws 40% four-seamers and 34% sliders, which tunnel very well with his four-seam fastballs to hitters digging in from the left side. Verlander does a great job of burying those sliders down and in to lefties.

Verlander goes to his slider even more frequently when ahead on righties (47%) and with two strikes (49%). Once again, his location is lethal.

There doesn’t appear to be much hope against JV’s slider. Verlander’s curve, however, might present more of an opportunity to jump on a hanger when the former Cy Young and MVP has the advantage in the count.

Verlander catches a lot more of the zone with the hammer. The name of the game for Yankees hitters behind and with two strikes may be to hope to be able to spit on the slider and either hunt fastballs or hope for a curve that gets too much of the plate.

The Yankees hit four-seam fastballs well (sixth-highest team xwOBA against in 2019 at .374), presenting yet another classic power versus power matchup between Verlander and the Bombers.

James Paxton goes for the Yankees in Game 2. The Astros strong right-handed hitters (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa) could be a challenge for the lefty Paxton. Even with Yuli Gurriel possessing reverse splits over the course of his career (1,886 plate appearances), the Astros were the best offense in baseball against lefties in 2019 with a 131 wRC+. Paxton’s splits against righties and lefties, both in 2019 and his career, are below.

Batter HandednessFIPK%BB%HR/9
vs. L (2019)2.2329.9%5.8%0.49
vs. L (Career)2.7426.1%7.7%0.56
vs. R (2019)4.3929.2%9.6%1.66
vs. R (Career)3.4026.5%7.3%1.03

As you might have imagined, Paxton has historically had more success against lefties. The splits are a little more exaggerated this season due to his high walk rate against righties and huge difference in home runs allowed per nine.

From August 7th on, Paxton changed his pitch mix. He cut back on his four-seamer and cutter and started throwing his knuckle curve twice as often.

Paxton’s overall numbers improved.

Pre-August 7thMetricPost-August 7th
14.9%/45.9%/39.2%Soft/Med/Hard Contact21.5%/43.7%/34.8%

He didn’t start striking more hitters out, but he did induce weaker contact more frequently.

The change in pitch mix also might have improved his splits against righties: his .274 xwOBA against righties since August 7th is an improvement on his pre-August 7th .311 xwOBA in 2019 and his .288 career mark (includes all games from 2015 to August 6, 2019). Paxton’s recent success against righties makes sense when you consider his increase in knuckle curve usage: his knuckle curve tunnels extremely well with his four-seam fastball from the right-handed batter’s point of view. The Pitching Ninja GIF below gives some idea of what righties have to deal with.

The Astros crush four-seam fastballs (8th in xwOBA at .370) and traditional curveballs (4th at .303) as a lineup, but they haven’t fared as well against knuckle curves (16th at .258). The sample sizes for all of this are not huge, but despite being a lefty and relying on a four-seam fastball/curveball mix, Paxton may not be at as much of a disadvantage against the Astros as the average pitcher.

One final note: In addition to the knuckle curve, Paxton has that cutter, which also tunnels well with his four-seamer to both righties and lefties. As a lineup, the Astros haven’t handled cutters well: they rank twenty-third in xwOBA against cutters (.303) and twelfth in run value per 100 cutters thrown (-0.09). Paxton working the cutter in a little more often than usual could be something to watch for on Sunday night.

ALCS Game 1 Note: Yankees manager Aaron Boone lifted Masahiro Tanaka after the righty had given up no runs, one hit, and one walk on sixty-eight pitches facing the minimum number of batters through six innings. With the top of the Astros lineup coming back up for the third time to start the bottom of the seventh, here’s why Boone went to Ottavino. First, Tanaka’s 2019 numbers by number of times through the order.

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through2.9824.5%.277
Second Time Through4.7718.2%.334
Third Time Through5.6915.3%.339

And for his career (xwOBA is from 2015 on).

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through3.2625.2%.287
Second Time Through4.0623.1%.316
Third Time Through4.4520.3%.327

On July 20th against the Colorado Rockies, Tanaka cruised through five innings, facing only seventeen batters and surrendering two singles. As the Rockies turned their lineup over for the third time, with one out in the sixth, Tanaka gave up a single to Charlie Blackmon, a double to Trevor Story, a walk to David Dahl, a homer to Nolan Arenado, a double to Daniel Murphy, and a single to Ian Desmond. Tanaka had been dominant after retiring the nine-hitter Tony Wolters to start the sixth. One batter later, he started to implode with absolutely no warning.

Tanaka certainly appeared to be cruising again on Saturday night, but it’s a reality that the more times hitters see a single pitcher in a game, the less effective that pitcher becomes. Against a lineup like the Astros, when it feels like the Yankees absolutely needed Game 1, turning the game over to a superior bullpen to nail it down was the right call. Boone needed to manage last night almost like a Game 7 and that means pulling your starter before he gets into trouble the third time through the lineup. According to the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs, by winning Game 1, the Yankees flipped their chances of winning the series from 45.8% on Friday to 63.1% today.

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