It would have been unthinkable a year ago that Justin Verlander might play second fiddle to Max Scherzer, but Scherzer had himself a Cy Young caliber season and showed that same level of dominance in the Detroit Tigers’ 3-2 Game 1 win. Max fanned 11 Oakland Athletics hitters in seven innings by establishing his strong fastball early and then transitioning to a more off-speed heavy approach later on to keep batter off balance. Verlander will likely try to take the same approach on Saturday night.
Verlander had a very good year for the Tigers. He was inconsistent, yes, but his 3.46 ERA and 3.28 FIP was plenty good enough to allow the team to win some games, and pretty much matched his career line. Justin’s struggles came in the middle months, but he really seemed to put everything back together in September when he pitched 39.2 innings with a 2.29 ERA, a 10.9 K/9 rate, and a season-low 2.3 BB/9 rate. He was the Verlander of old, the guy we had been waiting for all season.
Is he BACK? We can’t know for sure, but the signs are promising – we obviously would rather a strong finish than a poor one.
Oakland will likely be employing their platoon-heavy lineup again — they had five left-handed hitters, two switch, and two right-handed hitters in the lineup on Friday night — but Verlander has actually been better against left-handed (.236/.307/.351) hitters this season than right-handed hitters (.271/.327/.412). I don’t think we can necessarily expect that sort of reverse-platoon split to continue — some of the disparity is BABIP related (hello Billy Butler) — but, the way the numbers look, BABIP regression would be more likely to allow him to get better results versus righties (.332 BABIP) not worse results versus lefties (.305 BABIP)
The Detroit Tigers offense jumped on Bartolo Colon early on Friday night to the tune of three runs in the very first inning, but they were held scoreless the rest of the way despite seven more hits and three more walks. They’ll need to push more runs across to prevent Oakland from getting back into the series.
In contrast to the 40-year old veteran Colon, the Athletics will send out 23-year old rookie Sonny Gray for Game 2. Gray only has 64 big league innings under his belt (10 starts) but he’s been extremely successful in this limited exposure. In his big league time he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and induced nearly two ground balls for every fly ball.
Here’s a visual representation of how Gray attacks hitters (clicking should embiggen):
(Data from BrooksBaseball.net)
In contrast to Colon’s more two-seam heavy approach, Gray prefers to work with his four-seam fastball to get ahead of hitters. He’ll mix in a few more two-seamers to right handed hitters, but he mostly gets by as a fastball-curveball pitcher. The curve being the go-to pitch when he’s looking for the strikeout (he’ll also mix in a few sliders to right-handers when he’s ahead in the count).
Gray has thrown more than 100 pitches just twice in his career, the last time in August, so the Tigers may be able to get into the softer part of the A’s bullpen (not that there is a really soft part) if they can elevate Gray’s pitch count and knock him out of the game early.