In my mind’s eye, in the great baseball Hall of Fame in the sky, I imagine Justin Verlander saddling up to Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan at the bar, knocking back a couple cold ones. I can so clearly picture them scoffing at the boldness of whatever silly batter decided to crowd the plate against him and grumbling at some umpire who stole away a potential strikeout.
Verlander, the erstwhile ace of the Houston Astros and a future resident in Cooperstown, reminds me of those classic power pitchers. He throws hard and without an ounce of trepidation; he knows what he can do, and he does it. He’s a prototypical pitcher.
Much has been made of the lanky righthander’s reinvention upon arriving in Houston during the 2017 season. It’s a testament to the eternal struggle of maintaining mechanics that even an all-timer can get tangled up. (Also, that we as fans and analysts sometimes have to be patient as guys try to figure this stuff out. It’s not easy.)
Verlander’s return to dominance had already begun in Detroit but was cemented during the Astros run to their first championship. He was the man again, standing tall on the mound, pummeling unfortunate hitters with fastballs and twisting them into knots with his knee-buckling curveball.
Other than perhaps Mariano Rivera or Pedro Martinez, no pitcher has ever amazed me quite like Verlander. It all seems so simple, right? He just pummels the zone with fastballs and then drops in a curve to finish the deal. Easy. Well, no. Verlander does have the heat and the hammer, but age has taught him a few lessons and thus far, hasn’t eroded the tools yet.
Let’s take a look at a recent performance of his against the Chicago White Sox.
Verlander hasn’t lost much
Ready for a cliche? Father Time catches up to us all.
So far, that old bearded grump has slightly dimmed Verlander’s once blazing fastball. It’s no longer straight from the heart of the sun, averaging just under 95 MPH. But, um, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s soft. Jered Weaver he ain’t.
Up first to try his luck for the Pale Hose is Charlie Tilson. Verlander pumps a fastball belt high and away for called strike one. Take notice of his mechanics: clean, simple and efficient. Very little wasted movement. One can’t definitively say that mechanics like this are essential to a pitcher aging gracefully — paging Max Scherzer — but my goodness it has to help.
Tilson takes a slider neck high for ball one.
Verlander brings the slider down from the clouds and slips it right under Tilson’s hands for a slick second strike. This might be a good time to note that Verlander’s slider generates a healthy 40 percent whiff rate. Just tuck that thought away.
Many, many poor souls have been down 1-2 in the count against Verlander. I don’t recommend it. In Tilson’s case, he’s seen a fastball away and two sliders in. The velocity on the four-seamer wasn’t nuclear, but the Astros ace can always dial it up if he needs.
The cool thing about experienced pitchers is how they can read swings. Catcher Robinson Chirinos helps with this too, but I doubt the Verlanders and Scherzers need a ton of assistance. He knows. Tilson fended off the slider fairly well, but …
Not this one. The old adage is you throw the fastball high and the breaking ball low. That doesn’t necessarily apply if you have Justin Verlander’s stuff. One down.
Yolmer Sanchez gets a fastball for strike one. This is a really nice pitch. Sanchez was definitely sitting heater, and even without cranking it up, Verlander got a swing and miss. How? Watch Chirinos’ glove. It barely moves.
The other thing about experienced, butt-kicking pitchers is they learn how to make something good happen without exerting maximum effort. This is an easy, breezy fastball for a guy like Verlander, but because he puts it in the keyhole, so to speak, he gets a whiff. These moments happen all game long with the greats; yet, we should stop and appreciate it. Brilliant stuff.
Man. This ain’t fun for the batter.
Sure is for us, though! Young pitchers, pay attention. Professor Verlander is about to deliver a lesson in sequencing.
The tall righty set Sanchez’s eyes down and away after the opening whiff. So, what to do now? Here’s an idea. Why not deliver the next fastball a hair above the zone and see if the young infielder can handle it? That’s what Gibson or Ryan would do.
Sanchez takes a healthy cut but never had a chance. Here’s where we must mention Verlander’s lethal spin rate, among the best in the world. Remember, for a four-seam fastball, high spin leads to more swinging strikes because the ball appears to be rising. It isn’t, of course; it’s merely dropping slower than other pitches.
That’s no relief to the dude facing down the seams, though.
Another one down 0-2. Heavens. Who has cursed you White Sox hitters? I mean, other than mismanagement and bad injury luck?
Sanchez is in trouble. He’s been blown away by fastballs high and away. We know that Verlander can spin a slider or a curveball in. From a sequencing perspective, the board is open here. The pitcher can waste one in the dirt; he can go above the zone again. He can change speeds or keep up the velocity. It’s a hell of a place to be.
Ultimately, Verlander dials up another fastball that misses just wide of the plate away. It’s a good pitch even if a ball; maybe Sanchez reaches out and whiffs again?
This next one is an Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame possibility.
I cannot tell you how giddy seeing this made me. Verlander has Sanchez set up perfectly for basically anything the ace wants to throw. The count is 1-2; Sanchez has whiffed twice at the fastball. If you asked me what to go with next I’d have said a breaking ball.
But, hey, I’m an idiot at a keyboard. What do I know? Justin Verlander is a gunslinger with a baseball, and he, um, politely declines my advice and instead unleashes a blistering fastball well north of the zone that Sanchez harmlessly waves at. Never had a chance.
We must savor this strikeout with a slower look (boy, that is not a clean hack):
Leury Garcia comes to the plate hoping to break the streak of punchouts for the White Sox. Verlander delivers a high-and-away heater that Garcia flicks foul for strike one.
Garcia gets a slider right under his hands and he bounces it foul. Verlander probably misses his spot here, if the catcher’s glove is any indication, but the difference in speed and location mitigate the risk.
This isn’t as sterling an example of sequencing as before, but it works well regardless. Verlander has shown Garcia a mid-90s fastball away and a high-80s slider in. He’s in full control.
This is a masterpiece of a pitch, another candidate for the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame. Now we get to see Verlander bury the slider down and in on a lefty and wow, is it ever a success. Garcia swings right over it.
It’s tempting to look at this slider and think the break and the speed is what leads to the strikeout. Obviously, that’s critical, but the previous two pitches have Garcia totally off balance, and that makes him easy prey. Great hitters with control over the strike zone — think prime Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera or especially Barry Bonds — are less likely to swing and miss, yes, but also can strategically foul off pitches to keep themselves going. They control the plate.
Hitting is hard. It’s even harder when you face someone like Verlander, an expert at the craft still armed with dynamite stuff.
Enjoy your aces, kids
Pitchers get hurt.
This is true of the greats and of the scrubs, of the old and the young. No pitch is guaranteed. As fans and analysts, we shouldn’t take Verlander for granted. He’s been sitting down hapless fools for so long that his continued success feels preordained, but it isn’t. You never know.
So the next time you get the chance, sit down and enjoy the man’s work. For pitching dorks like us, it’s an incomparable treat.