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ALCS Game 2 Starter Preview: Justin Verlander

JV (MLB Gifs)

Destiny arrives in the form of Justin Verlander standing in the way of the Yankees’ World Series hopes. Four times prior, Verlander and his team has stood in their way. Will this be a fifth?

The Basics

Justin Verlander was either the best or second best pitcher in the American League this season. He led the AL in wins, games started, innings, WHIP, hits per nine and K-BB ratio. His 2.58 ERA was just 0.08 behind teammate Gerrit Cole, though his 3.27 FIP was fourth in the AL. He was second in strikeout and walk rate. Verlander hit 300 strikeouts for the first time in his 15-year career.

His only major flaw was the long ball. He allowed a career-high 36 home runs and only Matthew Boyd allowed more in the AL. Granted, Verlander’s HR/9 beats many of those around him on the leaderboard since he tossed 223 innings, but he still had a penchant for homers.

His Postseason Thus Far

Verlander had two contrasting results in his ALDS appearances. He “Verlander’d” the Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS, holding them to one hit and three walks over seven scoreless innings as the Astros gained a 1-0 lead in the series.

Then, for the first time in his career, Verlander made a true short-rest start, and it was a disaster. Throwing 84 pitches in 3 2/3 innings, he allowed seven hits, three walks and two home runs as the Rays tagged him for four runs. Though his velocity was there, he had no command and his pitches lacked depth and sharpness.

Verlander comes into tonight on regular rest, though one has to wonder if that short rest outing take a toll on the 36-year-old right-hander.

The Stuff

In his third year with the Astros, Verlander is throwing his fastball less than ever. He throws it just 50 percent of the time while relying more on his slider and curveball (with an occasional changeup mixed in). Don’t worry, his stuff is still unreal.

By Fangraphs pitch values, his fastball took a significant drop in effectiveness (30.2 in wFB to 11.3), though his slider picked up the slack (3.9 in wSL to 33.4). He’s lost about 0.5 mph on his fastball (now 94.6 mph) and changeup, though his slider is now 1 mph faster (87.5 mph).

MPHwOBAWhiff %% to RHP% to LHP

His fastball remains highly useful, particularly in setting up his strong secondary pitches. He locates it well and it has both above-average velocity and top-of-the-line spin (98th percentile). His expected wOBA and batting average against are both 95th percentile or higher.

The slider, meanwhile, is death to righties but can also get out lefties.

(MLB Gifs)

Overall, Verlander has a slight reverse platoon split with neither batter’s box getting good licks against him.

History vs. NYY

Verlander has thrown 139 1/3 regular season innings and an additional 38 2/3 postseason innings against the Yankees. Whether newcomers to the roster or stalwarts, they’re familiar with Verlander.

In two starts this season, he allowed three runs each time over six and seven innings, respectively. Each time, he allowed a home run, once to Aaron Judge and another time to DJ LeMahieu.

Brett Gardner has seen him the most of anyone (57 PA) and hits OK against the right-hander (.260/.327/.360) while Didi Gregorius has a homer and double in 22 productive PAs. Judge has struggled prior to the homer, while Gleyber Torres, Edwin Encarnacion, Aaron Hicks and Gary Sanchez have weak numbers.

If Verlander is back to his form prior to short rest, the Yankees could be in for a long night, particularly with Giancarlo Stanton out of the lineup. Still, this lineup is capable of beating the best pitchers and already knows it can hit Houston’s bullpen. It may just be a matter of hitting a couple of balls into the Crawford Boxes.

ALCS Game 1 Starter Preview: Zack Greinke

Greinke’s Slider (MLB.tv)

To start off the ALCS, the Yankees will have Masahiro Tanaka going against 2009 Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star Zack Greinke.

The Basics

In 33 starts between the D-backs and Astros this season, Greinke threw 208 2/3 innings (6.32 IP per start) and produced a 2.93 ERA with a 3.22 FIP and 3.20 DRA. His strikeout rate went down from 24 to 21 percent after his trade to Houston, some of which is likely from no pitchers spot in the lineup. Still, he maintained his impressively-low 3.6 walk rate after the trade.

The 35-year-old right-hander is coming off a dud in ALDS Game 3 in which he allowed six runs (three homers) in 3 2/3 innings as the Astros lost to the Rays.

His Stuff

Greinke no longer possesses anything resembling elite velocity, yet he produces ace-level numbers with guile and veteran know-how. According to Statcast, he threw eight different pitches this season. That includes an eephus pitch, which is essentially the slower classification of his curveball.

The right-hander employs his high-80s, low-90s fastball about 40 percent of the time. Behind that, he goes to his changeup, slider and curveball as his primary offspeed offerings while throwing a few sinkers and the eephus about once a start. He mostly shelved the sinker at the end of the season.

MPHwOBAWhiff%% to RHP% to LHP

Against right-handed hitters, he attacks with the fastball and a mid-80s slider, mixing in the curve and a few more sinkers. He adjusts to southpaws by upping his hard-changeup, which averages just two mph slower than his four-seamer.

Underneath all of this is the curveball, his secret weapon. It a slow curve, registering around 70 mph and often settling in nicely below that. He doesn’t throw it often enough (15 percent) for hitters to sit on it, and the extreme change in speeds leads to some ugly whiffs.

The slow curve gets Hicks (MLB.tv)

The pitch registers as the second slowest curve among qualified starters and the slowest for those who threw the pitch at least five percent of the time.

With a dominant changeup (fourth-best change in Fangraphs Pitch Values), Greinke actually has a reverse platoon split. Even so, don’t sleep on his fastball, which was also hard to hit despite its low velocity.

Overall, despite allowing plenty of balls in play, he mixes and matches well enough to induce weak contact and befuddle hitters. He won the last five Gold Gloves in the National League and is a cerebral pitcher who thinks well ahead of the opposition. If he weren’t facing the Yankees, he’d be a joy to watch.

History vs. NYY

Greinke faced the Yankees twice while in Arizona this year, though the lineups are going to be significantly different. Aarons Judge and Hicks as well as Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius and Gio Urshela were all out of the lineup the first go-around, while Stanton, LeMahieu and Brett Gardner were missing the second time.

The right-hander tossed 12 2/3 innings and allowed just seven hits to the Bombers while fanning 14 and walking four. However, ask him and he’ll throw those numbers right out.

“Not much,” Greinke said of what to take away from those starts. “Their whole team was hurt both times that I faced them pretty much.”

That’s a pretty succinct answer from the famously laconic veteran.

The Rays hit Greinke hard after a long rest, but he’ll be on a more normal schedule heading into this start, and he’ll be at home. Beating Greinke at least once is imperative for the Bombers to take the series, and he hasn’t faced as talented a lineup all year.

While Tanaka could struggle with Houston’s starting nine, Greinke has the same combustibility in Game 1.

Gerrit Cole sits at an inflection point in the Yankees-Astros rivalry

The man in the middle (MLB Gifs)

Run from them, dread them, the Astros arrive all the same.

There was a brief buzz about the Yankees getting to face the Rays (with some newfound respect) in the ALCS. Instead, we get the matchup of goliaths, the two best teams remaining, as the Bombers battle the Astros. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best in this case.

As with mighty Thanos, the Astros seemed inevitable. They are the fully-formed, infinity-stone-wielding titan that 2017 hinted they’d become, someone far surpassing their previous championship squad. Alex Bregman, not Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve, turned into an undeniable superstar, while Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke form a triumvirate powerful enough to plaster over their bullpen flaws.

But the Yankees were inevitable, too, with some offense to the Twins. Houston was the best team in baseball this season, but the Yankees were close despite a spate of ailments and they got healthy in time to match the Astros blow for blow.

I’ve written before about how the Yankees and Astros are on the cusp of a real rivalry, and it seems they might actually cross the threshold this series. This will mark their third postseason meeting in five years and second time with a World Series bid on the line. By all appearances, they’re set to stand at or near the top of the American League for the next half-dozen years.

This series, and in some ways the futures of each franchise, hinge on the Astros’ Game 3 starter, Cole. If you watched any of his ALDS starts, or frankly his last six months, you saw a pitcher at his peak, a slider and curveball dealing ace capable of taking down teams by his lonesome. Despite missing Games 1 and 2 after finishing off the ALDS, he looms large.

It’s not that Verlander doesn’t strike fear anymore, but he was (figuratively) wounded in the ALDS. The Yankees saw him bleed. He was forced to pitch on short rest, which could add to his burden in his next start. As for the future of each team, he’s 36 years old, and there comes a point where even a Hall of Famer starts to slide, though that doesn’t have to be now necessarily.

But Verlander’s one off night displayed Cole’s crucial role. Whichever team possesses him in the postseason can practically snap their way through a few games. The Rays did the Yankees a favor by forcing him to wait until Game 3, where he’ll have to pitch in the Bronx, but now it’s imperative the Bombers win in six games or else face the full weight of Cole at home in Game 7. He hangs over the Yankees like Dallas Keuchel did in past postseasons.

Beyond this season, Cole will be the most sought-after free agent outside of perhaps Anthony Rendon. There aren’t many true innings-eating aces left and he’s one in his prime. He’s like watching Verlander in 2011. There should be 30 teams going hard after him.

But the Yankees and Astros might actually pass on Cole in the offseason. New York is already over the luxury tax while the Astros are close and hesistant to surpass it. They seemingly acquired Greinke both to get over the top in 2019 while staying fearsome in 2020 after Cole leaves in free agency.

We all know the Yankees appear short in the rotation, but signing Cole would require enough money to affect the rest of their roster construction. Much of the depth that has buoyed their magical 2019 run could be dealt or let go in order to make room for the best of the best, which would be a painful but worthwhile tradeoff. The Bombers will also have to compete with the likes of the Phillies, Angels and Padres (just to name a few) for Cole’s services.

For now, the Yankees have to figure out how to beat Cole, or win four of five against Greinke, Verlander and a lesser starter with two of those wins in Houston. The 29-year-old right-hander, who grew up a Yankees fan, now represents the present and the future of the Astros-Yankees rivalry, one way or another.

2019 ALCS: Houston Astros Series Preview

Bregman (MLB Gifs)

On Saturday night, the Yankees take on the AL West champion Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series.

Their Story So Far

The Astros went 107-55 in the regular season and outpaced the rest of baseball to earn homefield advantage throughout the postseason. They earned the right to face the AL Wild Card winner in the Division Series and were pushed by the Rays to five games, potentially to the Yankees advantage.

Houston’s lineup produced on a level with some of the best in baseball history, led by MVP candidate Alex Bregman. Their 125 wRC+ as a team was best in the league, handily beating out the second-place Yankees (117 wRC+). Their hitters sport both the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate in baseball and control the strike zone as much as anyone.

The lineup isn’t too dissimilar from the 2017 team that defeated the Yankees in seven games. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer still anchor the lineup, though Correa’s injuries have sapped at his production, while Yuli Gurriel has had career year. Added to the fray are Rookie of the Year favorite Yordan Álvarez and steady left fielder Michael Brantley. Attacking Houston one-through-seven is a chore.

As you likely know, Houston’s status as World Series favorites rests on the backs of its starting rotation. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole should finish 1-2 in Cy Young voting, while Zack Greinke is a former Cy Young winner with plenty left in the tank.

If the Astros have a weakness, it stems from their bullpen. They aren’t needed as often with starters going deep into games, but the likes of Will Harris, Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly were called upon in the ALDS and looked shaky at times.

Injury Report

The Astros are missing a trio of right-handed starters: Lance McCullers Jr. (Tommy John surgery), Collin McHugh (elbow discomfort) and Aaron Sanchez (shoulder surgery). That thins out their rotation depth, though the top-line talent is still there.

Spotlight: Season Series Takeaways

The Yankees went 3-4 in seven games against the Astros, a fine finish after getting swept in the fourth series of the season. In the first two games of that series, Houston got to the Yankees’ bullpen — including Chad Green, Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino — before roughing up James Paxton in the finale.

A lot changed before the next meeting. Paxton figured out that he was tipping pitches in Houston, while Green was demoted and figured out his own issues in Triple-A. That led to the Yankees winning three of four in late June, a week before the London Series.

Paxton gutted his way through five innings of one-run ball to earn one win, while the Yankees rode a bullpen game to another. Masahiro Tanaka and the heroics of Austin Romine and Giancarlo Stanton put New York on the verge of a sweep, but J.A. Happ was soundly defeated by Verlander and co. on Old Timers’ Day.

What should we remember from these series? First, Tanaka and Paxton can handle Houston’s lineup. I know, Paxton wasn’t very good the first time around, but he has solid numbers against Houston dating back to his Seattle days and that came through in his second start. Tanaka, meanwhile, dealt in both outings despite not picking up a win.

Beyond them, this will be the toughest test for the Yankees’ bullpen. Neither NL squad could pose the variety of attack Houston brings to the table. Álvarez, who homered off both Tommy Kahnle and Happ, will be a menace. Kahnle and any other lefty in the pen will have to tame him.

But the Yankees also put a dent into Houston’s pitching staff. They got three runs in seven innings against Cole and scored three runs in both starts against Verlander. They ran up Greinke’s pitch count in his one start against the Pinstripers before the trade deadline. Lastly, they beat up on Pressly for their most recent win against Houston, and made the top reliever look fallible.

Potential Lineup

Note: All numbers here are regular season numbers.

  1. George Springer, CF (.292/.383/.591, 156 wRC+)
  2. Jose Altuve, 2B (.298/.353/.550, 138 wRC+)
  3. Michael Brantley, LF (.311/.372/.503, 133 wRC+)
  4. Alex Bregman, 3B (.296/.423/.592, 168 wRC+)
  5. Yordan Álvarez, DH (.313/.412/.655, 178 wRC+)
  6. Yuli Gurriel, 1B (.298/.343/.541, 132 wRC+)
  7. Carlos Correa, SS (.279/.358/.568, 143 wRC+)
  8. Josh Reddick, RF (.275/.319/.409, 94 wRC+)
  9. Robinson Chirinos, C (.238/.347/.443, 113 wRC+)

Houston’s bench starts with backup catcher Martin Maldonado (108 wRC+), who typically catches Cole’s starts. INF/OF Aledmys Díaz (119 wRC+) can play a plethora of positions and is a fine pinch hitter vs. lefties. OF Jake Marisnick (86 wRC+) is the go-to defensive replacement, while OF Kyle Tucker (122 wRC+) could get a start in right field. OF Myles Straw is mostly a pinch runner (8-for-9 in steal attempts)

Possible Pitching Matchups

DateNYY StarterHOU Starter
Game 1Sat, Oct. 12James PaxtonZack Greinke
Game 2Sun, Oct. 13Masahiro TanakaJustin Verlander
Game 3Tue, Oct. 15Luis SeverinoGerrit Cole
Game 4Wed, Oct 16J.A. Happ/BullpenJosé Urquidy/Bullpen
Game 5Thu, Oct. 17PaxtonGreinke
Game 6Sat, Oct. 19TanakaVerlander
Game 7Sun, Oct. 20SeverinoCole

These matchups are mere projections as neither team has announced their plans yet.

Though he was touched up in ALDS Game 3, Greinke is a force. He doesn’t have his old velocity, but he has a cunning to him that few pitcher possess.

Meanwhile, Cole and Verlander are absolute wrecking balls. Cole tossed 15 2/3 innings in the Division Series, allowed six hits and one walk, and struck out 25 batters. He won’t be facing the Rays’ lineup again, but he can still win a game by himself. However, if the Yankees play well enough, they only have to face him once.

Verlander is coming off short rest in ALDS Game 4 and that could have a cumulative effect on him. However, he is still Cy Young caliber and was as dominant as Cole in his first ALDS start.

Urquidy has a total of 42 2/3 innings of MLB experience, including one ALDS appearance, after debuting in July. The Astros are keen on him joining the rotation for next season, but he could make his eighth career start in Game 4. The veteran Miley was rocked in the second half and is unlikely to get the start.

Bullpen Status

RHP: Will Harris, Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Héctor Rondon, Joe Smith, José Urquidy, Josh James

LHP: Wade Miley

Despite needing to go five games in the Division Series, the Astros’ bullpen is well rested after Cole went eight innings in the clincher.

Based on their usage in Round 1, the Astros seem to have an established hierarchy in their bullpen; Harris, Osuna and Pressly are the team’s top three right-handers, while Urquidy, James and Miley are the potential long men.

As shown above, Urquidy or Miley might take the Game 4 start, so their availability elsewhere in the series is questionable. Overall, that shouldn’t matter. Houston is going to ride their top three starters and hope to get straight to the back-end of their bullpen.

Rondon or Smith could get work against the Yankees’ righty-heavy lineup, particularly the submariner Smith, but they won’t be getting the high leverage outs.

Mailbag: Astros, Gardner, Happ, Roster Crunch

Embed from Getty Images

We have a number of interesting questions to answer in this week’s mailbag. Want to have something answered in a future edition? Shoot us an email at viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com to be considered. Let’s dig in:

Jason asks: Looking ahead to the playoffs; I noticed that Justin Verlander is having a home run problem this year – he’s ranked 6th in all of MLB with in HR/9 rate and to date has given up 33 (!) home runs second in MLB. Do you see this as a potential advantage for the Yankees – who are second in the league in home runs per game –  “when” they face Houston in a 5/7 game playoff series?

I don’t think I’d call it an advantage. Verlander remains dominant in spite of his high home run totals because he hardly lets anyone on base in the first place. I know WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) isn’t a cutting edge stat, but Verlander leads the league with a 0.80 mark. His teammate Gerrit Cole (0.96) is in second place.

Of Verlander’s 33 homers surrendered, 27 of them have been of the solo variety. The Yankees may be able to take him deep once or twice should they face him, but will anyone be aboard to make it impactful? That’s the hope. To beat someone as good as Verlander, you do need a little good fortune.

(MLB Gif Hub)

On the bright side, it doesn’t hurt that he gives up homers at a high rate! In theory, it does make him a little more susceptible to having a game get away from him.

Robert asks: As his career winds down I have been thinking that Brett Gardner was probably woefully underrated as a prospect. Do you know of any projections for lifetime WAR when he was in AAA? It feels like he’s above 95th percentile. Any one else exceed expectations as much? Canó perhaps?

Hindsight is 20/20, so yes, Gardner was underrated as a prospect. Baseball America had him between 8th and 13th in the Yankees’ top prospects between 2005 and 2008. He was definitely on the radar, but wasn’t a league-wide top prospect. Knowing what we know now, a retrospective top 100 prospect list from any of those years would have had to include Gardner in the back end.

As for projections, you’re in luck. A few years ago, former FanGraphs contributor and college roommate of mine Chris Mitchell developed the KATOH projections for minor leaguers. In one of his earliest and rudimentary versions of the system, he shared some historical projections. Here’s what was projected for Gardner through his age-28 season:

AgeYearLevel>12 WARProjected WARActual WAR

Note that the first projection excludes 1.1 WAR from his 2008 season when he had already debuted with the Yankees. That projection forecasted amounts to be accumulated thereafter. Either way, those projections paint a pretty obvious picture: Gardner was much better than expected. Instead of being a fringe prospect (2005 projection) or a second-division regular/fourth outfielder (2008 projection), he became a comfortably above average starter. Now, as Randy wrote this morning, Gardner has become an unsung hero. Nobody saw this coming when he was in the minors.

As for other unheralded prospects, Robinson Canó is a good one. If I recall correctly, he was more regarded than Gardner as a prospect, though Robbie didn’t crack Baseball America’s top-100 either. Per KATOH, 18 year-old Canó had a 2.4 WAR forecast through his age-28 season. His projection as a 19-year old in A-ball bumped him to 4.7. Either way, his actual 23.4 WAR shattered both.

Jonathan asks: I read your article about Didi and Dellin possibly not coming back because of salary issues and the Yankees might prefer Cole. But I see a simple fix that the Yankees actually have done in the past which would allow them to keep Didi and Dellin plus pick up Cole. Two offseasons ago, the Yankees weren’t interested in Chase Headley at 13 million so they dumped him with Bryan Mitchell to create luxury tax space. Why can’t they trade Happ with maybe a couple of prospects like Nick Nelson, Albert Abreu, or Mike King?

(MLB Gif Hub)

To be honest, I don’t think we’ll see another trade like we did with the Padres before. It was befuddling at the time that the Padres wanted Bryan Mitchell and it still is. The names you suggest ostensibly are more promising than Mitchell was, though.

Still, I don’t think the Yankees should be in the business of attaching prospect(s) in order to shed salary. If they want to get rid of Happ, the organization should eat salary to facilitate a trade. Or, include someone on the fringe of the 40-man roster that another team wants to give a chance.

At any rate, I’m not sure that shedding Happ’s salary would necessarily alter the team’s plans with Betances and Gregorius. There are a number of other considerations, including first time arbitration eligible players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez who will receive substantial raises. Getting Happ’s salary off the books would help, but it takes two to tango with regard to Gregorius’s and Betances’s free agencies. Moreover, I expect the Yankees to have their own number and not budge, similar to how we’ve seen them behave recently.

Jack asks: With what might be the most talented (and packed) 40-man roster in our lifetime, I want to know what you think the Yankees will/should do to balance the roster during the offseason. There will have to be some cuts, some free agents not brought back, and possibly some trades. Do the Yankees, for example, just cut the likes of Mike Ford, Greg Bird, and Jonathan Holder? 

This is definitely the most packed 40-man roster I can recall, and probably the best too. At the moment, the Yankees have 49 players on its 40-man roster, which means they have nine guys currently on the 60-day injured list:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Dellin Betances
  3. Giancarlo Stanton
  4. Jordan Montgomery
  5. Ben Heller
  6. Miguel Andújar
  7. Greg Bird
  8. Ben Heller
  9. Jacoby Ellsbury

At some point between now and the offseason, everyone above will need to be activated and have space created for them. Severino, Betances, Stanton, Montgomery, and Heller are likely to be activated before the end of the regular season. Let’s power rank some guys who might be designated for assignment as these five return:

  1. Adonis Rosa
  2. Ryan Dull
  3. Breyvic Valera
  4. Mike Ford
  5. Cody Gearrin

I could also see Heller waived off the 40-man once he’s ready, too. Additionally, there’s also the option of transferring guys from the 10-day IL to the 60-day IL to create space. Maybe David Hale?

Making more space will be a little easier in the offseason, when the Yankees will have seven free agents. They’ll still need to add a few Rule 5 eligible minor leaguers, so I would still expect more movement. I wouldn’t expect straight cuts of guys like Greg Bird or Jonathan Holder though. They’d try to trade them first.

Jack also asks: I think most of us see the Astros as the biggest roadblock to winning a championship this year (and maybe during much of our “window”). I keep thinking about who I hope the Astros play in the ALDS. In other words, who has the best chance of beating Houston in a five game series?

I wouldn’t worry so much about who the Astros will play. The Yankees need to take care of business in their own ALDS first. Whether that’s Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Oakland, or Boston doesn’t make much of a difference to me.

Nonetheless, I’ll try to statistically answer your question. Per Fangraphs’ playoff odds, the American League team with the best chance to win the pennant (after the Astros and Yankees) is the Twins. So, there you have it.

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