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Velocity key for Verlander; can Yanks counter?

Astros righty averaged 96.1 mph on fastball in Game 2, second best of 2017
October 19, 2017

Having won three consecutive games to take a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees are just one win away from their first Fall Classic since 2009. There are just a few obstacles, of course, starting with the need to win at least one game in Houston.

Having won three consecutive games to take a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship Series, the Yankees are just one win away from their first Fall Classic since 2009. There are just a few obstacles, of course, starting with the need to win at least one game in Houston. The Yanks were only 40-41 on the road this year, and they got themselves in a 2-0 hole in the first place by losing Games 1 and 2 at Minute Maid Park.
But more importantly, the obstacle is the man who will be taking the mound in Game 6 of the ALCS presented by Camping World. The Astros will have Justin Verlander, who has exceeded all expectations since being acquired from Detroit in August, and who completely shut down the Yankees in a 13-strikeout complete game performance in Game 2.
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The Yankees haven't lost since. If they want to avoid Game 7, they'll have to do better against Verlander tonight. But what's made Verlander so dominant? More importantly, what, if anything, can the Yanks do to beat him? That's the most important question hanging over Game 6, and it just may be what determines who ends up representing the AL in the World Series presented by YouTube TV.

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To begin with, the Yanks saw something like "peak Verlander" in Game 2, as he averaged 96.1 mph on his 71 four-seam fastballs. That's more than just an impressive number; it's actually tied with three other starts for his second fastest four-seam velocity of the past three seasons, behind a 96.4-mph average on July 19. Of those five fastest starts of the past three years, three have come in his eight games as an Astro, including his Houston debut on Sept. 5 and his AL Division Series start against the Red Sox.
While his Astros average (95.5 mph, including the postseason) is about the same as his 2017 Tigers velocity (93.3 mph), this is the continuation of a larger trend for Verlander. You might remember that many had written him off after a disappointing 2014 season that saw him put up a 4.54 ERA, striking out just 159 in 206 innings as he struggled to overcome the effects of offseason core surgery. Never fully healthy, his fastball averaged just 92.8 mph that season.
The next year, it was 93.4 mph, then 94.1 in 2016 and 95.3 mph this year. As you can see, the Houston version of Verlander is operating at peak velocity, and especially so in October. As a recent study at FanGraphs found, there was a 5-mph range between his average and maximum fastball velocities during the regular season, but just a 1.8-mph gap in the postseason. If Verlander has an "extra gear," he's always in it right now.

As it does for most pitchers, velocity matters for Verlander. Just look at the different outcomes over the past three seasons on his fastball based on how hard he's throwing it.
Verlander four-seam fastball outcomes by velocity, 2015-17 (including postseason)
Over 95 mph
.179 BA    
.296 SLG         
26 percent swinging strike rate        
Under 95 mph
.263 BA  
.462 SLG 
21 percent swinging strike rate            
As it often does, high spin follows high velocity; when a pitcher ups one, he often ups the other, too. In Game 2, Verlander's average four-seam spin rate of 2,635 rpm was his highest in any start all year, and it was his highest in the three years of Statcast™. It's well above the Major League average of 2,255 rpm, and it essentially tied a May 9 Max Scherzer start for the highest four-seam spin of any game started all year.
Verlander and Scherzer dominate the spin leaderboards, as they always do, and we looked into this as helping fuel Verlander's rebound prior to 2016. High-spin fastballs can defy gravity slightly longer, leading to a "rising" effect that correlates well with swinging strikes and popups. High spin, like high velocity, does not by itself make a pitcher successful; that said, it's hard not to notice that the top four names on the starting pitcher fastball spin list are Verlander, Scherzer, Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray.

So what can the Yankees do to combat this? Let's offer three ideas.
1. Be aggressive at the plate.
This may sound counterintuitive, since the Astros' bullpen has been a big trouble spot. Traditionally, what you'd like to do is to get Verlander's pitch count up and get him out of the game. The problem is, the Yankees tried that in Game 2, and 124 pitches later, he was still there closing it out.
A big part of that was because Verlander got 17 called strikes on his fastball alone, tied for his third most of the past four years. Atop that list are the 19 called strikes he got in the first game of the ALDS presented by Doosan, as the Red Sox fell into the same trap. In Game 2, 10 of those called strikes came on the first pitch. Four more came with a 1-0 count. Only one came with two strikes.
Of the 32 hitters he faced, 26 got a first-pitch fastball. Knowing it's probably coming doesn't make it easy to hit, but it's better than worrying about the slider or curveball when you're behind -- and his 13 swinging strikes on the slider were his most of the past four years. This is especially true because despite what seemed like a move to high fastballs, that hasn't been true in the postseason. His two starts this year have had two of his five lowest average fastball heights of the past three seasons, just 2.5 feet off the ground.

2. Especially you, Aaron Judge.
Judge turned his disappointing October around with a stellar three games in New York, collecting four extra-base hits, including two homers. But he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against Verlander, and he was down, 0-1, all four times, watching three first-pitch fastballs and fouling off a fourth.

Behind in the count to an ace pitcher, Judge ended up swinging at the pitches Verlander wanted him to, collecting strikeouts on two sliders (one in the dirt) and getting him to make soft contact on two fastballs at the top or above the zone. It's exactly the type of plan you'd expect a veteran pitcher to have against a powerful rookie hitter. Judge can't let it happen again.
3. Be aggressive on the bases, too.
The Yankees were an average basestealing team, ranking 12th with 90 steals, led by Brett Gardner (23) and Jacoby Ellsbury (22). Meanwhile, the Astros couldn't throw anyone out at all; their catchers, primarily Brian McCann and Evan Gattis, successfully threw out just 12 percent of basestealers, which was the lowest mark of any team. Meanwhile, Verlander allowed nine stolen bases in 10 tries, all coming with Detroit.
But the Yanks didn't try to exploit this in Game 2, in part because of lack of opportunities. Ellsbury didn't play, and Gardner's only base hit didn't actually end up with him on base when he tried to stretch his double into a triple, getting thrown out on a nice relay from right field.
The Yankees can beat Verlander, just like they showed they can beat Dallas Keuchel. But it won't be easy, and that's the point. You don't get to within one game of the World Series by beating the easy pitchers. The Astros have two of the best, and they have home-field advantage. This one's far from over.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for and the host of the Statcast podcast.