Every August, major league managers turn in a survey from Baseball America asking them to rate the players in each league with the "best tools," ranging from simple topics such as "best hitter" to more specialized categories like "best slider," "best bunter," and "best pickoff move." On August 6th, when the survey results were posted, Justin Verlander, Detroit's starter in Tuesday's Game 3 against Boston, owned a 3.63 ERA and 138 strikeouts over 143 1/3 innings.
It was probably in the top 15 or top 20 starting pitching performances in the American League, but it was undoubtedly his worst campaign in the past three years.
To hammer home his so-called struggles: for the first time in five years, Verlander didn't take home "Best Fastball" honors from the managers. Verlander fell to second behind teammate Max Scherzer -- a selection nobody will argue with, after Scherzer's Cy Young campaign and brilliant postseason performance to date. Don't expect Verlander to stay dethroned for long, though. His fastball, as great as it has been throughout his career, has never been better.
Consider his dominance against Oakland in the ALDS. Verlander hurled 15 scoreless innings, struck out 21 batters and allowed just eight baserunners -- six hits, all singles, and two walks. As usual, it all keyed on his fastball.
Verlander's ability to reach back and summon extra velocity on his fastball, particularly late in games, has been the stuff of legend league-wide since he hit 102 on the TV gun in the ninth inning of his first career no-hitter, back in 2007 against Milwaukee. That ability hasn't deserted him as he enters his 30s. This year, he has not only saved his best fastball for late in games, but for late in the season. Verlander's fastball velocity averaged 95.4 mph in the ALDS against Oakland, up from 92.6 in April, 93.8 from May through July and 94.8 in August and September (per BrooksBaseball.net).
Verlander tossed 144 of those souped-up fastballs in his two starts against Oakland. The Athletics were not a whiff-prone team in 2013 -- their 8.7 percent swinging strike rate ranked 10th in the league, and closer to sixth (Tampa Bay, 8.6 percent) than 11th (Cleveland, 8.9 percent). A's hitters swung and missed against Verlander in the ALDS 31 times -- and whiffed on 21.5 percent of fastballs, well over triple the league average. Even the average major league slider, consistently the toughest pitch to make contact against, had just a 13.6 percent whiff rate.
Look at the pitch sequencing Verlander used to pick up his 21 strikeouts:
Data from BrooksBaseball.net
The landscape is peppered with orange stars, representing whiffs on fastballs. Of Verlander's 15 strikeouts against the Athletics, nine came on the fastball, and 11 had at least one fastball whiff in the at-bat. Verlander's secondary pitches are excellent as well -- his curveball is another perennial honoree of the Best Tools survey, and his changeup has rivaled the fastball in terms of whiff rate both in the postseason and the regular season. But the fastball is the alpha and the omega, the bread and butter, the pitch everything else plays off.
Verlander's buildup to the postseason can be traced back to his final two starts. Admittedly, these came against possibly the worst two lineups he faced all year -- Minnesota and Miami, with classic September lineups hardly resembling a major league club. But his fastball was never more lively -- he averaged 94.8 mph against Minnesota and 94.2 mph against Miami, hit at least 98 on the PITCHf/x radar gun in both starts, and induced a combined 16 swinging strikes on 102 fastballs.
Verlander acknowledged he wasn't himself in the season's early months. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be," Verlander told ESPN's Jim Caple after his series-clinching ALDS victory. "I feel like it really paid off at the end of the year. It wasn't easy. It was a battle for me all year long. But I felt like I was finally able to make myself more consistent."
Consistency is an overused term in sports; nobody cares if you're consistently bad. But Verlander here is referring to consistency within his own elite skillset, and that's certainly not a good sign for the Red Sox as the clubs head into Game 3 in Detroit. In many ways, Boston's lineup resembles Oakland's. Both feature quality hitters from one through nine in the order. Both were around the league's 20 percent strikeout rate (20.5 percent for Boston, 19.0 percent for Oakland), and both did most of their damage with power (Boston and Oakland ranked second and third in the majors respectively in isolated power, behind Baltimore).
More worrisome, Boston has particularly struggled against the elite, high-velocity fastballs Detroit's starters have brought in the first two games. Anibal Sanchez averaged 94.2 mph on his fastball in Game 1 and drew five whiffs on 49 pitches (10.2 percent). Max Scherzer averaged 93.9 mph in game 2 and induced 10 whiffs on 64 pitches (15.6 percent). And as good as both pitches are, neither has approached the level Verlander showcased in the ALDS.
Outside of a hiccup to begin the season, Justin Verlander's fastball has been without peer since his prime began in earnest in 2009. Now, a pitch considered the best of its brand for half a decade is better than ever. The vulnerable Verlander we saw in April and May is gone.
Boston's challenge Tuesday night, then, is a simple one: here's the best fastball in the world. Now hit it. Good luck.