On Monday, June 25, the Blue Jays open a tough three-game series against the defending World Series champions, the Houston Astros. The Jays draw a tough matchup against Justin Verlander. However, J.A. Happ will take the hill for the Blue Jays in an ace-on-ace matchup.
Justin Verlander was acquired by the Astros at the trade deadline last year in exchange for three top prospects in the Houston system. The deal was truly a “deadline” deal, as the right-hander reportedly vetoed the trade until a few minutes before the 12 PM cut-off. The righty was apparently waiting for a late offer from the Chicago Cubs.
Despite concerning beginnings, the Astros have been an excellent fit for the former MVP. After being traded, the former Cy Young award winner commended the extreme analytical focus and use of technology that the Astros employed. The most analytically inclined team in baseball, Houston used cameras and spin tracking devices to help revitalize the ace’s repertoire.
Verlander lauding the abilities of his new team was not just for show, he was noticeably better while in Houston. Before the trade, he owned a 3.82 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.279 WHIP, and 119 ERA+. However, after the trade, the starter posted an unbelievable 1.06 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 0.647 WHIP, and 376 ERA+.
As well, the right-hander was integral to their world series appearance. The ace was awarded the ALCS MVP after pitching to a 0.56 ERA in two starts and 16 innings. One of these two starts was a complete, one-run game. The other was a seven-inning shutout that helped keep the Astros from being eliminated. Sometimes the most valuable player in a series is debatable. However, in this series, the big righty was undoubtedly the best player on the field—and a massive reason why they made it to the World Series.
This season has been just as remarkable for the 35-year-old. Currently the righty leads, or is tied for the lead, in the Majors in ERA, WHIP, H/9, shutouts, ERA+, adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins, base-out runs saved, win probability added, situation wins saved, and base-out wins saved.
In sixteen starts the big righty has posted a 1.60 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 0.776 WHIP, and 234 ERA+. In total, he has been worth 3.8 fWAR—just 3 points behind his 2017 total. To say Verlander has been remarkable this season may be an understatement.
The right-handed hurler does not require a complicated mix of pitches to shut down an opposing offence. The ALCS MVP throws a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, and cutter.
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Much like Scherzer, when other pitchers in the Majors reduce their fastball use, Verlander has relied more on the heater. The right-handed starter has fired fastballs home 60.6% of the time this season. The four-seamer is fast, averaging 95.39 mph, and maintains good arm-side finish. As well, the heater has been great this year, posting a .184 BAA. Furthermore, the pitch has been responsible for 55 strikeouts this season. However, the righty’s favourite pitch has also given up five home runs.
The Astros ace has thrown his slider 23.4% of the time this season. The slider is quite hard, averaging a velocity of 86.57 mph, and maintains great glove-side cut and drop. As a result of this great velocity and movement, the pitch has resulted in whiffs on 39.34% of swings and 44 strikeouts. The slider has been Verlander’s best pitch this year, posting a .124 BAA and .247 SLGA.
The right-handed hurler has broken off hooks 13.7% of the time this season. The breaking ball has sharp 12-6 movement and averages a decent velocity of 79.76 mph. The big breaker has allowed just seven hits this season, but two have been put in the seats.
Verlander completes his pitching repertoire with occasional change-ups and cutters. The change has been used 1.6% of the time, while the cutter has been featured just 0.5% of the time. Both pitches have not fared well in limited usage. The off-speed pitch has posted a .231 BAA and .385 SLGA. Even worse, the cut-fastball has posted a .333 BAA and 1.333 SLGA.
The former Cy Young winner has pitched to an extreme rate of fly balls this season. In previous years, he held an extremely high fly ball rate. However, he has never passed 50%, which he has done this year—posting a 56.5% fly ball rate. Interestingly, while his fly ball rate has jumped 14% since last season, his line drive rate has dropped by 9%.
While in Detroit, Verlander’s declining strikeout numbers were a source of concern—it seemed his fastball wasn’t as dominant and overpowering as it was in the past. However, as with the rest of his numbers, his strikeout numbers have jumped back up in his first full year in Houston. Through 107 innings this season, the righty has posted a crazy 32% k-rate and good 10.93 K/9.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Blue Jays have been excellent against the Virginia native. Russell Martin, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales lead the way against the World Series champ. Martin owns eight hits in 24 at-bats, Morales has managed 13 hits (including six for extra bases) in 44, and Smoak has posted a 1.075 OPS in 20 career at-bats against the big righty.
The Blue Jays draw a very difficult matchup against Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros. However, with strong numbers against him in the past, there is hope for some offence. As well, J.A. Happ was dominant in his last time out. This game is set to be a great pitcher’s duel.