Well, Gerrit Cole does, anyway. He gets it done with raw power, right in your face. The Houston Astros righty leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts per nine innings; he throws the second hardest average fastball among starters. He throws that 97 MPH fastball almost 55 percent of the time, challenging hitters over and over with it.
This stat kind of blew me away. Hitters whiff against Cole’s fastball almost 38 percent of the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s the value of velocity and spin rate coming together. Cole’s fastball is dominant.
I’ve profiled some awesome, creative pitchers in this Ode to a Pitcher series. Take Dodgers lefty and possible NL Cy Young favorite, Hyun-Jin Ryu, for example. Ryu gets outs with deception. He moves the ball around the zone, cuts it and runs it, changes speeds. He uses everything at his disposal to get outs.
Cole doesn’t work quite that way. Maybe once his fastball loses its edge, but not now. Cole does work throughout the zone, but almost everything he throws is harder than 90 MPH. Cole forces the batter to contend with hard velocity on every pitch, be it a fastball, slider or changeup. You won’t get an eephus from Gerrit Cole.
It works. Cole has been an ace for the Astros since they acquired him before the 2018 season, and he’s lining himself up for a big payday this winter. Cole is fourth in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind only Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn (!!!) and Charlie Morton. Good company.
Baseball can do a lot of things to better promote itself. This column isn’t interested in debating each idea, but here’s one: if you have no-doubt ace facing a team with a superstar hitter, maybe we promote this? How about we discuss it? Could it be on First Take? Hmm? Other sports are great at this — how many times did we hear about Brady vs Manning?
Just this week, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in modern history and still an elite hurler by any measure, welcomed the Milwaukee Brewers, led by the reigning MVP, Christian Yelich.
This should be headline news! Verlander vs Yelich! The aging gunslinger who can still slap the youngsters around against arguably the game’s best hitter (non-Mike Trout division). They faced off, one on one, and we’re going to focus on one of those at-bats today.
Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated player in the sport. I so rarely hear him come up in the best outfielder discussion, which irks me. That could be the cost of playing next to Christian Yelich, who overshadows just about everyone, or it could be something else. Either way, Cain is awesome, and could very well be the sport’s second-best center fielder, behind only Trout.
Tough living next door to a dude reminding everyone of Mickey Mantle.
Verlander greets the superstar with a slider for ball one.
Verlander comes right back with a hard fastball over the plate for strike two. The location is a bit worrisome, even with the change in quadrant from the slider. I suspect he didn’t think Cain would be hunting fastball here. Why? I don’t know. It’s kind of jarring when you stop to study it.
This slider to Cain is ridiculous, a crystal-clear look at the power of tunneling and sequencing. Verlander started the centerfielder low and away, then came back with a belt-high heater, and now feeds Cain a slider in just about the same place as the fastball. Look at the result. Cain is completely fooled.
This is a testament to Verlander’s stuff, his knowledge and the repeatability of his mechanics. Because he throws so hard, it’s easy to forget that Verlander is brilliant. This is a testament to that; the at-bat is completely in his control now.
Take a seat, Lorenzo. Young pitchers, study this exchange. Yes, even that somewhat iffy second-pitch fastball. Verlander just worked over an elite hitter in four pitches — Cain flails at the end. My goodness. Pitchers are just unfair.
One down. For as great as Cain is, this is the main event. Christian Yelich, arguably the game’s deadliest hitter (again: non-Trout division), is up. Yelich is an unreal slugger and has been flat-out pounding the ball, amassing an absurd 195 wRC+ (um, 100 is average) thus far in 2019. He’s just unstoppable.
This is a heavyweight title fight. It could headline an arena. Verlander, still without question one of the best in the world, staring down a devastating young slugger who could be embarking upon a Hall of Fame career.
Let’s do this.
Verlander starts Yelich with a fastball right on the hands for a called strike one. Well located and hard — 97 MPH. It fits the narrative for Verlander to test the young slugger with heat near the hands; power pitchers tend to want the inside of the plate.
This is incredible. You won’t see too many weak hacks from Yelich, but Verlander draws one here with the curve below the zone. Typically it’s hard to make a curve look like a fastball, but this swing clearly looks like a batter fooled … and Verlander isn’t typical. Yelich has to be ready for anything after that first-pitch heater, too. Great pitchers force you to defend every inch of the zone.
With the count 0-2, Verlander knows he can expand the zone and see if Yelich will chase. Even if it isn’t likely that he will — Yelich is a patient, skilled hitter — it makes sense to do so from a sequencing perspective. So Verlander does, burying a slider below the zone inside. Yelich doesn’t go for it, but now he has to be aware of three quadrants: on the hands, down and away, down and in.
The count resides in Verlander’s favor as he weighs the options. He’s attacked each quadrant of the zone except one. Ah, there’s an idea. Why not drop a curve high and away? Who thinks to drop a curveball there? Justin Verlander does, and judging by his reaction, he really wanted that called strike.
It’s a ball. Few inches lower … probably strike three. But Yelich held, and the umpire went his direction. Still, I love Verlander’s hopeful bounce off the mound.
This is a masterpiece in pitch-making. The entire sequence reveals such skill in both stuff and approach, and I think far too often we forget about the latter. This series tries to celebrate both incredible stuff and intelligent approach because the greats boast both. Yo
Verlander dismantled Christian Yelich here with a slider that looked exactly the same as his fastball out of the hand. How do you tell them apart? Remember, Verlander opened the at-bat by standing the slugger up with a 97 MPH fastball up and in. Having worked each quadrant of the strike zone, Verlander appears looks to be working up and in again, so Yelich swings, expecting fastball.
You get past Cain and Yelich and the reward is … another former MVP, Ryan Braun. Braun isn’t on the level of his teammates now, but he’s a smart, still dangerous hitter. Screw around with him and he’ll rip a double.
Verlander takes to the outside corner with a slider. Braun bounces it foul to start the count 0-1.
Verlander stays low in the zone with a second slider, this one a bit more in the middle of the plate. Braun bounces this one foul, too. The count is now firmly in Verlander’s favor, 0-2, which must be what it feels like to have the Hulk gripping you with both hands. Whatever happens next won’t be pretty.
Did Justin Verlander just strike out Ryan Braun on the same pitch three times? Yes. Yes, he did. I love to break down brilliant sequencing or tunneling, but … well … hard to credit that here. Still, I’d be surprised if Verlander worked Braun this way on a whim. He’s too great and has been for too long, to work without a plan.
Plus, you know, that slider is wicked. Sometimes great stuff does the job on its own.
Verlander remains unbelievable
The big righty struck out fifteen but allowed three solo bombs in what ended up being a 14-inning game. That pitching line sorta sums up 2019 baseball. Lots of Ks, and sometimes the only way to scratch out a run against these pitching monsters is via solo blasts.
I want to take a second here to go after the Astros announcers. If you have MLB.TV, flip to this game and watch the sixth inning. They spend almost no time discussing the thrill of seeing Verlander face off with these batters again. Sure, it’s the sixth inning, he’s faced them already, but it’s Justin freaking Verlander against Christian by-God Yelich.
This should be a big deal! A really big deal! And it wasn’t. Baseball announcing frustrates me in general, but this was an especially bad look.
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.
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.