I don’t think it is lost on anyone that the Astros are arguably the scariest opponent in baseball. Their starting pitching is phenomenal, and they have the big bats to back their pitchers up. Despite having to play five games against the Rays in the ALDS, Houston still intends to use Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole twice in this series. That means the Yankees will have to find a way to get to the two aces if they hope to advance to the World Series. The test starts tonight against Verlander.
Remember when Verlander uncharacteristically struggled with the Tigers for a while? The 36-year-old has been better than ever since joining Houston in 2017. During his two-and-a-half seasons with the Astros, the right-hander posted a 2.45 ERA with 179 ERA+, and averaged over 12 strikeouts per nine innings. Unfortunately, he has historically pitched well against the Yankees in the postseason, too.
Since 2012, Verlander has limited the Bombers to just TWO earned runs across 24.1 postseason innings pitched. He racked up 24 strikeouts during those three outings and only issued two walks. You may be thinking that this doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Yankees, but I have good news: Verlander has shown some cracks in his armor this year.
Like most pitchers around the league, the 2019 ball has been a bit of a thorn in the right-hander’s side. Verlander surrendered 36 home runs during the regular season, good for a career-high of 1.45 HR/9. He hasn’t put up J.A. Happ numbers (1.90 HR/9) by any means, but it’s still a weakness that the Bombers can take advantage of. Here’s a look at Verlander’s pitch selection and location for all 2019 home runs, courtesy of Statcast:
The majority of Verlander’s home runs have come off of hanging sliders and mid-high fastballs. If the Bombers see one of these pitches, they’ll have to take their best swings. He doesn’t make many mistakes, so it might be their only chance to score off the right-hander.
Although Verlander is currently lined up to pitch Game Two tonight, his second appearance could come in Yankee Stadium. That likely will depend upon the outcome of the next few games and whether the Astros feel like they have their backs against the wall and need to push him on short rest again. It’s worth noting that both Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu took him deep to right field earlier in the year. Furthermore, according to Statcast, roughly 18 of his fly balls that were outs, doubles, or triples in other stadiums would have been homers in the Bronx.
Last year, the Yankees were trounced by the Red Sox in large part because their bats went cold. They’ll have to be firing on all cylinders to have any chance of beating the Astros. That means that Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton will need to get going at the plate, and the lineup as a whole will need to jump all over any little mistake Verlander makes.
Of course, this could all be an entirely moot point if the baseballs being used in the postseason are different from the ones used during the regular season. This Yankees offense was built to attack, regardless. Now is their time to shine.