Justin Verlander, in case you hadn’t heard, absolutely wrecked the Oakland Athletics Thursday night in the decisive Game 5 of the Divisional Series. Over a complete game, Verlander allowed just four hits and a walk, fanning 11 batters and thoroughly dominating the Oakland offense en route to a 6-0 shutout victory. Have there been better postseason performances in history? Certainly, as Don Larsen and Roy Halladay can both attest. But there are a few things I’d like to point out about this particular start of Verlander’s.
1) The Game Score of 89 (computed by a fairly rigid algorithm, and not necessarily the finest measure of actual performance) was the second-best of Verlander’s season, behind the 95 he notched in his one-hitter against Pittsburgh back on May 18. In that game, Verlander allowed two walks and struck out 12 in nine innings, even using 13 fewer pitches than the 122 he posted Thursday night. It should be said, though, that Pittsburgh finished 23rd in runs scored, with Oakland up at 14th.
2) Verlander’s start was the finest in his playoff career by a healthy margin, even over his Oct. 6 start where he fanned 11 in seven innings while giving up one run. What gets lost in how brilliant Verlander has been during the regular season is his comparative playoff mediocrity (at least historically). The Tigers ace had never posted a game score north of 62 in his previous two postseason trips, and his career playoff ERA stood at 5.57 after 2011. He was 3-3, and had allowed a cumulative OPS of .818 to opposing batters; his playoff WHIP stood at a pedestrian 1.548, and his WPA was -0.527. Put another way, Verlander had COST the Tigers half a postseason win in his first eight starts.
3) So why are things different in 2012, where Verlander is 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA and a WHIP of .667 through his first two starts? I suggest that it’s the team he’s facing. Verlander is a dominant strikeout pitcher, with a career K/9 of 8.4 and a terrific 9.2 mark in the last four seasons. He had the good fortune of facing the Oakland Athletics, who were among the most whiff-prone teams in the majors with a strikeout percentage of 22.4%. Only Houston (22.7%) and Pittsburgh (22.5%) exceeded Oakland’s mark, and it should be noted that, while the New York Yankees are significantly more patient (18.9%), the Baltimore rate of 21.3% must have Verlander (and compatriot in K-hood Max Scherzer) salivating at the prospect of a Tigers-Orioles ALCS.
4) Verlander burned through 122 pitches in Game 5, which is significant enough that he won’t be available until Game 3 of the ALCS. Some might bemoan the fact that the Tigers won’t have their ace available in Game 1 or Game 2, when the team’s top pitcher traditionally starts. My thinking, though, is that Game 3 is nearly always critical, and might be the most important game of the series. In a situation where the Tigers already lead the ALCS 2-0, Verlander can put it nearly out of reach. If it’s tied 1-1, whom would you rather have on the hill to give you the momentum heading to Game 4? And in a situation where the Tigers trail 2-0 heading into Verlander’s start, he’s their best shot to put them back in the series.
Thoughts? Criticisms? Angry vitriol? Let me know with a comment.