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Game 5 Preview: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers (game now postponed)

Justin Verlander will look to build off his first start, this time facing a much better lineup in the New York Yankees.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Update: Game called. No makeup date is announced (but July 28 is rumored).

New York Yankees (3-2) at Detroit Tigers (3-1)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Pinstripe Alley
Media: ESPN, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (0-0, 3.18 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-0, 4.50 ERA)

Pitcher (2015 stats) IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Tanaka 5.2 18.2 4.6 4.61 0.0
Verlander 6.0 21.7 8.7 4.69 0.1

Spending a whopping $155 million on an unknown commodity prior to the 2014 season seemed like a huge gamble, even for the free-spending Yankees, but their investment in Masahiro Tanaka has paid off in a big way. Tanaka burst onto the scene that year, posting Cy Young caliber numbers before an elbow injury shelved him for the season after just 136 1/3 innings. Instead of racing for Tommy John surgery, however, the Yankees opted to keep their ace off the operating table and squeeze another 154 innings out of him in 2015. Tanaka's numbers fell off somewhat -- his FIP climbed by nearly a full run even though his WHIP was under 1.00 -- but he still struck out over five batters for every walk and accumulated 2.2 fWAR.

Tanaka did eventually have elbow surgery in October, but only to remove a bone spur that had been aggravating his arm. The Yankees were initially wondering whether Tanaka would be ready for Opening Day, and while he made the start, the answer remains unclear. Tanaka's fastball sat right around the 90 mile-per-hour mark, down from the 91-92 miles per hour he averaged in his first two major league seasons. This could simply be a product of conditioning -- he was limited to 87 pitches in his season debut -- but it also hints that Tanaka isn't at 100 percent at this stage of the season.

However, if Tanaka's elbow were a concern, he probably would not have thrown 29 splitters in his first start of the year. The splitter has been a big part of his success early in his career, ending 124 of his 284 career strikeouts. Opponents know it's coming -- he throws it roughly 40 percent of the time with two strikes -- and they still can't hit it, batting just .174 with a .095 ISO. Tanaka's slider has been just as nasty in his career, holding opponents to a .149 batting average and 16.8 percent swinging strike rate.

Hitter to fear: Alex Rodriguez (.289/.400/.711 in 45 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mark Teixeira (.070/.180/.140 in 50 plate appearances)

Take a day off, Tex. The Yankees' first baseman has been worn out by Verlander in his career, collecting three hits in 43 at-bats. One of those hits was a home run, but Teixeira has struck out 13 times in 50 plate appearances, a 26 percent clip. Sure, he's probably going to hit a grand slam today now that I've jinxed this, but even then the numbers would still be brutal.

That's about as good as it gets for Verlander against New York, though. The Tigers' ace has struggled against the Yankees in his career, allowing a 4.03 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 17 starts. He has gotten better lately, however, and has held the current Yankees roster to hitting .200/.279/.380. Only Alex Rodriguez has had sustained success against Verlander, though Chase Headley has five hits (including a homer) in 13 plate appearances.


One of the reasons the Yankees have been so successful against Verlander (and a whole slew of other pitchers) is their organization's emphasis on good plate discipline. As a team, the Yankees swung at 28.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, the lowest rate in baseball. They also posted one of the lowest swinging strike rates in the majors, which is a product of laying off bad pitches. It should come as no surprise, then, that they had one of the highest walk rates in baseball, helping to supplement a team batting average that ranked in the middle of the pack.

This goes to show that while strike one is important, so are strikes two and three. The new Justin Verlander, who has relied more on weak contact than high strikeout totals, may actually be better equipped to face this Yankees lineup, so long as he continues to attack the strike zone when ahead in the count. It may lead to a hit on an 0-2 count or two, but this seems like a more appropriate strategy than throwing 110 pitches in five innings.


Verlander and the revamped bullpen make an early lead hold up for the win.