Justin Verlander is in a fantastic groove coming into Saturday night’s clash with Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees. We’re just over a month since a struggling Verlander responded to critics over his poor April by promising to "dominate" soon. He’s been as good as his word.
Since May 1, Verlander has an ERA just a touch under 3.00. Overall on the year, he’s racking up strikeouts at a pace he hasn’t managed since 2009. He's allowed more home runs than normal, but mainly a result of a few rough starts in April. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Verlander has pitched quite a bit better than his 3.97 ERA/3.57 FIP.
According to Baseball Prospectus' deserved run average statistic, Verlander should have an earned run average of 2.87. DRA factors in the Tigers bullpen's poor job in preventing inherited runners to score after Verlander comes out of the game. Verlander is 11th overall in total strikeouts, and is 8th overall in WARP. Once again, Verlander is back to being one of the elite starters in the American League.
He's only looked better of late, as his average fastball velocity has climbed from 92.91 mph in April, all the way to 94.48 mph in June, putting him right back in the company of the hardest throwing starters in the game. The addition of his rebuilt hard slider/cutter has given him a potent new weapon, particularly against right-handed hitters. At the moment, there are few in the game pitching any better.
To keep the train rolling, Verlander now takes on a Yankees' organization that has given him fits throughout his career, in search of his sixth win of the season.
Detroit Tigers (30-30) at New York Yankees (31-30)
Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Yankee Stadium
SBNation Blog: Pinstripe Alley
Pitching Matchup: Justin Verlander (5-5, 3.97 ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (3-1, 2.76 ERA)
As good as Verlander has been over the past six weeks, Masahiro sees him those six weeks, and raises him the whole season. Tanaka is riding the highest ground ball rate of his career to success in one of the most dangerous home parks in baseball to pitch in. While he's been quite fortunate that more of those grounders aren't finding holes, Tanaka in also inducing pop-ups at a fine rate of 13.1% of his balls in play. Coupled with his typically stingy walk rate, and you have the recipe for success, even in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium.
On the positive side, Tanaka's home run rate is suspiciously low considering his career rates. More groundballs explains part of it, but the dam could burst on him at any time. A offense with the Tigers' power needs to break the spell today (or get a lot more ground balls to find a hole) with a display of power. Tanaka won't strike out that many generally, but he's not going to give out free passes either.
Tanaka sits around 92 mph with his fastball, mixing in a cut version occasionally. While the fastball velocity won't impress, quality command and movement allows him to throw darts around the bottom of the strike zone and rack up groundballs. He backs it with a fine slider and one of the best splitters in the game. The mix allows him to pound the zone, inducing groundballs early in counts, while backing it up with a pair of whiff-inducing secondary offerings. Even when the splitter isn't sharp, Tanaka gets hitters out on their front foot a lot, particularly this year, adding a solid dose of guaranteed outs via the pop-up to his batted ball mix.
The Tigers have only faced Tanaka twice since he arrived in the majors. Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera have each had success, but it was J.D. Martinez who lit Tanaka up last summer, launching a pair of home runs in one game, before adding a third off of the Yankees' bullpen to complete a three home run day.
On the other side, many of the Yankees' veterans are quite familiar with Justin Verlander.
Hitter to fear: Alex Rodriguez (.344/.432/.844 in 32 AB)
Hitter to fail: Jacoby Ellsbury (.240/.276/.320 in 25 AB)
Of all major league teams, no one has had Justin Verlander's number quite like the Yankees. As a team they hold a career OPS of .781 against the Tigers' ace, easily the best mark of any team who has faced him regularly. A Verlander start against the Yankees always seems to feature a lot of foul balls as Yankee hitters defend against the high fastball better than most. However, this isn't quite the Justin Verlander they've seen the past two seasons, and this isn't the sort of offense that can compare with the powerful lineups they've run out during most of Verlander's career.
Presumably, Yankees manager Joe Girardi will fill out his linecard today with a heavily left-handed hitting lineup, but that isn't likely to help much. Verlander is squashing lefties this year, allowing just a .259 wOBA. As an extreme flyball pitcher, Yankee Stadium is a dangerous place for Verlander. But with the Tigers' ace pumping fastballs with velocity reminiscent of 2012, his already dominant stuff looks even better suited to handle a mediocre, and heavily left-handed Yankees lineup. The Tigers probably won't light up Tanaka this time around, but a guy who throws this many strikes is prone to getting ambushed by the Tigers' power hitters. Probably whoever gets out to a lead is going to hang on to claim victory in this one.
The Tigers big bats eventually get to Tanaka, and Verlander proves too much for the Yankees right now as the Tigers even the series at 1-1.