Well folks, Opening Day has come and gone. The rain did not, and the Sox were forced to move Opening Day to Tuesday April 4 after getting postponed on Monday. The first game at “The Rate” looked good early as the Sox got out to a 1-0 lead in the 1st. But, Jose Quintana was hit hard in the second and Justin Verlander settled in after his rough 1st inning. I wanted to watch Verlander’s outing very closely, and I broke down the day pitch by pitch for a couple of reasons: to examine why he was so effective, and to serve as an advance scouting report for the next time the Sox face Mr. Verlander. So, please pardon my poor illustrations, and let’s take a look at how he worked over the Sox hitters on Tuesday:
Bottom of the 1st
The first inning was the only inning Verlander really looked vulnerable. Saladino led things off with a hard hit single grounded down the third base line off of a curveball Verlander left up [pitch #3]. Here was the sequence:
This would be the last off-speed pitch that Verlander threw to Saladino for the day. Next up was Tim Anderson. Verlander’s plan for Anderson was very clear, as he started him out with off-speed pitches away – neutralizing Anderson’s typically aggressive approach. He finished Anderson off with a high fastball up out of the zone [pitch #4] for his first strikeout of the day. This pitch sequence would become a pattern for Anderson against Verlander on Tuesday.
Next up was Melky Cabrera. Verlander threw exclusively fastballs to Melky. He quickly was down 3-0 in the count, possibly a result of adjusting to working from the stretch as he left each pitch high and away. On 3-0, Melky chased a fastball out of the zone [pitch #4], and on 3-1 Verlander threw a fastball that tailed back over the middle of the plate [pitch #5], and Melky ripped it down the right field line:
Saladino scored on the play, but Melky was thrown out trying for third, continuing a troubling trend of questionable team base running that was seen sporadically through the spring. Here was the sequence to Melky:
The base running mistake essentially let Verlander off the hook for the inning, as he easily disposed of Jose Abreu on three pitches, with Abreu rolling over on a high and away 1-1 count fastball [pitch #3] and grounding out very weakly to second to end the 1st. Here was the sequence to Abreu:
Bottom of the 2nd Todd Frazier
In the top of the 2nd, Quintana was rocked for 5 runs. Verlander responded to his newly inherited 5-1 lead by retiring the side in 15 pitches and striking out two of the three batters he faced. Verlander came right at the Sox hitters this inning and really established his fastball, throwing it 11 of his 15 pitches and moving it all over the zone. He clearly was getting a feel for his breaking ball as well, throwing a sharp first pitch curve to Cody Asche and finishing off Garcia with another good curve. As a result he carved up the Sox hitters this inning: Todd Frazier popped out [pitch #4], Cody Asche, who was worked almost exclusively up and in, struck out swinging [pitch #6], and Avisail Garcia struck out swinging [pitch #5]. The sequences for each hitter this inning are shown below. This inning was a clear indication that Verlander had settled in comfortably, and had it all working.
Bottom of the 3rd
To start off the 3rd, Omar Narvaez popped out weakly to center. He was jammed on a 4-seam fastball [pitch #4] after Verlander had exclusively worked him with his 2-seam fastball to that point. Going back to Asche’s at bat, the other lefty in the lineup for the day who had hit, Verlander worked him inside but mostly with the 2-seamer as well. Using the 4-seamer as a change of pace likely contributed to Narvaez getting jammed in this at bat, as he was likely looking for the 2-seam tail action – a clever change of pace from the veteran Verlander. Narvaez at bat is charted below.
Jacob May’s Major League debut was next, and it was a doozy. He struck out looking on another filthy Verlander curve [pitch #8] after fouling off some tough fastballs [pitch #6 & #7]. However, all things considered it was an excellent at bat. He laid off some tough pitches [pitch #2, #3 & #5] and didn’t look too terribly overmatched. His at bat is charted below.
Back to the top of the order, Saladino only saw two pitches in his second at bat. Verlander threw him a 4-seamer with some cut action on it outside for a ball [pitch #1], followed by a two-seamer right down the middle [pitch #2] that Saladino roped through the infield between shortstop and third base for a single. His 2nd at bat is charted below.
Next, Mr. Anderson was quickly disposed of again in his second at bat of the day. Verlander only needed two pitches, getting Tim to line out very softly on a slider out of the zone [pitch #2] and continuing a pattern of working Anderson with off-speed stuff away. His at bat is charted below.
In the third, Verlander threw 16 pitches – 12 of which were fastballs, continuing the theme of coming right at the Sox hitters.
Bottom of the 4th
In the 4th inning, Melky Cabrera led off with a bloop double to center on a curve [pitch #4]. He advanced to third on a wild pitch, and Abreu drove him in with an RBI groundout [pitch #3]:
He threw exclusively fastballs to Abreu for the second straight at bat and mixed in a couple curveballs to Cabrera compared to throwing him all fastballs in his first at bat. Their respective sequences are shown below.
What’s particularly interesting is that Verlander really switched things up for the next two hitters, perhaps sensing that the Sox were being more aggressive on his fastball. He started off Todd Frazier with a curveball out of the zone. He next threw a changeup down, which Frazier was well out in front of. He did not throw him a fastball the whole at bat, and struck him out on a slider away [pitch #5]. Frazier’s at bat is charted below.
The theme continued for Cody Asche, who saw a first pitch changeup down and away that he fouled off. After pounding Asche inside with fastballs during his first at bat, Verlander alternated between change-up in and fastball away, before putting Asche away on a high fastball out of the zone [pitch #4]. Asche’s at bat is charted below.
While the Sox scored their second run this inning, Verlander was still effective and efficient throwing again only 16 pitches. However, he only threw 7 fastballs in the 4th compared to 12 in the 3rd inning, mixing in 4 change-ups – he threw only 7 all day.
Bottom of the 5th
Avisail Garcia led off the 5th offering at a first pitch curveball, hitting a hard groundball single between 3rd and short. Continuing the recent trend of starting Sox hitters off with off-speed stuff, Verlander started Narvaez off with a slider for a strike in his second at bat. When Narvaez got a fastball, he was ready, flying out to the warning track in right [pitch #2]. Both Garcia’s and Narvaez’s at bats are shown below.
Jacob May was up next and he was sent down on all fastballs, striking out on a high fastball. Verlander also threw all fastballs to Saladino, who walked with two outs. Verlander next threw a first pitch curve to Anderson, before striking him out on 3 pitches. Anderson again chased a high fastball from Verlander to strike out. The pitch sequences for May, Saladino, and Anderson are below. Please note that I do not have the full sequence for May’s at bat. The broadcast team decided to interview May’s mother who was in the stands and show that on TV, instead of just not doing that, showing May’s at bat, and letting May’s mother watch her son play Major League Baseball for the first time.
For the inning, Verlander threw 15 pitches, 12 of which were fastballs.
Bottom of the 6th
To start the 6th, Verlander started his at bat against Melky Cabrera with change-ups and sliders compared to mostly fastballs he had shown to Melky earlier in the game. Re-adjusting to the fastball at the end of the at-bat, Melky was jammed and popped out to right [pitch #6]. His at bat is shown below.
Next, Jose Abreu doubled on a hard liner over Justin Upton’s head – who misplayed the ball. Verlander hung Abreu a slider and he crushed it. Frazier was next, and he was also ready to hack at the first pitch – a fastball right down the middle that Frazier roped to left. Upton redeemed himself from his previous misplay and made a nice play on Frazier’s liner at the warning track. This was a good opportunity for the Sox to get a run or two back – but unfortunately both Abreu (who got lucky that Upton misplayed the ball) and Frazier hit it right at someone. Abreu and Frazier’s at bats are shown below.
To finish the inning, Cody Asche, who probably was ready to call it a day at this point, was worked over a third time by Verlander. This time striking him out with all fastballs – pounding him inside again, and acing him on the inside corner for the strikeout [pitch #5]:
Bottom of the 7th
Verlander came out to start the 7th and came right after Avisail Garcia with fastballs. Working him away, Verlander struck out Avi on a high fastball [pitch #5] for his 10th strikeout of the game:
Omar Narvaez was next and would be the last hitter Verlander would face. He attacked early with fastballs, including getting a very beneficial called strike on pitch #3 of this sequence, though I will note that outside of this call, balls and strikes were very well called all day. From a 1-2 count, Narvaez fouled off a couple of tough pitches. Verlander tried to finish him off with a curveball 3 times [pitch #6, #7 & #8], but Narvaez worked a walk to end Verlander’s day. His at bat is shown below.
By the time it was all said and done, Verlander had worked 6.1 innings, given up 2 earned runs on 6 hits, walking 2, while striking out 10. He threw his fastball 68 times, nearly 68% of the time, working in 15 curveballs, 11 sliders, and 7 change-ups. So what did we learn for next time the Sox face Verlander? I see four key takeaways:
- Be ready for the fastball and be aggressive: As mentioned, Verlander threw his fastball 68% of the time on Tuesday. He also threw first pitch fastballs to 16 of 26 batters faced. He showed that he will attack with the fastball, but also knows when to mix in his off-speed stuff and a changeup.
- Off-speed stuff second time through the order: We saw that Verlander used his curveball, slider, and especially his change-up more frequently in the middle innings. Verlander threw his fastball only 55% of the time during these middle innings while also throwing 4 of his 7 change-ups for the day.
- Patterns to watch: Verlander worked Sox lefties well, especially with fastballs high and inside – they didn’t have much of a chance, save for a mistake to Melky Cabrera in the first. Tim Anderson’s at bats featured almost exclusively off-speed pitches and fastballs away, with high fastballs used to put him away. This will be a pattern not only to watch for the next time Verlander comes to town, but also for Anderson in general this season. High fastballs and off-speed stuff down and away also were a common theme against Avisail Garcia.
- Pick a zone: Verlander for the most part did a very good job of staying out of the middle of the plate as well, save for a couple of mistakes. He commanded both sides of the plate, and masterfully worked the ball up, down, in and out. Against a pitcher of his caliber, hitters won’t be able to cover the whole plate. Not that this wasn’t the hitters approach on Tuesday, but especially next time around the hitters should concede most of the plate and focus on one quadrant of the zone and one pitch to greater increase their chances of success against Verlander.
You can view all of Verlander’s strikeouts for the day in this highlight reel:
[ Time Marks:
Anderson, 1st inning: 0:02
Asche, 2nd inning: 0:04
Garcia, 2nd inning: 0:06
May, 3rd inning (first MLB at bat): 0:12
Frazier, 4th inning: 0:14
Asche, 4th inning: 0:17
May, 5th inning: 0:19
Anderson, 5th inning: 0:22
Asche, 6th inning: 0:24
Garcia, 7th inning: 0:27 ]
Until next time, Go White Sox. –DV
Photo: Keith Allison on Flickr