How The Indians Defeated Both Verlander and Scherzer

The Indians not only swept the division leading Detroit Tigers, they did so by beating up their two aces in back to back games. The tribe’s offense, which has been vastly critiqued this season for not performing when it matters, collected a combined 23 hits 12 earned runs and 5 walks in 13 innings against Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, respectively. What makes this impressive is that entering Wednesday’s afternoon game, Scherzer had won each of his last four decisions against the Indians dating back to July 25, 2012. He compiled a 3.21 ERA (42.0IP/15ER) and 43 strikeouts during the six-start stretch and Verlander won each of his last four decisions against the tribe dating back to May 22, 2013. He compiled a 2.53 ERA (32.0IP/9ER) and 35 strikeouts during the five-start stretch.

How did the Indians’ bats finally get to the two aces?

On Tuesday evening, the Indians offense continued a few recent trends that Verlander has played victim to the entire season. First, It’s been no secret that Verlander’s average velocities have been falling.  Here’s a table, covering the PITCHf/x era. It shows the rate of Verlander’s pitches at at least 95 miles per hour, and the rate at at least 98 miles per hour:

Year 95+ 98+
2008 15% 1%
2009 43% 8%
2010 35% 5%
2011 27% 5%
2012 21% 4%
2013 14% 1%
2014 5% 0%

 (Courtesy from data complied by Brooks Baseball)

Verlander became famous for throwing harder in the later innings of starts. He was the model that Walter Johnson made famous–  a guy pacing himself, saving his energy for when he needed it. In the past, Verlander could throw 100 mph+ well after the seventh inning . But he’s shown a declining rate of big-time pitch speed, and his fastest pitch so far this season has checked in at 97.5 miles per hour, on opening day. Verlander has yet to throw a pitch over 98. Just one out of 20 pitches has been over 95, and while Verlander might say he’s not worried because he can throw hard when he has to, the evidence suggests his new hard isn’t his old hard.

Against the Indians, his average fastball velocity was only 94 mph and he did not throw a fastball above 95mph. Although it was consistent, we did not see him rear-back for that 100 mph fastball when ahead in the count. Because of this, Indians hitters were able to catch up to his fastball, even with two strikes.

Also this season, Verlander’s skrikeout rate has declined noticeably as the righty has always run high foul-ball rates, and high strikeout rates. His contact rate now isn’t bad, but he’s generated fewer fouls. As a result, more strikes have been hit into play, ending plate appearances before they can proceed to three strikes. During his peak, Verlander had about 25-26% of his strikes put into play. This year he’s over 30%, and though that seems like a small increase, the spread in the majors isn’t that large. Last year, Verlander had baseball’s eight-lowest in-play rate. This year he’s in the upper half, around names like Colby Lewis and Tanner Roark.

This next table blends foul balls and whiffs. In one column, you’ll see Verlander’s rate of foul balls or whiffs at pitches of at least 95 mph. In the next column, you’ll see the same rate at pitches under 95:

Year FB, SW%, 95+ FB, SW%, under 95
2008 38% 27%
2009 42% 26%
2010 37% 26%
2011 39% 27%
2012 44% 29%
2013 39% 30%
2014 39% 27%

(Courtesy from data complied by Brooks Baseball)

Interestingly, Verlander’s top velocity has still worked fine, and his lower velocity has still worked fine, in these terms. His rates are each separated from his peak by less than one percentage point. But the ratio has dramatically shifted. Verlander has thrown far fewer pitches in the left column, and far more pitches in the right column, so more balls have been put in play. This was evident by his .440 BABIP on Tuesday, his highest rate of the season so far. More batted balls found holes which led to an increase in Indians base runners. More base runners mean more runs. Give the Indians hitters credit for being aggressive within the strike zone.

Although Max Scherzer has not seen a decline in velocity nor whiff rate, the Indians were able to also take advantage of a high BABIP. In this case, Scherzer suffered a .423 BABIP, the second highest total of his season. Scherzer was aggressive within the upper-part of the strike zone with  his fastball and the Indians hitters did a great job of catching up to it. 22% of batted balls were hit on the ground compared to his 39% ground ball rate during the season.

The Indians were able to complete the sweep of the Tigers because the bats were able to beat two of the best.

Not many teams can say it often.

 

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