Justin Verlander will face the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS on Tuesday, in a 4 o’clock Eastern time start. FOX has to be bummed about the bad break they caught, but this is the inevitable problem for which the current MLB national TV deal sets us all up. The network-televised series with perhaps the biggest names in baseball on display will have to run in the stead of Judges Judy and Joe Brown, because pushing the NLCS into a 1 o’clock local start was never going to work. Anyway, though, Verlander takes the mound for the Detroit Tigers, looking to swing a tied series in the home team’s favor.
His approach should be to learn well from those who have gone before him. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and even Jose Veras have shown light on a clear path to at least limiting the Red Sox, exploiting their propensity for swinging and missing. They used the chief weapon available to a pitcher facing a team whose only weakness is vulnerability to strikeouts: unpredictability.
Announcers on TV will often talk about pitch sequencing. Don’t listen to them. They want you to believe that pitching is about setting batters up, that a fastball at the knees on 1-1 is what makes a batter chase a slider low and away on 1-2. They talk about speeding up a guy’s bat, about velocity differentials, about avoiding fastball counts, about changing eye levels and about establishing certain pitches. It’s all crap.
Pitch sequencing is trench warfare. It’s the wishbone offense. Although it might once have worked, it has long since become nothing more than a heuristic that helps opponents predict your next move. It’s a pattern, and in this age of broadly available, excruciatingly detailed pitch-by-pitch data, pitchers can’t afford patterns.
Sacnehz and Scherzer pitched ‘backward,’ as Tim McCarver called it, throughout the first Boston stint of the series. That was a mistaken characterization, though. They didn’t pitch in a direction, either according to or in defiance of convention. They betrayed no discernible reliance on a given pitch, in general or in specific situations. The Red Sox had such trouble guessing along with them that they got frozen on good fastballs to hit, caught in check swings and flailing at breaking balls and changeups out of the zone, low.
Verlander’s repertoire is plenty deep enough to facilitate the same strategy. He just has to avoid falling into the trap of predictability, because playing a day game should mean slightly higher temperatures and better conditions for hitters. The Red Sox are going to look for a short but loud offensive sequence, something overwhelming. Verlander can only avoid that if he diligently mixes his stuff and pitches not to subvert expectations, but without any regard for expectations. He needs to pitch without a sequence, using whichever pitch he is most confident in. Stuff wins. The Tigers didn’t strike out 32 Boston batters with pitch sequencing. They did it with nasty stuff that the Sox couldn’t anticipate. Verlander can do that, too.Next post: 2013 ALCS Game 3: Mike Napoli Beats Justin Verlander, Boston Red Sox Score Only Run
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