HOUSTON — Before he had turned 25, Justin Verlander had been a rookie of the year, had been named an All-Star, and had started two games in a World Series. And yet what resonates with Verlander now about those days is a scout’s dismissive description of how he pitched: like he was throwing a bullpen.
If Verlander threw a curveball that did not go where he wanted it to, he would come right back with another one.
“Just because,” Verlander said. “There was no rhyme or reason. I was more worried about me than I was about the hitter. Now it’s the complete flip-flop.”
Verlander was talking at his locker on Wednesday afternoon after running the stadium stairs in muggy, 80-degree weather. It seemed a more vigorous workout than he’d had the night before, when he breezed through eight shutout innings, allowing three hits, walking none and striking out 14 against the Yankees.
If the performance — and the way he has pitched since joining the Astros at the end of last August — seemed like a throwback to his prime, when he was a perennial Cy Young contender and won the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player Award, Verlander knows better.Continue reading the main story
He is more conversant in the finer points of advanced data, is more willing to abandon his game plan at a moment’s notice, and has learned — like an increasing number of today’s pitchers — to counterattack the fly-ball revolution by pitching up in the strike zone.
“I’ve matured a lot as a pitcher,” he said. “I’m not just a thrower.”
All this is a roundabout way of getting to Luis Severino, who the Yankees hope can provide for them what Verlander, 35, has for the Astros — an elite ace they can turn to in October.
At age 24, Severino is following a similar path. He has already been an All-Star and a Cy Young contender, and he has gotten his feet wet in the extreme intensity of the playoffs.
On Wednesday night, Severino continued the master class in starting pitching that this reprise of the American League Championship Series has provided, following dominant performances by the Astros’ Charlie Morton, 34, and Verlander with one of his own.
Buttressed by Giancarlo Stanton, whose three hits — two home runs off the Yankee nemesis Dallas Keuchel and a double — accounted for all the Yankees’ offense, Severino threw a five-hit shutout of the Astros, with the Yankees winning, 4-0.
Relying heavily on a fastball that reached 99 miles per hour, and sprinkling in hard sliders and more changeups than usual, Severino walked one and struck out 10. Of the 110 pitches he threw in the first complete game of his career, 83 were strikes.
When Manager Aaron Boone asked Severino after the eighth inning if he wanted to go out for the ninth, Severino did not flinch.
“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”
Severino’s only trouble spot came in the sixth, when Yuli Gurriel beat out an infield hit and Josh Reddick flared a single to left to begin the inning. But second baseman Gleyber Torres made a fine backhanded catch of Alex Bregman’s flare into shallow center field that seemed to settle Severino. He struck out Marwin Gonzalez on three pitches and retired Brian McCann — whose double off Severino sent the Astros on their way to a victory in Game 6 last year — on a grounder to first.
As Severino took the feed from Tyler Austin and stepped on the bag, he pumped his first.
The only other blemish came in the ninth when Reddick hit a two-out double off the left field wall. But he retired Bregman on a fly ball to right.
Severino, who is 5-1 with a 2.11 earned run average, is coming of age in a different era than Verlander. High-speed data tracking cameras that have been installed in major-league parks for long enough now that spin rates, pitch tunnels, launch angles and sophisticated heat maps are available to any pitcher that wants them.
Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said it could accelerate the development of a young pitcher like Severino.
“There’s certainly more information,” he said. “There’s probably better ways to evaluate, really measure what a guy is proficient at, deficient at and hopefully as an organization, speaking for us, hopefully we are proficient at helping guys develop at a better and maybe in some cases a more rapid case.”
At the moment, though, such detailed information means little to Severino.
“I don’t pay any attention to that,” he said. “I don’t know what a spin rate means. The only thing I know is to go out there and do my job and get ahead in the count.”
That is not to say that Severino is not studying. He received a tutorial on his changeup from Pedro Martinez before last season, and he studies pitchers like Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, the Astros’ Gerrit Cole and Verlander, who have similar pitch packages. He followed Verlander and Morton intently the last two nights, studying their sequencing.
“I think I’ve grown up as a pitcher,” said Severino, whose ability to self-correct was lauded by Boone. “When I needed to throw a good pitch, it used to be a fastball to everybody. When I need to throw a slider on a 3-2 count, now I can throw it.”
The Astros lean as heavily on data as any organization, and their pitchers embrace the granular information.
When Verlander came to Houston, the Astros showed him data that said his four-seam fastball was more effective up in the zone.
So, even though it took some adjusting to be able to locate it where hitters would have to swing at it — and not over the middle of the plate — he eagerly attacked it.
He is not just trying to get batters out, he is trying to navigate a game.
“I love it,” said Verlander, whose change was borne of necessity while recovering from abdominal surgery in 2014. “I would hope that somebody that knows the game, if somebody buys me a ticket to watch me pitch, I would hope that from watching the game you can see what I’m thinking and how I’m kind of working the game and not just out there throwing..”
For Severino, at this stage, the game is more simple.
Asked if he reads hitters’ swings, Severino shook his head.
“It’s just about me,” he said. “If you are a good slider hitter, when my slider is good you’re not going to hit it. I don’t care if you can hit a fastball. If my fastball is good, you’re not going to hit it. I just need to do my job.”
On Wednesday night, he did his job exceedingly well. And if he ages as well as Verlander, some day it may entail a little more.Continue reading the main story