The ALCS is set. And it’s a rematch from two years ago, a series that went the distance with the home team winning every game. Yankees, Astros.
The Yankees will certainly face tougher starting pitching than they did with Minnesota. And forget about Zack Greinke for a minute – it’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole who the Bombers need to worry about. If the series goes seven games as it did in 2017, the two horses at the top of Houston’s rotation will likely start four games combined. So how do you beat ‘em?
Verlander seems to be an ageless wonder, vying for his second Cy Young Award as a 36-year-old. But he has his weaknesses, and the Yankees need to exploit them early and often.
Below is the flow of Verlander’s pitches from this past season. The thicker the bar between counts, the greater the density of pitches in that scenario. Clearly, he gets ahead and stays ahead most of the time. He throws strikes 68.5% of the time.
What I would do is attack his fastball early. As you can see, he throws the fastball a majority of the time when he is even in the count, but especially when he’s behind. But as just discussed, that doesn’t happen often. So the Yankees need to hit the fastball when they get it. Check out the splits this year for Verlander against each pitch:
The numbers are clearly elevated against his fastball. And take a look at where his fastballs are located – most of them are middle and up. The other pitches are typically located in much less appealing spots.
If the Yankees can control the zone and not chase high fastballs, the ones that are in the zone should be very hittable, even with an average velocity of 94.6 MPH. And it’s not like he induces a ton of soft contact – he allowed 8% of his balls in play to be barrels (league average was 7%). Furthermore, his hard-hit rate was at 42%; above the league average of 38%.
Cole tends to ride his fastball more than Verlander, regardless of the count. And it’s not a bad idea, given that he’s averaged a whopping 97.1 MPH with it. He throws is 56.1% of the time. Here are his numbers by pitch:
Those are not very encouraging numbers if you’re the Yankees.
Cole was in the top 1% of the league in 2019 when it came to strikeout rate, sitting at 39.9%. This leads me to my biggest point when facing Cole: don’t waste your strikes. Players hit .348 against him when there were no strikes in the count.
Additionally, he’s a guy who gets better as the game goes on, holding a 1.42 ERA in innings 7-9. And of the 29 homers he’s given up this year, 10 of them have come during his first 25 pitches.
So the overall gist in a sense is to attack both guys early. If you let them get ahead in the count, they will bring their nasty off-speed pitches to pair with their electric fastballs. Just take a look at the different movements on Cole’s pitches:
It’s going to be a battle all around the diamond, and the Yankees in all likelihood won’t be seeing Verlander and Cole until Games 2 and 3, respectively. But in order to win the series, the Bombers will have to beat these guys at least once, so here we go.