Does it feel like the Seattle Mariners did pretty well against Justin Verlander this year? It depends how you look at it. The Houston Astros ace seemed to never miss the M’s this year, carving through Seattle for just 11 runs in 42.1 innings pitched across six starts. At age-39, Verlander is likely to win his third Cy Young Award with an unfathomable 1.75 ERA in 175.0 innings and 28 starts coming off Tommy John surgery, including a 5-1 record against the M’s. He’ll take the ball Tuesday and is liable to dominate, however he’s facing one of the few teams to give him even the slightest bit of trouble in 2022 - and the one that’s seen him most.
A couple sets of numbers to start us off, starting with the Mariners’ season offensive line against Verlander and his stats opposing them:
165 PAs, .210/.248/.350 AVG/OBP/SLG, .599 OPS, .263 wOBA, 26.1% K%, 3.6% BB%. 2.34/3.49/3.75 ERA/FIP/xFIP
It’s terrible! Well below Seattle’s season averages, and well aligned with at least my own memory of watching them face the pride of Old Dominion. But how has Verlander fared against non-Mariners opponents this year in his other 22 starts and 132.2 IP?
501 PAs, .177/.220/.244 AVG/OBP/SLG, .464 OPS, .208 wOBA, 28.3% K%, 4.6% BB%, 1.56/2.17/3.07 ERA/FIP/xFIP
In every single facet, the Mariners, who faced Verlander well over twice as many times as any other team (the next most is three games with Texas and Oakland), have massively outperformed the league against JV. Of course, that still has amounted to less than stellar results, but the way the M’s approach Verlander is like planning for a natural disaster - incredibly important, but you still can only control so much.
Seattle’s approach is reflected at least in part in the numbers above; the M’s have chosen to be aggressive early against Verlander, trying to pounce on his fastball which he throws over 50% of the time, and far higher before two strikes. Verlander is the ur-modern pitcher in many ways, a longtime star for his fireballing ways and well-tunneled off-speed, pounding the top of the zone for pop-ups and whiffs and then diving outside of it with the breaking balls to finish hitters. He rarely falls behind and walks himself into trouble like some pitchers with his level of stuff. When hitters get to two strikes, they are, frankly, absolutely toast, with Verlander locking in almost a 50% strikeout rate once he gets to two strikes on a hitter.
And so the M’s have been aggressive. They’ve swung at the first pitch 66 out of 165 plate appearances (40% of the time), with only eight (!) of those swings coming on pitches outside of the strike zone.
Their wOBA on these swings is .517, which is to say they have hit about 60 points better than Aaron Judge when they are aggressive early on Verlander. This leaves out, of course, the consequences of a miss, wherein the M’s are liable to be in a hole they won’t dig out of, however Seattle has rightly evaluated that Verlander is most hittable out of the gate.
He’s an above-average purveyor of first-pitch strikes (61.7% of the time) and throwing his fastball more than anything else in those counts - his most hittable (or rather his least insurmountable) offering. Seattle is typically not the most aggressive team - in fact they are in the bottom third of the league in swing rate overall - and they are one of the least likely clubs to swing and miss to boot, largely due to being the third-least likely team to swing at pitches out of the zone behind only the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. But a typical patient approach is a good way to dig a quick hole against Verlander, and the M’s have tried to take the fight to him before it can get to his terms. Oftentimes, he’s still gotten them, he’s that good. But if they’re to have success, it will be early, and hopefully fly a long way.