The Seattle Mariners had two separate leads on Justin Verlander in Friday night’s opener; 1-0 and 2-1, and both came on the strength of the home run ball. Kyle Lewis hit a 1-0 fastball (95 mph) 438 feet from home plate to get things going in the second inning. Kyle Seager gave the Mariners the lead back in the fourth on a 2-0 fastball clocked at 94.4 mph.
Verlander never really was rattled, however, and the Houston Astros rallied to beat Seattle 8-2 to open the 2020 schedule.
The world knows Verlander has nasty stuff. He’s up to 99 mph deep into games, features plus curveball, plus slider and an above-average changeup. Friday, his slider was mindbogglingly good. And when a pitcher like Verlander has a pitch like that going, sometimes the quality of the opponent matters very little. Sometimes the lineup has no other choice but to taste filth.
He threw 28 sliders (37%) on the night, 14 strikes and 14 balls. On the surface, that doesn’t sound so great, and if it were fastballs we were discussing, it would be awful. But sliders are chase pitches, often started to look like it will be in the zone and breaking sharply out of the zone to induce weak contact and swinging strikes.
Of Verlander’s 14 strikes with the slider Friday, eight were of the swinging variety, four were called and two were fouled off, all good by themselves without a lick of context.
Speaking of that context, however, here’s the zone plot for Verlander’s sliders from Fridays matchup:
This is for batters from both sides of the plate. Verlander pounded the down-and-in area versus lefties and down and away versus righties with that slider. Only two of the eight whiffs were on sliders that hit the strike zone and they barely scraped the zone, putting not even a quarter of the baseball into the lower-outside edges of the strike zone o right-handed batters.
As you can see, only one of the four called strikes was above the belt (it was a 1-0 pitch to Evan White), and of the six non-competitive results in terms of location, two induced slight check swings and one produced a whiff. Five of the six were thrown when Verlander was ahead in the count, three with two strikes.
Perhaps more impressive than the strikes are the eight competitive sliders that did not end up as strikes. One should have been a strike. About a quarter of the baseball scraped through the zone. The home plate umpire just didn’t see it that way. That was a 1-0 pitch to Jose Marmolejos. Yes, Verlander threw a rookie bench player a 1-0 slider in the fifth inning of a game he was losing 2-1.
One other was within an inch or two of the strike zone, one was the first pitch of the PA, one was on an 0-1 count after a called strike fastball, and three others were no more than three inches off the plate. Seven of these particular eight misses would unequivocally be called very good pitch locations.
Verlander’s slider averaged just under 87 mph, per Brooks Baseball, broke just under three inches vertically, not including gravity, and broke three inches horizontally, representing the sixth-most horizontal break Verlander got from the slider in a game since 2017. Of the five game his slider had more horizontal break, the vertical break was between 2.34 inches and 2.61 inches. Friday it was 2.9.
It wasn’t one of Verlander’s better overall performances, as he struggled with fastball location a bit, didn’t use the changeup much, and threw just one or two curveballs, but the slider was about as good as ever for the 37-year-old defending Cy Young Award winner.
In other words, Verlander’s slider was filthilicious. Dirty. Disgusting.
And the Mariners tasted it.