- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The other day, in the midst of Brad Penny's start against the Rangers, Justin Verlander noted Penny's use of a split-fingered fastball to catcher Alex Avila, and mentioned that there might come a day when he would have to develop a splitter of his own.
The suggestion amused Avila. Verlander, after all, already has refined four pitches -- his fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. "The way he's been pitching this year," Avila said, "he'll throw almost any pitch in any count."
And in any count, he has been dominant. With most pitchers, a count of two balls and no strikes or 3-1 means that the advantage has swung to the hitter, who can reasonably anticipate a fastball. In the past, Avila said, Verlander would tend to throw a 96 mph fastball "right down the middle."
But now he's using off-speed pitches in those counts, or commanding his fastball so well that he's nicking the corners for strikes. In this way, Verlander has still managed to control at-bats after reaching those hitters' counts, as these statistics from ESPN Stats & Info's Zachary Singer show:
Top 10 starters on 2-0 counts and beyond, by opposing batting average:
Ricky Romero -- .157
Cole Hamels -- .170
Justin Verlander -- .171
Josh Beckett -- .173
Jeremy Hellickson -- .174
Dillon Gee -- .179
Johnny Cueto -- .182
Philip Humber -- .182
Tommy Hanson -- .182
Daniel Hudson -- .184
Top 10 starters on 3-1 counts and beyond, by opposing batting average:
Daniel Hudson -- .090
Ricky Romero -- .111
Jonathan Sanchez -- .132
Philip Humber -- .132
Jair Jurrjens -- .148
Alexi Ogando -- .148
Ryan Dempster -- .156
Carl Pavano -- .157
Matt Cain -- .161
Justin Verlander -- .161
Matt Garza -- .161
There have been 61 at-bats this year against Verlander in which the count has reached 2-0, and he hasn't allowed a home run in any of them; the opponents' slugging percentage is .262.
The thought has occurred to Avila, as he has worked with Verlander, that he might be catching one of the greatest seasons generated by any pitcher. There are moments when hitters will foul a ball off, and Avila senses, through their verbal silence and loud body language, that they might have just missed their best pitch to hit. Repeatedly this season, Avila said, a hitter will strike out and as he walks away, out of earshot, the home plate umpire will say quietly to the catcher that Verlander had just executed a hell of a pitch.
The Royals will have to deal with Verlander on Saturday, as he goes for win No. 16. CC Sabathia will go for win No. 17, in what is shaping up to be one of the best Cy Young races we've ever seen.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Weaver dominated the Mariners:
A) Weaver did not allow an extra-base hit Friday, giving up seven singles and one walk. Weaver allowed only one runner to reach second base, and erased him with a double play on the next at-bat.
B) He got the Mariners to chase: Weaver got Seattle hitters to swing at 25 pitches out of the strike zone, his third-highest mark in a start this season. Mariners hitters were 1-for-10 in at-bats ending with pitches out of the zone, including four strikeouts.
C) He continued his season-long success with the slider. Mariners hitters were 1-for-8 in at-bats ending with the slider Friday. Opponents are now hitting just .171 against the pitch off Weaver this season.
D) Weaver tied a season-high with 10 ground-ball outs, all of which came in the fifth inning or later.
This is the second time this season that Weaver has gone nine innings, allowed no runs and received a no-decision. He is the first pitcher since Tom Browning in 1990 to have multiple no-decisions in a start of nine scoreless innings in a season.
Weaver has thrown 15 straight quality starts, the longest streak in a single season in Angels history.
Most consecutive quality starts in a single season, Angels history:
Jered Weaver -- 15 (2011)*
Frank Tanana -- 14 (1977)
Bert Blyleven -- 13 (1989)
Frank Tanana -- 11 (1975)
Nolan Ryan -- 11 (1974)
* = Active
• The benches cleared in San Francisco, after Ramon Ramirez hit Shane Victorino, and Eli Whiteside had a droll explanation for what happened, Henry Schulman writes. Victorino is sure he was hit on purpose. Right now, the Phillies are clearly the best team in the National League, writes Andrew Baggarly.
• The Yankees moved into first place.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how the Yankees' relievers were difference-makers:
A) Boone Logan got the win, as well as perhaps the biggest out of the game, a three-pitch strikeout of Adrian Gonzalez with the bases loaded to end the bottom of the fifth. Gonzalez struck out on a slider out of the strike zone, a common location for Logan against Gonzalez. Logan has now faced Gonzalez four times in his career, allowing just one hit with two strikeouts. Of the 13 pitches he has thrown Gonzalez, only six have been in the strike zone.
B) The four Yankees relievers generated misses at a much higher rate than starter Bartolo Colon. Of the 31 swings Red Sox hitters took against the relievers, they had eight misses. In 42 swings against Colon, they missed just three times.
C) Mariano Rivera closed the game out by registering two of his three outs recorded on strikeouts looking. It's the first time Rivera has gotten more than one strikeout looking in an appearance since April 18, 2010 -- a span of 98 games in between.
The Yankees-Red Sox series shows that baseball needs a change in its playoff system, writes Mike Vaccaro.
• Brett Lawrie made his debut, and he's got rare magnetism, writes Ken Fidlin.
• The Dodgers' fear of seizure has been eased, writes Richard Sandomir.
• Eli Whiteside has an edge in the catching competition.
Have to travel early this morning, so I couldn't get to all the links.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney breaks down Justin Verlander's dominant 2011 campaign, noting how he's continued to shut down hitters after falling behind in counts.