SAN FRANCISCO -- This World Series is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The best pitcher in baseball with Hall of Fame ability is smack in the sweet spot of the prime of his career and getting the ball for Game 1. In a series with a Triple Crown winner, three Cy Young Award winners, two of the three winningest active managers in baseball and two deep-rooted baseball towns head over heels in love with the sport, Detroit ace Justin Verlander looms larger over the World Series than any other figure or storyline.
What happens to Verlander could define this series. He will start two of the first five games. The Tigers can ride momentum from their ace to their first world championship since 1984. But if the Giants dent the unbreakable one, especially in Game 1, San Francisco can harm the Detroit equilibrium and win its second World Series title among the past three.
Understand this: Verlander will pitch well. Not only is he the best pitcher in baseball, he also is the hottest pitcher. Over his past seven starts, Verlander is 7-0 with a 0.73 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings. The only question for Game 1 is whether the seven days of rest since his last start leave him less precise. The Giants need to play him to a draw and hope Tigers manager Jim Leyland needs to hit for him under National League rules. Forget pitch counts. The Yankees threw a rusty Brett Gardner into their lineup in the ALCS to help drive up Verlander's pitch count and get him out of the game. Mistake. Pitch counts are irrelevant to Verlander.
Now understand just how special this opportunity is to see a great pitcher in his prime, on a roll and in the World Series. Verlander is the 10th pitcher in the past 50 years to lead the league in adjusted ERA over a full season and pitch in the World Series in the same year. The list is filled with all-time greats. Here is how the previous nine aces and their teams did in the World Series during those iconic years:
In every case the ace continued to pitch well, though more often than not, his team lost the World Series, giving us proof that not even the best pitcher in baseball is enough to win it all.
But there is even more serendipity in play here for the Tigers besides just getting to the World Series with Verlander. Their sweep of the Yankees allows them to line up their rotation to use Verlander right from the start. Now we're talking about something extremely rare.
Among the nine World Series aces listed above, only two of them pitched Game 1: Greg Maddux and Bob Gibson. Maddux beat the Indians in Game 1, 3-2, and the Braves went on to win the World Series in six games. Gibson beat the Tigers in Game 1, 4-0, but the Cardinals lost the World Series in seven games.
Verlander is 29 years old, the same age Maddux was in 1995. Gibson was 32 in 1968. All hit the World Series in their peak years. Those are the best comps we have about what we are about to see. Over the past 50 years, this is only the third time we get to watch the best pitcher in his league lined up for Game 1 of the World Series.
Verlander is one of the most decorated pitchers in the game. He has won a Cy Young Award, a Most Valuable Player Award, Rookie of the Year Award, three strikeout titles and a pitching triple crown. He has been named to five All-Star Games and started one. He has thrown two no-hitters. But he does not have a world championship. The opportunity is right in front of him. This World Series -- the games he starts and the games in between with an eye on when he gets the ball again -- will be played in the long shadow he casts.
Verlander may be the most important figure of this series, but World Series can be won and lost in hundreds of subtle ways that relate to how the teams match up. Thick binders full of scouting reports have been prepared for more than a month on these teams. Smart teams know when to adjust those reports as a series goes on and not just stick to the pre-Series reports.
With the help of a scout who scouted the Giants and Tigers heavily this year, here are six keys to the World Series based on the pre-series intelligence:
1. How much with the layoff affect the Tigers
There is no denying that the layoff will affect them. The only question is how much. This is the fourth World Series matchup in which a team that swept the LCS played a team that played all seven games in the LCS. In every case the team that had far more rest lost Game 1 (by an aggregate score of 25-7) and lost the World Series in four or five games: the 1988 Athletics lost to the Dodgers, the 2006 Tigers lost to the Cardinals and the 2007 Rockies lost to the Red Sox.
"I don't care how many intrasquad games you play, it doesn't prepare you the way playing [real] games do," the scout said. "Guys play those games just trying not to get hurt."
2. How badly the Detroit defense will hurt the Tigers
Don't kid yourself: this is a bad defensive team, especially with DH Delmon Young pressed by NL rules into leftfield in a big ballpark. Range is a problem on the infield. Prince Fielder's hands at first base can be an issue.
What the Giants have to do, the scout said, is "stick to line drives and groundballs that challenge the defense. Make them make plays. Start runners."
The Tigers do have pitchers such as Verlander and Scherzer, however, who make defense nearly moot because they get so many strikeouts and pop-ups. Verlander, for instance, has allowed only 24 groundballs (not just outs, but including hits) in 24 1/3 innings this postseason -- as compared to 58 strikeouts and flyballs.
"They have power pitching and power hitting," said one Giant source. "That covers up a lot of shortcomings. The '86 Mets weren't a good defensive team, but they had power pitching and power hitting."
3. Pound Miguel Cabrera on the hands
"If you allow Cabrera to just look away, he will absolutely kill you," the scout said. "Oakland was a tough matchup because they had righthanders with power sinkers they ran in on his hands. The only one in this series who has that kind of stuff is [Ryan] Vogelsong. But you still have to make him aware of inside. It's amazing how infrequently teams do it. Just try to remember how many times he's been hit."
Cabrera has come to the plate 738 times this year, postseason included, and been hit just four times -- once by Oakland in the ALDS.
"The bottom line is there is no way you let Miguel Cabrera beat you," the scout said. "He's the best righthanded hitter of this generation -- better than Pujols."
The Giants can't just pitch Cabrera hard and in exclusively. You can't pitch a great hitter one way. But they do have to establish inside enough to make Cabrera anticipate balls in, which can open up the outside of the plate late in the game in key at-bats where you have to pitch to him.
4. The Barry Zito Revival Tour
Does it still have legs? Zito said something very interesting about confidence after the Giants won the pennant that helps explain what is going on here. Zito talked about how when you are young you get by with "unconscious confidence" -- you have succeeded so often with the sharp skills of youth that you don't even think about not succeeding. "When you're going good, you don't even know why," he said. But when failure comes, it arrives with its companion: doubt.
"You go through a phase, and if you can get through it," Zito said, "you come out it in a different place, where now the confidence is something that's conscious, that's earned. It's the confidence to know why you're good."
And that's where Zito is now: a confident pitcher with the guts to throw high fastballs at 84 mph. "It's smoke and mirrors, what he's doing," the scout said. "But his breaking ball is incredibly sharp right now."
5. San Francisco's running game
The Giants were fourth in the league in stolen bases. They will push the running game against Detroit because they can't wait to string three hits together against the strong Tigers pitchers and because those same pitchers do a poor job of holding runners. Anibal Sanchez, for instance, is notoriously fidgety and distracted when runners get on. Check out the stolen base rates against the Detroit starters:
6. What does Jim Leyland do with Jose Valverde?
The Tigers essentially do not have a closer. Phil Coke is a setup man filling in while Valverde tries to figure out what happened to his splitter and the sink and command of his two-seamer. Valverde said he has worked with pitching coach Jeff Jones on a flaw in his delivery that Jones noticed when Valverde was rocked for two ninth-inning homers in New York: Valverde was moving his legs too slowly in his delivery. Valverde said in bullpen sessions since his tuneup his command and splitter have returned. We'll see. Coke (1.050 OPS by righthanded hitters) is not the platoon neutral pitcher you want closing games -- say, against Buster Posey in the ninth inning.
"I think Coke is his guy," the scout said, "and he'll get Valverde into a low-leverage matchup situation for a batter or two to get him back. And then we'll see where he goes from there."
This World Series is just exhibit number 67,455,989 in a long case study proving how closers are overrated. The Giants lost their closer to Tommy John surgery (Brian Wilson, who was eventually replaced by Sergio Romo) and the Tigers lost theirs to ineffectiveness, and yet here they are in the World Series with two guys (Romo and Coke, which sounds like a drink) who until this year had eight career saves combined.