World Series Notebook: Houston's Mission, Verlander's Missing Mark and Fun Facts

Tom Verducci empties his World Series notebook as the series shifts back to Houston for Game 6 Tuesday night.
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With the Astros leading the Nationals in the World Series, 3-2, the Fall Classic could come to an end Tuesday night in Houston. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the postseason wraps up.

1. Houston’s Mission: Spin It

The story of this World Series is how the Astros have cooled off the Nationals with breaking pitches.

The Astros have been throwing many more breaking pitches in the World Series than they did in the regular season (38.5% in the Fall Classic vs. 32.9% in the regular season), and the Nationals can’t hit them. Washington is hitting .208 against breaking pitching through five games while all six of its home runs this series have come off fastballs.

During the regular season the Nationals were a middle of the pack team against breaking pitches (No. 17 at .215). The top of their lineup so prefers hitting off the fastball that Houston has gone heavy with breaking pitches, and the plan is working.

Trea Turner (2-for-13), Adam Eaton (1-for-9) and Anthony Rendon (0-for-5) are hitting .111 (3-for-27) against breaking pitches, and getting a ton of them.

Meanwhile, the Astros often are misidentified as a fastball hitting team. They are not.

Houston ranked No. 1 against breaking balls in MLB (.263) and No. 5 against fastballs (.287)–including No. 23 against elite velocity (95+ mph; .233).

Astros hitters have a knack for sniffing out breaking pitches and hammering them. They are holding to form in the World Series:

Astros Hitting by Pitch Type, 2019 World Series

Avg.

HR

Fastballs

.280

6

Breaking

.304

1

Off-Speed

.300

2

Here’s a simple way to see the difference in what is deciding the World Series. The Astros are using a ton of secondary pitches against the Nationals, and the plan is working, while the Astros’ hitters rake against non-fastballs.

2019 World Series Hitting by Pitch Type

Fastballs

Non-Fastballs

Nationals

.253

.212

Astros

.280

.303

2. Verlander Needs His Slider

In Game 5 Gerrit Cole held the Nationals hitless (0-for-14) against his breaking pitches, the best night of his pitching career with his slider and curve.

The Astros swept the three games in Washington by holding the Nationals to a .108 batting average on breaking pitches (4-for-37, no extra base hits).

If the Astros are going to continue to thwart the Nationals with breaking pitches, Verlander will need his slider. It’s normally one of the best pitches in baseball. It’s been inconsistent this postseason. It was better in his last start after he made a change in his grip between starts; he pushed the ball back deeper into his hand.

Verlander Slider, 2019

Pct.

Avg.

Regular Season

27%

.119*

Postseason

29%

.235

*Second lowest in MLB (Sonny Gray)

3. Verlander’s Missing Check Mark

Here is a visual of Verlander’s prolific career in the form of a shopping list:

Rookie of the Year

X

Cy Young Award

X

MVP

X

No-Hitting

X

20-Game Winner

X

300 Strikeouts

X

World Champion

X

World Series Win

The missing mark is not for a lack of trying. Nobody has more World Series starts without a win than Verlander.

Most World Series Starts Without a Win

GS

W-L

ERA

Justin Verlander

6

0-5

5.73

Vida Blue

5

0-3

4.05

Don Newcombe

5

0-4

8.59

4. Yordan Alvarez is Back

Some people thought Yordan Alvarez’s bat sprung to life in Game 5. Not true. It happened in a batting practice session Oct. 21, the day before Game 1.

We know Alvarez was getting beat consistently with fastballs in the ALCS. With his back side collapsing, Alvarez went 1-for-22 with 12 strikeouts.

But something happened in batting practice on the eve of the World Series.

(And I witnessed a similar event in the 2016 NLCS with a 1-for-24 Addison Russell. He took BP hitting the ball almost entirely to centerfield to stop hooking pitches–and homered in the next two games.)

Alvarez took two rounds of BP in which he hit everything to the left of centerfield. But the ball was not jumping off his bat. He was hitting lazy flyballs. He looked as bad as he did in the ALCS.

Finally, Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron stepped in and pulled him aside as they both looked at the tablet attached to the batting cage, the one streaming video of BP.

“I’ve stayed quiet for the most part,” Cintron said. “Most hitters only want to listen when they have really hit bottom. I thought he was there. It was time.”

Cintron then showed Alvarez a change to make in his setup. Alvarez had been setting up with a fairly erect stance–with a weak base and his head out over his toes–and his first movement to the baseball caused his back leg to slide behind him before contact.

Cintron showed him how to “sink into” his legs–bending his knees while keeping his hips back and head over his center of gravity. He showed him how he could accentuate this position by “sinking into” his legs and then leaning back in the shoulders to emphasize keeping his weight centered–not forward. Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo and Paul Goldschmidt are among the hitters who use this technique.

Alvarez stepped into the cage and took up Cintron’s suggestions. He immediately looked like a different hitter. He was crushing balls over the home run line in leftfield, one after another. The change was astonishing to see.

When Alvarez was done with his round Cintron came over and gave him a fist bump. Alvarez smiled for the first time in weeks. That’s when he was fixed. That’s why he hit the home run to left-center in Game 5. Fastballs no longer bother him; he's already matched his hit total off of them (two, including a home run) in the World Series as he did in the ALDS and ALCS combined.

5. World Series Fun Facts

• Including the postseason, Verlander, 36, leads the majors in pitches thrown (3,953), just as he did in 2018 (3,716) and 2017 (4,065). Over the past three years he has thrown 1,078 more pitches than anybody else.

• Verlander, Kevin Brown and Schoolboy Rowe are the only pitchers to lose three potential postseason clinchers.

• Stephen Strasburg is one of five first overall draft picks to start a World Series game–but the first to do it for the team that drafted him.

• Updating the most determinative stat of postseason baseball, which I gave to you before postseason play began this year: teams are 20-6 this month when they hit a second home run (.769) and 14-28 when they don’t (.333). Multiple homers are more important in today’s game than that timeworn RISP. For instance, the Astros have moved to within a game of winning the World Series by hitting .224 with runners in scoring position this postseason. In the regular season that would have ranked dead last.

• Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, was a .278 career postseason hitter with 18 homers and a .527 slugging percentage. His teams were 10-5 when he homered. George Springer is a .272 career postseason hitter with 15 homers and a .564 slugging percentage. His teams are 10-4 when he homers.

• Michael Brantley has a swing that is a carbon copy of John Olerud's. Michael’s dad, Mickey, coached Olerud with the Mets. After 1,199 career games, Brantley is a .297 hitter with 545 strikeouts. After the same number of games, Olerud was a .299 hitter with 549 strikeouts.

• Astros GM Jeff Luhnow knows how to work under deadlines. In 2016 he acquired Alvarez with one hour before the trade deadline. In 2017 he acquired Verlander with seconds before the waiver deadline. In 2018 he acquired Roberto Osuna one day before the trade deadline. In 2019 he acquired Zack Greinke five minutes before the trade deadline.

• Here’s a list with names that just make you smile. Most career postseason homers by players less than six feet tall: 

1. Mickey Mantle, 18. 

2. Jose Altuve, 13. 

3. Yogi Berra, 12.