Greybeard ace Justin Verlander schools Blue Jays with no-hitter

TORONTO — As Sunday’s game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros sped along it began to feel awfully familiar.

While watching a team get blanked by Justin Verlander is as common as it gets, no one but Blue Jays fans have seen the ace come into their building and no-hit their squad. The big right-hander managed that feat May 7, 2011, coming just a walk shy of a perfect game, and he looked like he was going to do it again Sunday.

Zeros just kept finding their way to the scoreboard until the scoreboard ran out of room. The way the right-hander was cruising, the biggest threat to his historic day appeared to be his team’s inability to score a run. When Abraham Toro hit a two-run home run in the top of the ninth it felt inevitable.

Verlander got Brandon Drury to ground out, Reese McGuire to strike out, and Bo Bichette to ground out to lock in a no hitter with just one walk and 14 strikeouts as the Astros took home a 2-0 win.

What stood out wasn’t that Verlander was able to keep an inexperienced, if exciting, Blue Jays lineup under wraps. It was the way he did it - looking like the epitome of modern baseball at the age of 36.

Back when the right-hander no-hit the Blue Jays (the first time) he was a radically different pitcher. In that game the then 28-year-old was averaging 97.3 mph and topping out at 102. His gameplan was to cram the top of the zone with fastballs and throw his changeup to the glove side and his slider to the arm side.

It looked like this:

View photos

Via Baseball Savant

It’s pretty hard to criticize that plan considering how well it worked, but it’s interesting to contrast it with what he did on Sunday.

View photos

Via Baseball Savant

Almost gone entirely is the changeup in favour of a greater emphasis on breaking balls. Verlander still favours the top of the zone with his fastballs, but now he looks to climb the ladder even higher, hoping to catch hitters waving well out of the zone.

His fifth-inning strikeout against Rowdy Tellez served as the perfect example of that phenomenon. He started in the zone and just kept climbing.

View photos

Via MLB.com

The confrontation ended with Tellez getting completely blown away:

View photos

Via MLB.tv

The end result is far more whiffs. In Verlander’s no-hitter, he only elicited one swinging strike on his extremely powerful fastball and ended the game with just four strikeouts. On Sunday, his heater - which now averages a significantly slower 94.5 mph - got the Blue Jays to swing and miss 15 times.

Verlander’s playbook was quintessentially Astros from the high four-seamers to the breaking ball assault. Missing bats was clearly the priority with no notions of “pitching to contact” - although for what it’s worth he held the Blue Jays to an outstanding 82 average exit velocity.

The kind of performance Verlander put on will never be typical at the MLB level. He’s a singular talent and if no-hitters become the norm, the sport is broken. However, games where pitchers employ the approach Verlander and battery-mate Robinson Chirinos are only going to become more common.

Houston’s approach to pitching - one that has been extremely beneficial to the likes or Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton among others - looks like the immediate future of the game. Since 2020 and onwards is the Blue Jays’ potential window, they’re going to be ready to counter this style night-in and night-out.

Luckily for the Blue Jays, it’s not always going to be as hard as it was against Verlander.

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