DETROIT – Because there is a place on the Internet for everything statistical in baseball, there – of course – exists a website that measures an umpire's performance. It is called Brooksbaseball.net. And if you click the tab marked "Strikezone Map Tool," and tap in the date of Saturday's first game of the American League division series, you will see that home plate umpire Jim Reynolds called 10 strikes outside of a typical strike zone against the Oakland Athletics.
These pitches would be up to a foot outside of the normal zone and they were all thrown by Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander to Oakland's left-handed hitters.
This would explain why several of those hitters stalked away from the plate, muttering at Reynolds, after striking out on strikes that were not strikes.
But it also explains part of the brilliance of a man who is probably the best pitcher in baseball: When given the gift of a strike zone wider than it should be, he knows just how to exploit it.
"To his credit, he utilized the strike zone he was given," said A's right fielder Josh Reddick after Oakland lost the first game of this series 3-1 to Verlander and the Tigers.
Few pitchers are as gifted as Verlander. Few can heave a baseball as hard as 100 mph to a spot outside the strike zone and make it look so good the umpire will call it a strike every time. Most pitchers struggle enough to regularly get their pitches to go over home plate.
Detroit's catcher Alex Avila understands. He said he kept setting up in one spot as the A's left-handed sluggers stood at the plate, and that Verlander's pitches repeatedly hit his glove. He said Reynolds had no choice to call them strikes.
"They might have been a hair outside," he said.
More like nine to 12 inches.
Yet, this is where Verlander is his most dangerous. Not many batters can hit a pitch that is nearly a foot off home plate. Not when the man throwing them is hurling them at 98 mph. And when that pitcher is so precise as to hit that same spot time and time again, there is little a batter can do.
The A's, who are baseball's newest glamour story, are in trouble now. They are in trouble because in this best-of-five series they will have to face Verlander again, most likely in a Game 5. Even if they can find a way to beat Detroit's other two top starters – Doug Fister or Max Scherzer – in the next three games, they are doomed to face Verlander again. That is a problem.
"It's not like he's unbeatable; he lost eight games and he has a 2.7 (actually 2.64) ERA," said A's first baseman Brandon Moss, who struck out three times in seven innings against Verlander.
To get one of those eight defeats, you generally have to get Verlander early and, outside of the first at-bat, the A's didn't do that on Saturday. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp hit a home run in the first inning, and then Oakland only got one more runner as far as second base against Verlander.
The A's had chances. Early on, Verlander struggled. He couldn't seem to find the right spot in which the ball leaves his hand. Avila could see this. He could see the pitcher experimenting with different release points. At one point, Verlander huddled with pitching coach Jeff Jones in an attempt to find that elusive spot.
Then when he did, he was almost unhittable.
"Early on I didn't have great control with really any of my pitches," Verlander later said. "Then as the game went on, [I] got better and better and started finding the zone a little bit more, and not just finding the zone, but quality strikes, and was able to execute and get some guys out."
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Ultimately, Verlander gave up three hits and four walks; but he also had 11 strikeouts – including five in a row in the sixth and seventh innings – two of which were so far outside it was almost laughable.
"But that's what the great pitchers do," Avila said.
The great ones exploit whatever little advantage is afforded them. And if Jim Reynolds decided that fastballs nine inches outside of a normal strike zones were going to be strikes, he was going to give them to Verlander because Verlander was so good at getting them there.
And because of this, the Oakland A's found themselves in a hole far bigger than being down just one game in the playoff series that was supposed to be all about them.
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