Justin Morneau is more familiar than most with the various aces on display in the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. In some cases, perhaps more familiar than he’d like to be.
Over the course of his 14 big-league seasons, the pitcher Morneau faced most often was Justin Verlander. He also saw more of Zack Greinke than he cares to remember and enough of Max Scherzer to establish a clear upper hand against his former off-season workout buddy (Morneau homered off two Scherzer change-ups in 2011 and took him deep again the following year). As for Gerrit Cole, Morneau played behind him as a rookie in Pittsburgh, long before he became the ace he is today.
When the World Series begins Tuesday, Morneau will be watching those starters closely, knowing that their performances will play a major role in determining who wins it all.
“People who complain about today’s game, self-proclaimed traditionalists, this is the kind of series they should be watching,” said Morneau, a four-time all-star and former AL MVP. “They’re going to ride these starting pitchers. They’re going to trust these lineups. We’re not going to see seven different lineups in seven World Series games. It’s one of those baseball matchups that rarely comes along: the two best rotations in baseball advanced to the World Series.”
In a phone conversation Monday, Morneau offered insight on those aces while also discussing his hitting approach, Juan Soto’s body language and Ryan Zimmerman’s long-awaited trip to the Fall Classic. Here’s a partially edited transcript of the conversation with Morneau, who will be analyzing the World Series on Sportsnet starting Tuesday.
Sportsnet: You stood in against Justin Verlander a lot over your years in the AL Central (.752 OPS with two HR in 67 plate appearances). What’s the challenge of facing him?
Justin Morneau: When he first came up, it was fastball-curveball. You could go through the at-bat expecting to get one of those two. Now his slider and changeup have gotten better, so he’s a four-pitch guy who knows how to pitch. It’s amazing that he’s been able to maintain his velocity, as he’s gotten older, better than almost anybody else in the game today. Usually it drops off as they get into their lower 30s, mid-30s, but he’s in the upper 90s and he’s got four weapons he can use in any count.
SN: At this point, Gerrit Cole might be the best pitcher in baseball. What can the Nationals do against him?
JM: He can overpower you at any point with his fastball. He’ll sit in the upper 90s with that fastball. Verlander will go back and forth. He can get 97 or 98 (m.p.h.) when he needs it, but he understands he can’t pitch there the whole game. Gerrit Cole will throw that fastball as hard as he can throughout the game and he still has a lot left in the seventh inning. Those few extra ticks make you that much more aware as a hitter. You have to get started that much earlier. He has a power breaking ball. He throws his changeup effectively. He understands who he is as a pitcher, takes in as much information as he can. He’s able to execute and it’s amazing to see what he’s been able to do.
SN: What would you look for if you were facing Cole?
JM: I would never get off the fastball. His breaking ball’s a power breaking ball. Even if you’re looking for it, it’s going to be hard to hit. If it was me, I’d be aggressive on the first fastball I see in the zone and try to treat it like it’s a 2-0 count until I get to two strikes. He’s able to elevate that fastball above the zone and it looks good, and you think you’re going to hit it, but you can’t hit it. You have to be disciplined. It’s such a fine line of being disciplined and being aggressive. You have to do that with a guy like that, because when he throws you a pitch in the zone, you’re probably not going to see another one that you’re going to be able to do damage on.
SN: When you’re facing a pitcher who’s potentially the best pitcher in the world, what are the conversations like in the dugout?
JM: You’d ask hitters at the top of the lineup, ‘is his fastball running? Does it have life up in the zone? Are you able to pick up his breaking ball?’ You’d have those conversations as the game’s going along.
I used to talk to (Joe) Mauer all the time. ‘What have you got in this guy? What’s he done to you? What are you going to try to do off him?’ His approach and my approach were so different that I couldn’t do the things that he did. He hit behind in the count a lot. He was a very good two-strike hitter. For me, I was trying to do damage on a pitch over the plate, so my approach was a little bit different, but having the knowledge of what he sees and what he’s thinking helps.
SN: As a hitter, if you’re facing someone who’s really, really good like these guys, how many actual hittable pitches do you get in the course of an at-bat?
JM: Someone said something to me early in my career that makes a lot of sense. A pitcher gets one strike, you get one and the umpire gets one. In the course of an at-bat with three strikes, there’s a borderline pitch that could go either way. From the hitter’s perspective, it goes in the pitcher’s favour most of the time. Then the pitcher makes his pitch, a fastball up under your hands or whatever it is. And then he’ll give you one pitch to hit, so you can’t miss that one.
With these guys, you might get something over the plate to hit, but the fastballs are from 95-99 m.p.h., so even if it’s over the plate it’s still hard to hit because that type of velocity’s tough to catch up to. You might get a hanging breaking ball and you can’t miss it, because those guys are so locked in right now that if they make a mistake with a breaking ball, they’re able to make an adjustment quicker than most pitchers. If you see a hanging breaking ball in one at-bat, you’re probably not going to see another one.
SN: Zack Greinke is someone you faced a lot and it looks like he’s someone who did pretty well against you (.558 OPS in 50 plate appearances). You look at some of the different stuff Greinke does like that one at-bat against Giancarlo Stanton he threw him this 61-m.p.h. floater, eephus-type pitch. How hard is it to face a guy like that?
JM: He’ll throw that curveball anywhere from the low 60s even into the mid-70s, so even if you’re looking for that pitch you still have to recognize how fast it’s coming in. You might recognize that it’s breaking, but for most guys there’s a three- or four-m.p.h. difference for the same pitch. Well, he throws the same pitch at such a different speed that it becomes hard to look for something slow, because you might not be looking slow enough. Or, on the other side of it, if you’re looking for something in the 60 m.p.h. range, you might get something closer to 80 and you’re going to get beat.
His ability to change speed, I think is a difference maker. Number one, it makes him hard to hit, but number two, his fastball, which is no longer in the upper-90s, gets on you a little bit more if you’re trying to tell yourself to sit back and let the ball travel. That’s the game, and that’s why you enjoy watching him pitch. He enjoys that part of the game and trying to out-think the hitter, trying to throw what you’re not looking for and trying to make you look silly or off-balance. Those are the guys that are tough, but also fun to go through an at-bat with.
SN: When you’re facing someone like Max Scherzer who’s so intense out there, as a hitter do you notice that? Are you in your own gameplan? How much does that even register?
JM: We pay attention from the dugout. It’s more body language. If a guy’s getting rattled, they think they threw a strike and it’s called a ball you can feel the pressure building on them and you feed off that as a lineup. These guys are intense. They don’t really show their emotions too often. They’ll do it if they get a big third out of the inning, strikeout with the bases loaded with two outs, those kind of things.
But on that side of (the game) I’m really looking forward to seeing what (Juan) Soto does. With some of the things he does in the batter’s box, he did it against younger pitchers, but didn’t do it against Adam Wainwright. That’ll be fun to see if he plays into that and if the guys in Houston allow that to affect them because I feel like it affected the way they pitched to him (earlier in the playoffs). He stared them down after he walked and then they tried to challenge him the next at-bat and he ended up getting a hit. It’s almost like he has fun trying to get into the pitcher’s head.
It’ll be fun to see what Verlander does. He doesn’t seem to fall into that trap too often. I can’t see Gerrit Cole falling into that trap. I can’t see Greinke really caring what anybody’s really doing. It’ll be fun to see.
SN: If you had a younger teammate like Soto and he was doing that, what would your thought process be? Would you leave him alone, say anything or just be amused?
JM: You don’t want him to lose his swagger, his confidence, who he is. He wants to show that pitcher that ‘hey, I’m 20 years old in the big-leagues and I’m not afraid of anything.’ As much as it’s an act, it helps him feel good in the batter’s box and you don’t want to take that away from him.
You also want to make him aware that when you do that you have a target on your back. They’re going to be looking out for you every time you do that. They’re going to be paying attention and you don’t want attention on you for the wrong reasons. He’s a fantastic player who’s going to have a great career. You don’t want him to all of a sudden become a villain for some of the stuff he’s doing in the box.
That’s as a player. As a fan and someone who’s just watching, I find it entertaining. I find it kind of funny. It’s a chance to get under the pitcher’s skin. If he’s going through an 0-for-15 in the World Series, that’s going to highlight it even more. It could become a distraction, but as long as it’s not a distraction and he’s able to handle that extra attention or pressure on himself, if he’s successful you don’t want to change too much.
SN: When you see someone like Ryan Zimmerman reach the World Series after 15 years with the same team, what’s your reaction?
JM: I cheer for almost anybody in that situation. Peyton Manning. Zimmerman’s maybe not on the same level as Peyton Manning for his career, but I always wanted Peyton Manning to win a Super Bowl. You’re pulling for different guys who have been told they can’t win or can’t get it done or that failed in the past. Whether it’s their fault or not, I always pull for those guys to get that ring, especially when they’ve meant so much to an organization. I would have loved to see Joe Mauer get one, that would have been incredible.
It’s tough because there’s a lot of guys on both sides that I’m cheering for. You’ve got Dozier, so many guys on that Washington team that I’ve played against for so long and been teammates with a few of them. Then there’s guys on Houston that I know well, so you just want to see them perform well. You don’t want to see any 0-for-20s or two-inning starts where they give up six runs. Whoever has the most talent will play out in the course of the series.