Justin Verlander returning to form

Through the four-year stretch of 2009 – 2012, there wasn’t a better pitcher in baseball than Justin Verlander. He dominated by sitting in the low 90s, then ramping up to over 100 MPH in crucial situations – both early and late. He featured a devastating hammer curve as well as a changeup that just faded away, and away, and awayyy…

His complete dominance over any hitter who dared challenge him earned him a massive $180MM contract, landed him  a superstar supermodel, and he became the first pitcher to win both the Cy Young and MVP in the same season in almost 20 years (Dennis Eckersley was the last to do so with the Oakland A’s in 1992). Everything was looking pretty peachy for the flame-throwing righty in the Motor City, but after a couple rough seasons there was growing doubt on his long-term outlook.

There really isn’t anything normal about pitching. The motion puts an insane amount of stress on the arm, the stats almost never line up when you want them to, and elite pitchers will often just watch all their filth evaporate in a matter of months. Verlander never experienced a severe drop-off in velocity; he kept his usual repertoire and even had the same backstops calling his games. Yet he slipped from elite to very good to just good – and the way he pitched for stretched last season, calling him just good might be generous. His whiffs and strikeouts disappeared, his ERA skyrocketed, and he gave up his highest contact rates since 2008. His age and amount of high stress innings credited on his arm looked to be taking their toll, and without a serious change of game plan Verlander was in big trouble.

An injury sidelined Verlander for the start of 2015, another bad sign for the former ace. He started off slow (although not uncommon), and since the All-Star break he’s been exceptional once again. With just a 2.89 ERA and an even better 2.80 FIP, he has pitched well enough to accumulate the 6th most fWAR in baseball over the second half. A small sample for sure, but for someone with such a tremendous track record as well as what appears to be lasting changes, this appears to be a return to form more than just a hot stretch.

Instead of changing his approach to a more finesse style to match what many observers saw as a deteriorating body (with good evidence to back it up), Verlander stuck with what he knew and became even more of a power pitcher. Last season’s 37.4% fastball rate was the lowest of his career, and his numbers responded with a down season. But in 2015 he brought his fastball use up to over 50%, his highest since 2010. And the results have been pretty, getting better than career average whiffs on the pitch that made him famous. The velocity might not be coming back as hard as it used to, but he’s getting as much run on it as ever (10.6 horizontal inches) as well as strong levels of rise (6.6 vertical inches).

To add so many fastballs he had to subtract from other pitches, but he did almost exclusively from his changeup. He managed to decrease from a 28.5% rate in 2014 to just 17.5% this year. Where the pitch was worth over ten runs above average in 2010 and 2011, it has steadily decreased in effectiveness until finally being worth negative value over the past couple of seasons. He started to find the changeup having increased run on it, but this posed an issue as hitters started offering at it less. From 2010-11 they swung at change-ups outside of the zone 53.4% of the time, but that number dropped to just 42.6% since 2013. Anytime you start allowing hitters more free balls, that creates better counts for offense. It doesn’t take a genius to add that up and get the result; a bunch of runs.

Another almost hidden benefit of his new strategy has happened to help eliminate his weird reverse split problems that he has faced recently. Verlander has never really struggled with lefties, but right-handed hitters have been crushing him since 2013. Shown below is a chart representation of platoon splits from 2012 on,
courtesy of Bless You Boys:

Season Avg OBP Slg wOBA
2012 Left .212 .264 .344 .266
2012 Right .221 .278 .315 .265
2013 Left .236 .307 .351 .294
2013 Right .271 .327 .412 .325
2014 Left .235 .308 .378 .305
2014 Right .318 .361 .489 .372
2015 Left .233 .277 .377 .281
2015 Right .261 .318 .419 .321

Since about 70% of hitters in baseball are right-handed, it’s pretty obvious that cutting down on these splits will help his performance moving forward. It could even see opposing managers begin to add more lefties in the lineup to avoid his current dominance of righties, which plays right into his wheelhouse.

It sure seems like the Justin Verlander of old hasn’t left us yet, but don’t tell him that. Verlander, when asked about a return to form, responded with this:

“I don’t think this is a throwback,” he said. “This is the pitcher that I am.”

Exactly the kind of bulldog mentality that you want from your ace. So let’s continue to enjoy one of the best pitchers in baseball progress himself to be great once again.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.