Have You Seen Justin Verlander’s Fastball?

With the great addition of pitch type and velocity numbers here on FanGraphs, as well as the proliferation of Pitch F/X data, we’ve seen some great analysis of pitchers and the potential causes for their success and failure. In particular, there has been a decent amount of discussion about Barry Zito and his loss of velocity this season. However, Zito’s not the only one who has seen his fastball drop significantly, and among that group is Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

In 2006, the only starting pitcher in baseball with a higher velocity average on his fastball was Felix Hernandez, who clipped him 95.2 MPH to 95.1 MPH. Last year, Verlander’s fastball averaged 94.8 MPH, ranking him behind just Felix and A.J. Burnett. There was no question about it – Verlander was a power pitcher with a great fastball and one of the emerging young stars in baseball.

However, with the calendar flipping to 2008, something has changed. In his first three starts of the year, Justin Verlander has averaged just 91.9 MPH on his fastball, a 3 MPH decline on his main weapon. Instead of lighting up radar guns with Felix and Burnett, he’s now throwing as hard as Jair Jurrjens and Nick Blackburn. That’s less impressive company, with no offense intended to either youngster. This isn’t just a normal early season blip, either – Verlander’s down 5 MPH compared to what he was throwing in April of 2007.

The velocity loss has clearly had an impact on Verlander’s performance so far. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate is down, and he’s giving up more home runs to boot. That’s a rough combination, and helps explain the 5.73 FIP he’s posted during the first 19 innings of his 2008 season. While the Tigers as a team have struggled coming out of the gates, perhaps no performance is as worrying as Verlander’s. If his fastball continues to sit around 92 MPH for the remainder of the season, he’s going to have to make some significant adjustments to be the frontline starter that Detroit was counting on.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

12 Responses to “Have You Seen Justin Verlander’s Fastball?”

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  1. Here’s the breakout of fastball speeds & percentages from 2007 & 2008. Looks like a different pitcher.

    SPD	 2007     2008
    87      0.11%    0.70%
    88      0.44%    1.41%
    89      0.99%    8.45%
    90      1.81%   11.97%
    91      5.43%   23.24%
    92      8.29%   23.24%
    93     10.81%    9.86%
    94     16.36%    8.45%
    95     13.78%    9.15%
    96     16.19%    3.52%
    97     12.57%	
    98      8.45%	
    99      3.84%	
    100     0.77%	
    101     0.11%	
    102     0.05%	

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  2. Eric J. Seidman says:

    Dave, if we could see these numbers in April as compared to other months that might help shed light, too. Maybe he is a slow starter in terms of speed and really picks it up when the heat rolls around. Or perhaps not. Something to consider though.

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  3. Here’s just March & April numbers:

    Spd      2007     2008
    87               0.70%
    88               1.41%
    89               8.45%
    90              11.97%
    91      1.44%   23.24%
    92      3.61%   23.24%
    93      5.05%    9.86%
    94     11.19%    8.45%
    95     15.16%    9.15%
    96     23.10%    3.52%
    97     21.66%	
    98     15.52%	
    99      2.89%	
    100     0.36%	

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  4. Eric J. Seidman says:

    That’s really something. So far, 22 % of his pitches this year have been at speeds (87-90) that he only reached approximately 3.3 % of the time last year. And he didn’t even fall to those speeds once during March/April of last year.

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  5. dan says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the Tigers coaching staff was trying to teach Verlander to throw softer, to induce more movement on his fastball. Now one of two things has happened: this has either worked (he’s throwing slower) and he’s just not hitting spots for some reason… or he was throwing slower and the staff “teaching” him to throw slower was just a positive spin on his mysterious loss of velocity. Whatever the cause, it obviously hasn’t turned out well so far, for him or the team.

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  6. They were definitely trying to get him to throw slower at the beginning of 2007, but last year was such a success for him and with their 1000 run offense and everything…. why fix what ain’t broken. I like the argument that he actually is broken.

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  7. Mariner Fan in Colorado Exile says:

    I am not well-versed on Verlander’s injury history, but is there anything that presaged this? More importantly, is there any type of arm problem that usually becomes known after a symptom like this that doesn’t seem to indicate natural decline? To be touching the mid-high 90′s on a consistent basis last year and now to find that less than 4% of your fastballs break 96 is devestating.

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  8. Joser says:

    Wow, those velocity tables would sure look good as a… graph. Looks like a nice Poisson distribution.

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  9. taro says:

    Hes throwing more two-seamers this year, and clearly its not working.

    Its not something I’d worry about long-term, but it sure doesn’t seem to be working right now.

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  10. Lantermanc says:

    I had a chance to get Felix, Bedard, and Adam Jones for Verlander, Billy Wagner, Jered Weaver, and Mike Lowell, but Bedard was the deal-breaker for the other guy. Hindsight being 20/20, I should’ve taken the deal.
    I hope Verlander doesn’t put in a Bonderman-like 2007.

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  11. marc w. says:

    Is he actually throwing more 2 seamers? Or, more specifically, what does pitch FX show for the break on these fastballs? The break might help determine if it’s actually a different pitch or broadly the same, only slower.

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  12. taro says:

    Apparently Leyland wants Verlander to throw “slower” and pace himself this year to eat more innings (so they don’t have to go to their crappy bullpen).

    They were also talking about utilizing the two-seam more to get early outs…and as we speak Verlander is getting trashed again.

    Maybe its time to end the experiment. :-)

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