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.