Justin Verlander Below the Surface

In a start earlier Thursday, Justin Verlander just abused the Blue Jays for nine innings. In fairness to the Blue Jays, theirs was a lineup missing Jose Bautista, J.P. Arencibia, and Brett Lawrie, and it was a lineup with Omar Vizquel batting sixth and Jeff Mathis batting seventh, but outside of one pitch Verlander cruised, as he’s so often cruised. He threw another nine frames, with another dozen strikeouts and another paltry two runs allowed. Verlander is a leading Cy Young candidate, and every time he takes the mound, you expect him to do something not unlike this.

What Verlander has done is build a reputation of being perhaps the most consistent starter in baseball. He’s not just excellent; he’s routinely excellent, and a Google search for “Justin Verlander” + “consistent” yields nearly a million results. Of course, a Google search for “A.J. Burnett” + “consistent” yields more than 700,000 results so maybe this isn’t good science. Look at the performance record. I can’t pinpoint the precise moment that Justin Verlander became Justin Verlander, but it’s easy to put it somewhere between 2008 and 2009. Since 2009, Verlander hasn’t posted a FIP below 2.80 or above 2.99. He hasn’t posted an xFIP below 3.12 or above 3.52. He keeps starting and he keeps thriving. He keeps on being Justin Verlander.

Statistically, one can’t deny that Verlander has been consistent, nor should one want to. Perhaps consistency isn’t predictive, but we can identify it in retrospect. On the surface, Justin Verlander has hardly changed at all. Yet it’s interesting to see what turns up when you dig.

Thursday afternoon, Verlander threw 115 pitches against the Blue Jays. Of those pitches, 21 were sliders, and 17 of those sliders were strikes. Ten of those sliders generated swinging strikes. Verlander threw well more sliders than he did curveballs, and when you think Justin Verlander, you think triple-digit heat and knee-buckling curve.

On May 8, 2009, Verlander shut out the Indians over nine innings, striking out 11. He threw 118 pitches, 115 of which were recorded by PITCHf/x. Six of those pitches were sliders, and nearly four times that were curves.

During the game Thursday, the Tigers broadcast dedicated some time early on to talk about the continuing development of Justin Verlander’s slider. It’s a pitch he seems to have picked up early in 2009, and the progress is evident, even from just looking at Verlander’s player page. He went from using it never to using it about two percent of the time, to using it about seven percent of the time, to using it about eight percent of the time, to using it about 11 percent of the time.

But that’s not even the right way to look at this, because Verlander hardly ever uses his slider against lefties, and he faces a lot of lefties. Here’s Verlander’s slider usage against righties, by year:

2009: 5%
2010: 15%
2011: 20%
2012: 25%

It’s convenient that they’re all divisible by five, and what that trend tells you is that Verlander has become a hell of a lot more confident in what was and might still be his number-four pitch. You can see signs of tinkering: the slider velocity is down from the high-80s to the mid-80s, and now the slider has more sink than ever before. You probably can’t stand that I haven’t shown you what the slider looks like yet, but I was just waiting for the .gifs to upload. Here are a couple sliders that Verlander threw against the Blue Jays on Thursday:

Yep, looks like a pretty good pitch. It’s something Verlander can throw in between his high-70s curve and his mid-90s heat. Because if there’s one thing Verlander has always needed, it’s another devastating weapon in his arsenal. His stuff wasn’t good enough before on its own.

But we can take this beyond simply noting that Verlander is throwing more and more sliders. We can investigate matters by looking at different situations, and in 2009, when Verlander was behind in the count against righties, he threw 87-percent fastballs, and nine-percent curves. When he was ahead in the count against righties, he threw 54-percent fastballs, and 32-percent curves. So far in 2012, when behind in the count against righties, Verlander has thrown 69-percent fastballs, and 27-percent sliders. When ahead in the count against righties, he’s thrown 39-percent fastballs, 25-percent sliders, and 27-percent curves.

You have to have a lot of confidence in a pitch to throw it on a frequent basis when you’re behind in the count, so Verlander has clearly fallen head over heels for his slider. It’s gradually replaced his curve and some of his fastballs in hitter-friendly counts, and as it happens, lately he’s been extra successful after getting into hitter-friendly counts. Meanwhile, now when Verlander is ahead, the hitter just has no idea. If there’s any element of predictability at all in there, I can’t see it. When ahead, Verlander will throw any of his four pitches, and all of his pitches are good. He’s Justin Verlander; of course all of his pitches are good.

Now here’s where this all becomes more or less interesting, depending on your perspective. Justin Verlander has changed over the last four years, in that he’s introduced a slider and gone to it more and more often in different situations. In terms of strikeouts, walks, and homers, Verlander hasn’t really changed one bit. His performance has remained pretty stable, unless you buy into his ability to reduce hits on balls in play. If you do, then Verlander has achieved a new level. Maybe in part because of his slider. If you don’t, then Verlander’s simply wrapping up the fourth year of a crazy peak.

All this talk about Verlander’s slider, and we can’t even be certain that it’s making a meaningful difference. The key is in identifying the difference between current Justin Verlander and what current Justin Verlander would be without the slider, and of course that is impossible. But you know what they say: baseball is a game of adjustments, and everybody must always be adjusting. Maintaining a peak like Verlander’s presumably isn’t something that can be done on raw talent alone. Sometimes it isn’t about becoming even more awesome. Sometimes it’s about remaining exactly as awesome as you already were. That takes a lot of constant work, and Verlander has most certainly put it in.

Print This Post

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

35 Responses to “Justin Verlander Below the Surface”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Justin says:

    The gif’s are quite scary

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. david price says:

    Nice article (AND gifs!), but I’m the leading Cy candidate. Verlander, much like Eugene McCarthy, will lose because his results will look less good when viewed through the lens of expectation.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Felix Hernandez says:

      Unfortunately for you, I threw a perfect game against your team in the middle of an incredible run of dominance, which may bias Cy Young voters in my direction.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • colin says:

        You have inferior flashy stats (wins, ERA) to Price and Verlander and your still behind Verlander in advanced metrics. Your perfect game was great but very few people are putting you in first for the Cy at this moment.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Rzeczpospolita says:

        That’s wonderful. Now, how about doing the same thing in a ballpark other than Safeco?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Mike Trout says:

        Unfortunately for all three of you, my dominance knows no bounds, and as tribute to my greatness I will be receiving the MVP, ROY, Cy Young and Rolaids Relief awards.

        +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Chris Sale says:

        My arm still hasn’t completely fallen off. If it stays attached for another month, I deserve the award.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Bip says:

        I don’t know which one of you I prefer, but I do know that the AL Cy Young award is going to be a whole lot more interesting that the NL one this year.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Scott says:

    Nice turnaround on this one. How long does it take for GIFs to load? I couldn’t churn out one half-assed comment in the time you write an in-depth, well written article. Great addition to the staff. Just don’t go all Josh Beckett on everybody.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. andrewf says:

    There’s no doubt they’re vicious, but those “sliders” in the GIFs look like curveballs to me. Looks like it’s almost all downward break, not a lot of lateral movement. No?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • nolan says:

      Because he torques his body toward the first base side, he’s able to cause the break on his slider to have more vertical as opposed to lateral movement. In addition to that the camera angle of the .gifs make it hard to pick up the exact break of the pitch.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bip says:

      You are being deceived by the very off-center camera that these gifs are taken from. Also, yes, Verlander has a somewhat wide slider with a lot of downward break in addition to a lot of glove-side cut, but it is still clearly distinct from his huge, 12-6 curveball. A lot of guys throw a tighter curve that moves sideways and may resemble Verlander’s slider more that his curve, but if you see Verlander’s curve, you’ll really see the difference.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. eric_con says:

    great article!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. JV has generally kept his weekly H/9 at 8.6 or better. The only two pitchers who’ve bested him there this season are Kershaw and Strasburg. They’re at 8.2 & 8.5 H/9. Franklin Morales is at 8.4 H/9 as a starter, but hasn’t started nearly as many times.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Eric says:

    I MAY be wrong, but I am pretty sure the 2nd .gif is not a slider. The trajectory and velocity look like a curve to me and his slider rarely “backdoors” like that pitch is doing in the .GIF. His slider normally bites on the outside corner to righties and is thrown harder will less break. Based off the first .GIF though, maybe he took more off his slider this game ( I wasn’t able to watch).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Rod Allen says:

    Thats a nasty piece of cheese

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Cus says:

    Q: What makes a truly elite starter?

    A: The ability to throw above-average secondary pitches for strikes in hitter’s counts.

    Easy game.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • ThePartyBird says:

      That’s like the tenth thing I’d think of when thinking of what makes a truly elite starter, but points for originality, I guess.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Mike B. says:

    Just as awesome as Verlander’s stuff today was Jackson’s sliding catch in the top of the 10th–I couldn’t believe he got to that in time. Saved a run and perhaps the game. At least Justin has a good outfield backing him up, crucial for a high FB% guy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. nayr mit says:

    I’ve got the second one as a curve ball as well.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. What says:

    I just can’t see that as a slider.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Eric Cioe says:

    Verlander’s slider has gotten slower over the years, as noted in this article, and now at points it’s indistinguishable from the curve. When he’s throwing 90-92 in cruise control, his slider can be more like 82-84. When he’s got runners on and the fastball is up towards 98, the slider gets more like 88. He changes speeds on all his pitches as well as anyone.

    Of course pitch f/x has a hard time coping with this. It’s really hard to tell slider from curveball unless you watch the whole AB and see what his other offerings are looking like.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Robbie G. says:

    What a great race for the Cy Young Award in the AL. The contenders appear to be:

    Justin Verlander
    Felix Hernandez
    Chris Sale
    David Price

    Jered Weaver had the flashy ERA to go along with the gaudy W-L record until a recent start where he got totally shelled. Voters who focus on W-L record and ERA will now look to David Price, who has as many wins (16) and now a much better ERA. I think that Weaver is now out of the running.

    It really should come down to who pitches best down the stretch. Felix Hernandez’s mediocre W-L record did not hurt him a few years ago, so there’s no real reason to believe it will hurt him this time. It is obvious that voters pay attention to WAR now. My money’s on Verlander, the best pitcher in MLB over the past several years and, as the author describes above, a guy who is at the peak of what is looking like a HOF career.

    Pitcher WAR, 2009-present:

    1 Justin Verlander 26.9
    2 Roy Halladay 24.7
    3 Felix Hernandez 23.8
    4 Cliff Lee 23.5
    5 Zach Greinke 22.3
    6 C.C. Sabathia 22.3
    7 Clayton Kershaw 20.3
    8 Tim Lincecum 19.3
    9 Jon Lester 18.6
    10 Jered Weaver 18.2
    11 Dan Haren 17.9
    12 Josh Johnson 17.3
    13 Ubaldo Jimenez 15.8
    14 Matt Cain 15.7
    15 Adam Wainwright 15.7
    16 Cole Hamels 15.5
    17 C.J. Wilson 14.9
    18 David Price 14.3
    19 Chris Carpenter 14.2
    20 Gavin Floyd (!) 13.5

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. snoop LION says:

    err… that’s definitely a slider, anyone whose seen him pitch knows his curve is much more loopier and 12-6 break. and normally in the 78-80 range

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Bip says:

    Here’s something that may be deceiving the people who think the second pitch looks like a curveball:

    Since the camera is coming from over his right shoulder, a normal, “spinless” ball will still appear to move from left to right, simply because of the angle between the direction of the camera view and the trajectory of the ball. Also, since his release point is more or less at the same vertical level as the catcher’s glove, a spinless ball will drop slightly in our view due to gravity. What this would produce, from our view, is a ball that moves at a constant speed along the x-axis and accelerates downward along the y-axis, creating a velocity vector that appears to point to the right and turn downward slightly.

    However, those gifs show balls that are very much not spinless. They are correctly identified as sliders because their spin causes them to break downwards and to the left, that being Verlander’s glove side. Since the camera is more or less vertically level, the downward break (the element of it’s movement it shares with his curve) is easy to see. Downward break obviously causes the ball to accelerate downward along the y-axis which bends the velocity vector downwards. However, the effect of the sideways movement is less obvious.

    The ball appears to move from left to right because of the angle between the ball and the camera view. So, if the ball turns to the left, it will turn so as to align more with the camera view, shortening that angle. This reduces the left-to-right movement of the ball from the view of the camera, meaning the x-axis movement of the ball from our view is decelerating. If the ball is moving down and to the left from our view, accelerating downward and decelerating along the x-axis will appear to make the velocity vector move sharply downward. This makes it look like a curveball because while the curveball doesn’t move as much to the left, it breaks downwards more that the slider, which also causes the velocity vector to move sharply downwards.

    So how do you tell the difference? The difference is in how the velocity vector changes. In the second gif, when the ball passes between the exclamation mark and the catcher’s head, the ball’s left-right motion actually appears to slow down to me. Additionally, since the movement of a curveball is due mostly to one component of change to the vector, it’s acceleration appears more uniform, and to the viewer it may look like a rainbow or a looper, as some have said. Because’s the slider’s change in apparent trajectory is due to the collusion of two components of acceleration, it doesn’t appear as uniform as the curve’s, which causes a somewhat awkward bend at the aforementioned point in the ball’s path.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. derp says:

    It’s also probably in 2012 where Verlander is showing the first genuine example of a pitcher who takes tons off his stuff until he actually needs to use it. It’s really something, to see Verlander deliver a consistent 92-93 MPH with runners off, and then as soon as someone gets on, without even visibly showing extra effort his fastball is suddenly coming in at a minimum of 96 and through 102!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eric Cioe says:

      To be fair, he isn’t the first guy to do this, he’s the only one left. Do you think Seaver and Carlton were piling up those innings while throwing max effort 100% of the time?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>