Justin Verlander Needs to Change to Counter Change

Justin Verlander has a 3.55 ERA. Seems a little strange to be worried about a pitcher with a 3.55 ERA. But, a few things, about that ERA:

  1. it is worse than some of his old ERAs
  2. a league-average ERA is lower than it used to be
  3. ERA, really?

There’s concern, and the concern is legitimate. Okay, so you go a step beyond ERA. You look at FIP. Verlander’s FIP is even lower than his ERA! ERA takes a long time to stabilize, but FIP can take a while, too, on account of how much it depends on dingers. Verlander, so far, hasn’t given up too many dingers, but let’s use a stat we just introduced on Tuesday to show why Verlander is at the root of much angst.

Instead of K/BB, get yourself accustomed to K% – BB%. The former is fine; the latter is better. The latter is more meaningful, and says more about a pitcher than the ratio does, and let’s look now at the biggest decliners in the stat among starters between 2013-2014:

Maholm had some elbow problems, and he’s been torched. Miller doesn’t look at all like he used to look. Burnett’s on a new team, with slower pitches. Peavy’s been unreliable. Salazar is in the minors. Cingrani was just on the DL with a shoulder issue. Verlander usually finds himself among better company, but his strikeouts are down and his walks are up, and those are a pitcher’s two most meaningful stats.

It’s true against right-handed batters — Verlander’s K% – BB% has dropped from 16% to 11%. It’s true against left-handed batters — the same stat has dropped from 15% to 6%. Verlander’s been different against everybody, and what he’s done so far is a far cry from what he did at his peak. And while, with elite-level players, you generally want to wait for an awful lot of evidence to declare that something’s wrong, Verlander’s showing a major trend that probably can’t be dismissed.

The explanation for Verlander has usually had something to do with fastball command. Simple and sensible enough: a fastball in a good spot is better than a fastball in a worse spot. With great command, a pitcher can succeed doing almost anything. It’s been no secret that Verlander’s average velocities have been falling. Let’s leave command aside for a moment and just look at something both basic and significant. Here’s a table, covering the PITCHf/x era. It shows the rate of Verlander’s pitches at at least 95 miles per hour, and the rate at at least 98 miles per hour. The numbers are arbitrary, but arbitrary threshold selection isn’t the reason behind what you observe:

Year 95+ 98+
2008 15% 1%
2009 43% 8%
2010 35% 5%
2011 27% 5%
2012 21% 4%
2013 14% 1%
2014 5% 0%

Verlander became famous for amping up his velocity in the later innings of starts. He was the model of a guy pacing himself, saving his energy for when he needed it. In the past, Verlander has had triple digits in his back pocket. But he’s shown a declining rate of big-time pitch speed, and his fastest pitch so far this season has checked in at 97.5 miles per hour, on opening day. Verlander has yet to throw a pitch over 98. Just one out of 20 pitches has been over 95, and while Verlander might say he’s not worried because he can throw hard when he has to, the evidence suggests his new hard isn’t his old hard.

Now, it’s still early, and as the weather warms up, so will Verlander’s arm. I suspect at the end of the year, these 2014 numbers will be higher. I also suspect they’ll still be lower than they’ve been in the past, as velocity decline is normal and Verlander has experienced a mammoth workload.

What’s the deal with fewer strikeouts? Verlander’s always run high foul-ball rates, and high whiff rates. His contact rate now isn’t bad, but he’s generated fewer fouls. As a result, more strikes have been hit into play, ending plate appearances before they can proceed to three strikes. During his peak, Verlander had about 25-26% of his strikes put into play. This year he’s over 30%, and though that seems like a small increase, the spread in the majors isn’t that large. Last year, Verlander had baseball’s eight-lowest in-play rate. This year he’s in the upper half, around names like Colby Lewis and Tanner Roark.

I want to show you another table. This table blends foul balls and whiffs. In one column, you’ll see Verlander’s rate of foul balls or whiffs at pitches of at least 95 mph. In the next column, you’ll see the same rate at pitches under 95. Again, arbitrary threshold, but hardly what’s most important.

Year F, Sw, 95+ F, Sw, under 95
2008 38% 27%
2009 42% 26%
2010 37% 26%
2011 39% 27%
2012 44% 29%
2013 39% 30%
2014 39% 27%

Interestingly, Verlander’s top velocity has still worked fine, and his lower velocity has still worked fine, in these terms. His rates are each separated from his peak by less than one percentage point. But the ratio has dramatically shifted. Verlander has thrown far fewer pitches in the left column, and far more pitches in the right column, so more balls have been put in play, and Verlander hasn’t looked like Verlander.

Not everything, probably, can be explained by velocity loss, but if you want, you can try to tie everything together. Verlander blames his command, but maybe he’s just noticed more because throwing slower gives him a lesser margin of error. Command, for him, is more important than it’s ever been. Maybe he’s throwing more balls with his fastball because he’s less willing to challenge hitters over the middle, now that he doesn’t have so much of his heat. Because Verlander’s fallen behind more, he’s walked more, and when he’s tried to avoid walks, he’s come over the plate and he’s had fewer opportunities to try to get hitters to chase a changeup out of the zone. Verlander right now, additionally, doesn’t quite have the high fastball as a two-strike weapon. Here’s his year-by-year rate of strikeouts ending with a heater:

2008: 35%
2009: 50%
2010: 40%
2011: 34%
2012: 41%
2013: 38%
2014: 26%

With two strikes, Verlander has thrown a fastball 45% of the time, right around his 47% rate that he had in his five-year peak. It just hasn’t done what it did. Before, 17% of those two-strike fastballs led directly to strikeouts. This year, he’s at 9%, the ultimate message being that Verlander’s fastball is just worse across the board.

Verlander’s right: the big issue for him is fastball command. He has to locate his fastball better, because now he’ll be lesser able to make productive use of fastballs in spots he didn’t necessarily intend. He has to find a new way to succeed with the stuff he has, because he doesn’t have the stuff he used to, even if many pitchers would kill to have 2014 Justin Verlander’s arsenal. The fastball is worse, which affects everything, and while Verlander is probably better than his current peripherals, he finally has to make an adjustment after years of the league trying to make adjustments to him. There are plenty of reasons to believe Verlander is going to be an effective pitcher for a while yet. He’s smart and extremely talented and dedicated and he has a variety of secondary pitches. But this current Verlander is a little off. This current Verlander has to be better with a pitch that isn’t the pitch Verlander had always had.




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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.


37 Responses to “Justin Verlander Needs to Change to Counter Change”

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  1. What data source did you use? Just as a point of reference, raw Pitchf/x is classifying a lot of his slower fastballs as changeups, which could affect the last list. Also, for a while, the Comerica camera was about a mph slow. I think it’s closer to normal now, but that might play into the first chart. Of course, if you used Brooks data or corrected this on your own, ignore everything I just said!

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  2. ralph says:

    Well that was an excellent (and thus depressing) reminder of how fickle pitching is

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  3. Anonity says:

    I think you have to take Verlander’s off-season abdominal surgery into consideration as well. His normal off-season prep was curtailed significantly, which could very well be impacting his early season command.

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  4. Andrew says:

    I don’t know man, I see a lot more amiss in the profile. F-Strike% way down, BB% highest since 2008, all strikeout-related metrics down. Frankly, the peripherals look like a mediocre pitcher, which is what he’s been since the start of last season, playoff heroics aside. And I don’t see anything in the profile to suggest optimism. I think the Tigers are going to regret their mega deals for both Verlander and Cabrera sooner rather than later.

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    • Kevin says:

      @Andrew:

      “Frankly, the peripherals look like a mediocre pitcher, which is what he’s been since the start of last season, playoff heroics aside. ”

      So 7th in WAR in the majors last year was a “mediocre pitcher?” There’s realizing decline, and then there’s just hyperbolic nonsense.

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      • indyralph says:

        So your post caused me to click on the leaderboard. Can someone explain how Verlander’s season produced the same WAR as Cliff Lee’s? AL vs. NL, maybe? But then what about compared to Darvish? Same FIP, worse xFIP, better ballpark, but 9 more innings?

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        • ImKeithHernandez says:

          Yes, all of that. Plus a difference of .2 WAR amounts to virtually nothing. And WAR is FIP based, so xFIPs don’t exactly factor into it.

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        • Mike Harper says:

          I’m confused as well. The Al vs Nl would have to be equal to .58 FIP, which sure sounds like a lot, and that before considering that Comerica park is better for pitchers. The best pitcher in the National league according to WAR is the tenth best pitcher in baseball. Has the difference been that big?

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        • indyralph says:

          Right, I just picked two examples. Verlander’s peripherals stick out as higher than everyone around him on the list. Cole Hamels, for instances was worth 25% less according to WAR with the same FIP and same innings. Doug Fister, his own teammate, posted the same FIP in 10 fewer inning and had 0.6 less WAR. If 10 innings of that performance is worth 0.6 WAR, then 210 should be worth 12.6, no?

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        • indyralph says:

          I have a serious problem with plurals.

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        • matt w says:

          Mike — the designated hitter makes a big difference, though I’m not sure how big.

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        • a eskpert says:

          It’s basically something like (Innings pitched*Constant)1/fip-

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        • a eskpert says:

          Also, Indyralph, Fister’s Innings were accumulated at a different mixture of parks than Verlander’s, hence a different FIP-.

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        • Hawk Harrelson says:

          Infield flies started to be taken into account in a pitcher’s WAR before the 2013 season. Details. But since they are not taken into account in FIP, that explains most of the difference between Verlander (33 IFFB) and Darvish (17 IFFB) last year.

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        • Cam Hodgson says:

          Grit factor, key WAR component.

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      • Andrew says:

        Yeah, something seems to be messed up here. He’s 9th in WAR in 2013 and 2014 combined. In that span he has a 6.68 K/9 and a 3.68 BB/9. In the top 25, only Mark Buehrle has a K/9 below 7. Nobody has a higher BB/9, with only Garret Richards over 3 BB/9. If WAR is FIP based, how is this so?

        I frankly don’t see how the guy who of 107 total qualified pitchers is 76th in K/9, 94th in BB/9 and 86th in WHIP has been the 7th most valuable pitcher.

        Do you really think calling those numbers “mediocre” is hyperbolic nonsense? Really? I know you guys love your WAR, but come on. Sure he gets points for all the innings, but they’ve been mediocre innings at best. Mediocre is generous.

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        • ned says:

          He’s not giving up HR, which is the 3rd component of FIP, and which you are ignoring.

          Some would argue it’s the least sustainable/predictable of the three, but that’s a different argument.

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        • ned says:

          He’s 13th in HR/9 BTW. And 5th in innings pitched.

          And I don’t know where you got your k numbers from. I see he’s at 8.42 K/9 and 3.23 BB/9 over 284 innings.

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        • Hawk Harrelson says:

          No pitcher with a heart like Verlander’s is mediocre!

          But seriously, you’re looking at his 2014 numbers, not his combined 2013/14 numbers. Over that time he’s at 8.42 K/9 and 3.23 BB/9. Which is approaching replacement level in fantasy baseball but still pretty good in real life.

          If you want to see it in action (for the most part) go here. It is a little different now because I believe Fangraphs started to take pop-ups into account in 2012/2013 as equivalent to a K.

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        • Hawk Harrelson says:

          * It (in the last paragraph) meaning the calculation of pitcher WAR.

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  5. Baxter says:

    I flipped Verlander for Price a few weeks back, now quick, everyone tell me how smart I was so I can feel good about myself.

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  6. John C says:

    Except for maybe Nolan Ryan, there’s no pitcher that hasn’t had to make this adjustment as he aged, and even Nolan made more use of off-speed pitches as he got older. If the worst thing that happens to Verlander in his transition is that he posts ERAs in the mid-threes, that’s just another testament to how good that he is. Many great power pitchers have a season or two in mid-career with a 4.50 ERA or thereabouts while they adjust to losing a bit off the fastball.

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    • Walter Johnson says:

      “Except for maybe Nolan Ryan,” ‘sup motherfucker.

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      • John C says:

        1921…Walter Johnson goes 17-14 with a 3.51 ERA at the age of 33, after an 8-10 injury-plagued 1920 season. He had a three-year transition where he allowed more than a hit per inning. Although he remained an effective pitcher, he was not as dominant as before, going 57-52 with an ERA+ of 118 and a similar FIP.

        In 1924 and 1925, he was once again one of the best pitchers in baseball for two years. So a transition period happened to Walter too.

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  7. Youppi! says:

    did you consider the association of decline in fastball velocity and command and time spent dating Kate Upton?

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  8. ALZ says:

    Not really surprising. He is 31 and has 1800 innings on his arm. Being 6-5 I thought he had a few more elite years in him, but lets be honest most pitchers do not utterly dominate the league for more than a few years. He didn’t get his FIP under 3.99 until he was 26. Then he had 4 elite years.

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  9. redsoxu571 says:

    I’m always hesitant to read too much into this stuff in midseason. Verlander had a strong April last year but, if I remember correctly, didn’t quite “seem” the same as usual either. Then he struggled for a while, before turning on the afterburners (all the way into the playoffs).

    I think what this is really telling us is to not expect to see a Verlander turnaround until he starts dotting 95 mph fastballs with some 98s mixed in there. Time to schedule some viewing appointments! (This makes me extra sad that I missed him by a single spot in the rotation the other night when the Tigers played in Boston…nothing wrong with seeing Scherzer pitch, but I wanted to make some in-person investigation of Verlander).

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  10. JuJoo Guppy says:

    You guys seem to forget there is a prime example of how possible it is to adjust, still playing (and dominating) in the MLB, and that’s the King, mr. Felix Hernandez. Everyone has made a big deal out of his fastball decline (He is down to what, 91-93mph? I believe?) and while Verlander may be doing with higher overall MPH, the King has continued to adjust and dominate with a slower and slower FB. It IS possible for elite talent. Verlander is a good enough pitcher I believe he can do the same, and hell he is still throwing over 95 mph, higher than Felix. Just sayin.

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    • Jackson says:

      To me Felix’s ‘fastball’ was really a hard sinker. 96 mph with a wicked drop. Just filthy. I admit I don’t watch a lot of Mariner games but I don’t recall ever seeing Felix throw a regular straight as an arrow 4 seam fastball.

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  11. SMDawg says:

    I know your effort here is attempting to compare the here and now of JV to his past, and that’s fine and good at a cursory glance, but I don’t find any merit to examining pitch speeds. Yes his pitch speeds have fallen off. So what you’re doing is playing roulette and assuming there’s some sort of trend in the game instead of treating every spin independently. If you take Verlander right now vs Greg Maddux in his prime, JV has a higher pitch speed. Is JV better than Maddux? Heck no, I don’t see it (and I’m a big Tigers fan). I think there are intangibles that you cannot capture with stats.

    I could give you countless other names to add to the list of “wtf” pitchers who pitch VERY well with low velocity. Jared Weaver comes to mind as a player today, who broke 90 only in like 2 or 3 games this season, yet here he is with a sub 3.5 ERA and producing wins as well as he ever has.

    I could point to 2 things regarding his velocity decline THIS season. One, his off season abdominal surgery, surely he’s still feeling some effects of that. And two, lack of bullpen and lack of offensive help. As a pitcher, you get it in your head that you gotta pace yourself better to stay in games longer. Yes off-speed pitches wear your arm down, but not as hardcore as a 100MPH fastball.

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