Justin Verlander’s Ninth Inning Heat

By now, there is not much that Justin Verlander does that should surprise us. The Tigers ace has thrown not one, but two no-hitters and regularly displays the hardest fastball, in terms of average velocity, in the league. Since 2009, only Ubaldo Jimenez has an average four-seam fastball equal to Verlander’s in terms of velocity (95.4), and given Jimenez’s recently struggles Verlander essentially stands alone.

In his last start against the Kansas City Royals, Verlander entered the ninth inning having thrown 104 pitches. Up to that point, the righthander had not thrown more than 18 pitches in a single inning. He would go on to close the game out by throwing 27 more pitches, bringing his pitch total for the night to 131. What was more impressive than the fact that he threw 131 pitches was the fact that, in the 9th inning, he threw four fastballs that topped 100 mph. (Now, the gun in Kansas City that night may have been a little hot, but we are still talking about 98+ mph fastballs.)

It has been said that Verlander is one of those pitchers who generally gains velocity as the game goes on, and that such a trait is quite stable. I was curious about how Verlander compared to other hard-throwing starters who pitched deep into games. To be clear up front, there are not many pitchers who not only throw extremely hard but also pitch as deep into games as Verlander. I came up with two such pitchers: Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia. Since 2009, Verlander, Hernandez, and Sabathia all averaged over 107 pitches per game, seven innings per start, and ~94 mph on their four-seam fastballs.

The chart below compares these three pitchers in terms of their average fastball velocity per inning. I also included the trend for league average starters over the same time period (hat tip to Harry Pavlidis).

We can see that all three pitchers seemingly increase their velocity as the game goes on. Additionally, all three significantly increase their velocity when (and if) they make it into the ninth inning of a game. However, the uptick in velocity is more drastic for Hernandez and Sabathia. Both pitchers show a more gradual increase in velocity until they get to the ninth inning, while Verlander essentially builds from the first inning on.

The league average curve is interesting since it shows a general decline in fastball velocity through the fifth inning and then an increase from the sixth inning on. This is likely due to sampling bias, since those starters that hold or increase their velocity better are more likely to pitch deeper into games (much like Verlander, Hernandez, and Sabathia).

While all three of these elite hurlers are able to increase their velocity throughout the game and in the ninth inning, Verlander does display a unique quality. When you look at the number of four-seam fastballs that each pitcher throws as percent of all pitches in each inning, there’s a clear difference. While Hernandez and Sabathia throw significantly fewer four-seamers in the ninth inning, Verlander drastically increases his reliance on this pitch. In fact, Verlander throws a four-seamer 58% of the time in the ninth inning, which, for him, is the second highest percentage in any inning save the first. See the table and chart below:

 


 Pitcher # Pitches – 9th Inning % FF Ave Velocity (mph)
Justin Verlander 153.0 58% 96.3
Felix Hernandez 166.0 22% 94.6
CC Sabathia 70.0 40% 95.0


Why Verlander relies so heavily on his fastball in the ninth inning is unclear. It may be that as he enters the ninth he is beginning to tire and losing the feel for his off-speed stuff. So rather than get beat by his secondary stuff, he decides to exhaust what he has left by focusing more on his fastball to put hitters away. It could also be that he enters the ninth protecting a small lead, and he may feel that it is easier for him to throw strikes and avoid base runners by using his fastball more at this point.

Either way, it is amazing to watch Verlander pitch deep into games. While other pitchers show a similar build in velocity as the game goes on, no one that pitches as deep into games as he does throws as hard or builds as consistently throughout the game as he does.



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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


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j6takish
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j6takish
4 years 3 months ago

I think Verlander has some maturity issues still. He is ridiculously competitive, but has been burned quite a few times by not using his offspeed stuff and trying to blow guys away with 100mph when he gets amped up. The Tigers/Rays game last week, he was brought back out for the 9th inning after throwing an incredibly efficient 81 pitches. He allowed a lead off single and was noticeably agitated by it and proceeded to bounce a few 100mph heaters off home plate and both Leyland and Avila tried to come out and calm him down.

RationalSportsFan
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

Or it could be the case that 7/10 of his offspeed pitches went for balls or hits. Also, he threw 13 fastballs in 23 pitches for a 56.5%, right in line with his averages from 2009-11.

It wasn’t “maturity issues” so much as suddenly none of his pitches were working.

Nikita Zaharov
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

Have Verlander. Love Verlander. Agree with j6takish (btw, I saw the same thing in that game and laughed – loved it). I wish Verlander more patience in his approach.
The only guy who takes the ball and I am disappointed if he doesn’t finish. No way am I complaining! He might be a robot.

Eric Cioe
Guest
Eric Cioe
4 years 3 months ago

And even with these “maturity issues,” which show up all of twice a year in an inning here or there, he’s still the best pitcher in the AL.

He’s also come quite a long way from relying on his fastball in tight spots since 2009. I recall one game in Texas in 2009 where he pumped 97+ for an inning and gave up 3 or 4 runs. Now he’s throwing his fastball less than 58% of the time in all innings but the first. He’s grown quite a bit, one inning so far this season notwithstanding.

ML610
Guest
ML610
4 years 3 months ago

throwwww the heat

test
Guest
test
4 years 3 months ago

Could this sort of profile provide a clue to the likelihood of injuries? It seems possible that guys who can increase their velocity over a game are less liable to get injured, since they always have a few mph in the tank. The key is that they can all afford to do this, since their 90% FB is still going 92-95 mph.

Any way to generalize about this with regards to pitchers who throw a lot of innings? Halladay, Lincecum, Lee, Weaver, Haren, Cain, etc.

Eric Cioe
Guest
Eric Cioe
4 years 3 months ago

No one is talking about it but Haren’s velocity is way down this season. He averaged 90 last year and sat at 88 last night, touching 90 a few times.

test
Guest
test
4 years 3 months ago

Also, does the league average FB include just the starters, or the relievers? Because there is your late inning uptick, if closers are involved…

Ryan
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Ryan
4 years 3 months ago

The piece says starters, although it probably would be more clear if the plot were labeled that way as well.

Anon
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Anon
4 years 3 months ago

You mention sampling bias for the league average, but it might be present in the individual starters as well.

If Verlander (or anyone esle) has lower velocity on a particular day, he would be less likely to pitch deep into games, which would affect the late inning data. This is just speculation, but it would be interesting to see if any statistics support this assumption.

Eric Cioe
Guest
Eric Cioe
4 years 3 months ago

Just from watching or listening to most of his games since 2007, with the exception of the 2008 season his average velocity is pretty consistent game to game. When he has bad days, it’s less related to lack of velocity and more due to bad location and lack of a secondary pitch working for him.

Daniel
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Daniel
4 years 3 months ago

Curious about this for James Shields’ year last year. I watched a number of the complete games, and it looked like he was gunning his fastball in the 9th. Can you look at that?

MG
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MG
4 years 3 months ago

Because unlike other starters, Verlander ‘turns it up to 11’ because he needs that extra push over the cliff in the 9th.

Dave
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Dave
4 years 3 months ago

It would be interesting to see these graphs ONLY including games where the pitcher pitched into the 9th inning. Part of the upwards trend could be because in games where a pitchers is going 8 or 9 innings are when they have their best stuff and were throwing that hard all game.
A game when they don’t have their A-game and aren’t able to throw hard may be the games they have an early exit and thus their data is only included in the first few innings.

Phantom Stranger
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Phantom Stranger
4 years 3 months ago

Verlander tends to lose himself a bit late in games when his mechanics get out of wack. He is definitely overthrowing late in games when he thinks he’s near the finish line. It’s the lack of command with the fastball in that part of the game that is the issue. Late in games he usually has better command of his breaking stuff, but it tends to be flatter with less hook than normal so it’s easier to hit.

Madoff Withurmoni
Member
Madoff Withurmoni
4 years 3 months ago

It’s almost as if teams face Verlander and then if he makes it to the 9th, they have an entirely different experience of facing a flame throwing closer, except it’s the same person.

Colin
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Colin
4 years 3 months ago

“Why Verlander relies so heavily on his fastball in the ninth inning is unclear.”

The guy is about as hyper competitive as anybody out there. He gets amped up and, like Nuke “Meat” Laloosh, he likes to announce his presence with authority.

Dan
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Dan
4 years 3 months ago

Like coach Lou Brown said to Rick Vaughn in Major League….”forget the curve ball ricky, give ’em the heater”

Jimbo
Guest
Jimbo
4 years 3 months ago

Why? *the guy possesses arguably the best fastball in baseball right now, and is throwing said dagger harder than at any other point in the game.
*Why the heck wouldn’t he is perhaps a better question…

Geez, if I were in his shoes…toeing the rubber in the 9th…and had THAT? I’d keep going to it just for fun.

Matt
Guest
Matt
4 years 3 months ago

Verlander’s thrown 2 no hitters, he holds opponents to a paltry .582OPS in the 9th, has a better K:BB ratio in the ninth and an equal ERA in the 9th than he does in other innings despite giving up runs in it this year yet people are questioning his maturity and ability to pitch in it. I don’t get it?

Admittedly he hasn’t mixed his pitches very well this year in the 9th, but when you’re throwing 100mph it’s hard to fault him for not wanting to throw something else. Plus, he really hasn’t given up many hard hit balls this year in the 9th. In the first game he got a ground ball that could’ve been a game ending double play but was just out of the reach of Cabrera that scored some runs. And in the 2nd game he gave up another groundball single(he did give up another hard hit ball though). So even though he was a little wild if things went his way he very easily could’ve escaped without any damage and none of this would’ve been an issue.

uh
Guest
uh
4 years 3 months ago

Why throw 100 in the the first inning when you got a hook like that. As awesome as his four seamer is, THAT CURVEBAL……..WHOOOOOO!

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