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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.