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Justin Verlander’s Whiff Rate

In 2009, Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander took his performance to another level. The Old Dominion product punched out 7.19 batters per nine innings and issued 3.27 walks per nine frames during his first three full seasons in the majors, with a 4.17 FIP, a 4.48 xFIP and an average of 3.5 Wins Above Replacement per year. But last season, Verlander was an absolute force — he had 10.09 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9, posting a 2.80 FIP, a 3.26 xFIP and 8.2 WAR. That WAR total tied Verlander with Tim Lincecum for second among big league starters, trailing only Zack Greinke. Over the winter, the Tigers locked up Verlander with a five-year, $80 million contract that keeps him in Detroit through 2014.

While Verlander’s tour de force 2009 was impressive, it would have been irresponsible to just assume he’d keep pitching like that from now on. Prior to the 2010 season, CHONE projected that Verlander would have 8.81 K/9, 2.88 BB/9 and a 3.46 FIP, while ZiPS had a forecast of 8.9 K/9, 3.08 BB/9 and a 3.49 FIP. The FANS thought he would keep more of those ’09 gains, projecting 9.53 K/9, 2.59 BB/9 and a 3.41 ERA.

So far, the second overall pick in the ’04 draft is pitching well, if not at last year’s torrid pace. He’s got a 3.38 FIP and 2.5 WAR in 103 innings. His xFIP sits at a less impressive 4.10, due to a 5.8 percent home run per fly ball rate that’s below his 8.2 percent career rate entering the season and the 11 percent big league average. Verlander’s walk rate (3.15 BB/9) is a smidge higher than the projections. His K rate (8.13 K/9) is a bit further off the mark — basically eight to nine strike outs below the CHONE and ZiPS projections, and 16 below the more optimistic FAN forecast. While the difference is by no means alarming, I thought it would be interesting to compare Verlander’s 2009 season to his previous work, showing some of the reasons why his punch out rate has gone from stratospheric to merely excellent.

The 27-year-old is doing a fantastic job of getting ahead of the hitter — his first pitch strike percentage has actually improved from 62.1% in ’09 to 65.3% this year (62.1% average from ’06 to ’08). However, batters are having an easier time connecting with his stuff, both inside and out of the strike zone.

Verlander’s in-zone contact rate was 83.4% in 2009, but it’s 87.3% in 2010. That’s somewhat below the 88% MLB average, but above his 86.8% in-zone contact rate from 2006-2008. Opponents also seem to be fending off more of Verlander’s chase pitches — his out-of zone contact rate was 58.8% in ’09 (61.7% MLB average that year), but it’s up to 71.9% this season (66.6% MLB average). His O-contact rate was 66.7% from 2006-2008 (the MLB average ranged from 57.4% to 61.7% over that time frame).

In 2009, Verlander induced swinging strikes a whopping 11.3 percent of the time (8.3-8.6% MLB average in recent years). That was the third highest rate among qualified major league starters, and well above his 8.4% average from 2006-2008. This season, Verlander’s swinging strike rate sits at 8.2 percent.

In terms of pitch type, the biggest difference between Verlander ’09 and Verlander ’10 is his hopping mid-nineties fastball. According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Verlander got a whiff with his heater 10.6 percent of the time in 2009. This season, he’s getting a whiff 6.3 percent of the time that he rears back and fires (the MLB average is around six percent). His curve is also getting fewer misses — 6.3%, compared to 8.6% last season (11.6% MLB average). The whiff rate on Verlander’s changeup is unchanged (20.5% in ’09, 20.4% in 2010, 12.6% MLB average). For comparison, Verlander’s fastball had a 6.2% whiff rate in 2008, his curve got a whiff 10.1% and his changeup was swung through 11.8%.

It seems as though Verlander is settling in at a performance level somewhere between that of his first three seasons and last year’s fire-breathing dominance. He’s not whiffing ten batters per nine frames again, but that really shouldn’t have been the expectation anyway.

(Note: In 2009, the Pitch F/X system classified almost all of Verlander’s fastballs as four seamers. This year, About 10% of his fastballs are classified as two-seamers. Whether that’s an actual change by Verlander or the result of a change in pitch classification by Pitch F/X, I’m not quite sure.)