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.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Verlander Below the Surface by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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Justin
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Justin

The gif’s are quite scary