Justin Verlander Is Back In Elite Company

From 2008-11, Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander were two of the five best pitchers in the world. The only three pitchers with a higher WAR than those two over that time period were into their 30’s. Verlander was coming off a Cy Young Award victory in 2011; Lincecum already had a pair under his belt from 2008-09. They were both under the age of 28, and were seen as perhaps the two most likely pitchers of that time to go down as all-time greats.

We know what happened with Lincecum. The following year, he lost his fastball. Without the fastball, he struggled to ever adapt. Essentially overnight, he became ineffective, and now five years later, it looks like his career might be over.

Verlander began to lose his fastball in 2013, and by 2014, he, too, was beginning to look ineffective. The strikeouts plummeted, and just two years removed from Lincecum’s swift decline, we began to ask questions wondering if Verlander was hurt or if he could ever be a front-line starter again. All signs pointed to no. As recent as midseason 2015, Verlander looked like one of the least valuable players in the game. It seemed as if we’d lost another one of the greats to the dreaded fastball decline.

Except, something’s happened. Over the last calendar year, here are the five most valuable starting pitchers in baseball, according to our measure of WAR:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, +8.6 WAR
  2. Jake Arrieta, +6.7
  3. Stephen Strasburg, +5.7
  4. Noah Syndergaard, +5.7
  5. Justin Verlander, +5.5

Dating back 365 days, Verlander’s back to being one of the five most valuable pitchers in the game. We thought these days were over. During the last year, Verlander’s made 34 starts and thrown a league-high 230 2/3 innings. He’s always been a workhorse. Now, he’s back to being a overpowering workhorse. He’s struck out more than a quarter of all the batters he’s faced, with his vintage above-average walk rate. The ERA’s been 3.20, good for a 76 ERA- that’s a tick better than Syndergaard and three ticks better than Chris Sale. The FIP’s been 3.38, good for an 80 FIP- that’s just one tick behind Corey Kluber and a tick ahead of Max Scherzer. Almost exactly one year ago, our own Jeff Sullivan began noticing some signs that Verlander was beginning to look a bit more like his old self. Now, by almost any measure, he’s put himself right back into elite company. It’s easy to appreciate the rare pitcher redemption story.

A year ago, Jeff noted Verlander’s comments regarding his state of physical well-being, which indicated he hadn’t felt right for a while. He noted that Verlander was smoothing out some mechanical things, and that his follow-through out of the stretch indicated a more powerful pitcher. Definitely, health looks to have played a big role in both Verlander’s decline and his resurgence. Health effects mechanics, and he certainly needed time to get those back in order. Now, a year later, I’d like to add a couple more developments to the story.

We can start with the fastball. It was the central focus of Lincecum’s decline, and could’ve been seen among the central areas of Verlander’s, too. It was no coincidence that both dropoffs in production coincided with a dropoff in velocity. It almost never is. When Lincecum lost his fastball, the issue became compounded by an inability to change. It was suggested that Lincecum would be better off by working around the edges. What happened was Lincecum continued throwing his diminished fastball in the same spots as before — namely, over the plate to right-handed batters — and they teed off. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned in there for Verlander.

When Verlander began to lose some of his fastball, it took a year or so to adapt. That period coincided with his dreadful 2014. These last couple years, though, Verlander’s made a change with his fastball. He’s not doing things the way he used to:

VerlanderFBProgression

You can see the difference in 2015-16 relative to the earlier years. The fastball, now, is being thrown higher than it’s ever been, and while that might seem counter-intuitive for someone experiencing velocity decline, in Verlander’s case it actually makes perfect sense. Here’s why.

Four-seam fastball spin rate, 2016, min. 500 thrown

  1. Justin Verlander, 2,562 RPM
  2. Max Scherzer, 2,553
  3. Blake Snell, 2,513

We know about the effects of high spin on a fastball. It gives them that “rising” effect, which leads to batters swinging under the ball for whiffs and pop-ups. Those rising pitches work better up in the zone, and so despite Verlander’s velocity being down two miles per hour from where he was in his heyday, he’s learned to use the strength of the pitch to the best of his ability. Among 165 pitchers with at least 200 four-seams thrown this year, Verlander’s ranks in the top-20 of both whiff% and pop-up%.

There’s another development. Verlander’s long been known for his fastball, and he’s long been known for his curveball. The slider and the changeup were there, but they never demanded the same attention. Well, Verlander’s changed the slider, and now it’s demanding attention. It’s easy enough to see how the pitch has changed:

Brooksbaseball-Chart(6)

While the rest of his pitches are getting slower, the slider’s gone the other way. Verlander’s slider is up nearly two full ticks from last year, and three from 2012. He’s throwing it harder than he’s thrown it more than five years, a time when his fastball was regularly touching 100. And after a career of taking a backseat to the heater and the curve, our PITCHf/x run values grade it not only as Verlander’s best pitch this year, but among the very best sliders in baseball.

With added velocity, Verlander’s upped the usage of the slider to a career-high rate, at the expense of his changeup. He’s using the slider against both righties and lefties, while commanding it masterfully to the glove-side corner of the zone. Against it, batters have OPS’d a paltry .446. The slider’s now serving as a true plus third pitch for perhaps the first time in Verlander’s career.

It’s nearly impossible for a player to perform at peak ability while attempting to do so injured. That was Verlander’s first hump. He got over the physical stuff, and he smoothed out his mechanics. But from there, he took an extra step. He did what so many aging pitchers struggle to do: he adapted. He realized the strength of his rising four-seam, and he adjusted accordingly. He tweaked with the slider until he found the version that works best. The curveball didn’t need much fixing. Now it’s all there, and the revamped arsenal is working in sync with the revamped body. Justin Verlander’s what makes it so difficult to write off the greats.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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KwisatzHaderach
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KwisatzHaderach

It’s been great to see as a Tigers fan. This is basically old news, but nice to see people finally noticing that Verlander is right back into the mix of elite pitchers. He probably hurt perception of his injury plagued year and a half by not talking about the surgery or how arduous the recovery was. Didn’t help that the Tigers let him rush back to start spring training in 2014 as soon as his basic rehab was done. Now we should move on to his mechanics and how the hardest throwing, most durable pitcher of his era is still hitting 97-98 whenever he wants after over a decade and an enormous workload by today’s standards.