Justin Verlander Needs to Change to Counter Change

Justin Verlander has a 3.55 ERA. Seems a little strange to be worried about a pitcher with a 3.55 ERA. But, a few things, about that ERA:

  1. it is worse than some of his old ERAs
  2. a league-average ERA is lower than it used to be
  3. ERA, really?

There’s concern, and the concern is legitimate. Okay, so you go a step beyond ERA. You look at FIP. Verlander’s FIP is even lower than his ERA! ERA takes a long time to stabilize, but FIP can take a while, too, on account of how much it depends on dingers. Verlander, so far, hasn’t given up too many dingers, but let’s use a stat we just introduced on Tuesday to show why Verlander is at the root of much angst.

Instead of K/BB, get yourself accustomed to K% – BB%. The former is fine; the latter is better. The latter is more meaningful, and says more about a pitcher than the ratio does, and let’s look now at the biggest decliners in the stat among starters between 2013-2014:

Maholm had some elbow problems, and he’s been torched. Miller doesn’t look at all like he used to look. Burnett’s on a new team, with slower pitches. Peavy’s been unreliable. Salazar is in the minors. Cingrani was just on the DL with a shoulder issue. Verlander usually finds himself among better company, but his strikeouts are down and his walks are up, and those are a pitcher’s two most meaningful stats.

It’s true against right-handed batters — Verlander’s K% – BB% has dropped from 16% to 11%. It’s true against left-handed batters — the same stat has dropped from 15% to 6%. Verlander’s been different against everybody, and what he’s done so far is a far cry from what he did at his peak. And while, with elite-level players, you generally want to wait for an awful lot of evidence to declare that something’s wrong, Verlander’s showing a major trend that probably can’t be dismissed.

The explanation for Verlander has usually had something to do with fastball command. Simple and sensible enough: a fastball in a good spot is better than a fastball in a worse spot. With great command, a pitcher can succeed doing almost anything. It’s been no secret that Verlander’s average velocities have been falling. Let’s leave command aside for a moment and just look at something both basic and significant. Here’s a table, covering the PITCHf/x era. It shows the rate of Verlander’s pitches at at least 95 miles per hour, and the rate at at least 98 miles per hour. The numbers are arbitrary, but arbitrary threshold selection isn’t the reason behind what you observe:

Year 95+ 98+
2008 15% 1%
2009 43% 8%
2010 35% 5%
2011 27% 5%
2012 21% 4%
2013 14% 1%
2014 5% 0%

Verlander became famous for amping up his velocity in the later innings of starts. He was the model of a guy pacing himself, saving his energy for when he needed it. In the past, Verlander has had triple digits in his back pocket. But he’s shown a declining rate of big-time pitch speed, and his fastest pitch so far this season has checked in at 97.5 miles per hour, on opening day. Verlander has yet to throw a pitch over 98. Just one out of 20 pitches has been over 95, and while Verlander might say he’s not worried because he can throw hard when he has to, the evidence suggests his new hard isn’t his old hard.

Now, it’s still early, and as the weather warms up, so will Verlander’s arm. I suspect at the end of the year, these 2014 numbers will be higher. I also suspect they’ll still be lower than they’ve been in the past, as velocity decline is normal and Verlander has experienced a mammoth workload.

What’s the deal with fewer strikeouts? Verlander’s always run high foul-ball rates, and high whiff rates. His contact rate now isn’t bad, but he’s generated fewer fouls. As a result, more strikes have been hit into play, ending plate appearances before they can proceed to three strikes. During his peak, Verlander had about 25-26% of his strikes put into play. This year he’s over 30%, and though that seems like a small increase, the spread in the majors isn’t that large. Last year, Verlander had baseball’s eight-lowest in-play rate. This year he’s in the upper half, around names like Colby Lewis and Tanner Roark.

I want to show you another table. This table blends foul balls and whiffs. In one column, you’ll see Verlander’s rate of foul balls or whiffs at pitches of at least 95 mph. In the next column, you’ll see the same rate at pitches under 95. Again, arbitrary threshold, but hardly what’s most important.

Year F, Sw, 95+ F, Sw, under 95
2008 38% 27%
2009 42% 26%
2010 37% 26%
2011 39% 27%
2012 44% 29%
2013 39% 30%
2014 39% 27%

Interestingly, Verlander’s top velocity has still worked fine, and his lower velocity has still worked fine, in these terms. His rates are each separated from his peak by less than one percentage point. But the ratio has dramatically shifted. Verlander has thrown far fewer pitches in the left column, and far more pitches in the right column, so more balls have been put in play, and Verlander hasn’t looked like Verlander.

Not everything, probably, can be explained by velocity loss, but if you want, you can try to tie everything together. Verlander blames his command, but maybe he’s just noticed more because throwing slower gives him a lesser margin of error. Command, for him, is more important than it’s ever been. Maybe he’s throwing more balls with his fastball because he’s less willing to challenge hitters over the middle, now that he doesn’t have so much of his heat. Because Verlander’s fallen behind more, he’s walked more, and when he’s tried to avoid walks, he’s come over the plate and he’s had fewer opportunities to try to get hitters to chase a changeup out of the zone. Verlander right now, additionally, doesn’t quite have the high fastball as a two-strike weapon. Here’s his year-by-year rate of strikeouts ending with a heater:

2008: 35%
2009: 50%
2010: 40%
2011: 34%
2012: 41%
2013: 38%
2014: 26%

With two strikes, Verlander has thrown a fastball 45% of the time, right around his 47% rate that he had in his five-year peak. It just hasn’t done what it did. Before, 17% of those two-strike fastballs led directly to strikeouts. This year, he’s at 9%, the ultimate message being that Verlander’s fastball is just worse across the board.

Verlander’s right: the big issue for him is fastball command. He has to locate his fastball better, because now he’ll be lesser able to make productive use of fastballs in spots he didn’t necessarily intend. He has to find a new way to succeed with the stuff he has, because he doesn’t have the stuff he used to, even if many pitchers would kill to have 2014 Justin Verlander’s arsenal. The fastball is worse, which affects everything, and while Verlander is probably better than his current peripherals, he finally has to make an adjustment after years of the league trying to make adjustments to him. There are plenty of reasons to believe Verlander is going to be an effective pitcher for a while yet. He’s smart and extremely talented and dedicated and he has a variety of secondary pitches. But this current Verlander is a little off. This current Verlander has to be better with a pitch that isn’t the pitch Verlander had always had.

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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Neil Weinberg

What data source did you use? Just as a point of reference, raw Pitchf/x is classifying a lot of his slower fastballs as changeups, which could affect the last list. Also, for a while, the Comerica camera was about a mph slow. I think it’s closer to normal now, but that might play into the first chart. Of course, if you used Brooks data or corrected this on your own, ignore everything I just said!