The Continuing Evolution of Justin Verlander

One of those baseball facts that might stick with me forever is that, after getting traded from the Mariners to the Astros, Randy Johnson put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Johnson appeared in 13 games with Houston, and his ERA was 1.42. To be that dominant, in that era, under those circumstances, after having struggled before the deal — well, I don’t know what else there is to explain. I haven’t forgotten about it for 20 years. I’m sure I’ll remember for at least 20 years more.

We’re living in the middle of a similar fact. One that’s gone on longer, one that must be considered even more impressive. After getting traded from the Tigers to the Astros, Justin Verlander has put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Verlander has appeared in 23 games with Houston, and his ERA is 1.36. In Verlander’s most recent start, against the Yankees, he allowed one run. That’s right on his season average — he’s allowed 12 runs over 12 starts. After allowing seven runs in the season’s first month, he allowed five in the second. Hitting Verlander of late has been more or less impossible.

Verlander was traded last summer, and was immediately good. We’ve already gone through a bunch of stories examining his turnaround, highlighting, especially, the improvement of his slider. That was a common conversation last fall — the one about how Verlander got better by making use of Houston’s slow-motion cameras. Yet Verlander only continues to grow. He remains, you could say, a work in progress, and he’s made a further adjustment in 2018 to get the most out of the pitches he has.

Over the course of his eventual Hall-of-Fame career, Verlander has possessed a dominant changeup. He’s possessed a dominant curveball, and he’s possessed a dominant slider. The pitch that will be remembered for decades, though, is the dominant fastball. So much of the whole Verlander story comes down to the fastball, how it refuses to lose any speed, how it can brush triple digits in the top of the ninth. From the beginning, Verlander has thrown heat, and as we’ve come to understand pitches better and better, we’ve seen that Verlander succeeds by throwing a rising four-seamer around the upper part of the zone.

In general, current Verlander doesn’t look very different. If you were to watch him now, you might not think anything has changed from his earlier peak. Of course, some tweaks are obvious, and some are more subtle. Here’s something subtle. Among starting pitchers, Verlander’s four-seam fastball has commonly ranked in the upper fourth, in terms of vertical movement. In other words, it’s consistently generated more rise than average. In this season, however, Verlander’s four-seam fastball ranks in second place, behind only Marco Estrada. He already generated rise. Now he’s getting more. The more rise a four-seamer gets, the harder it is to square up.

How does a pitcher like Verlander do this? The easiest way to analyze what’s going on is by looking at a plot from Brooks Baseball. Here, then, are Verlander’s month-to-month vertical release points:

It’s not hard to spot the trend Verlander and the Astros have worked to reverse. Last year, after arriving in Houston, Verlander started throwing from a higher slot. This year, the slots have gotten higher still, which can’t be a mistake. Granted, Verlander was very good in 2016, so it’s not like there’s only one way for him to succeed. But this is an adjustment that’s taken place in an Astros uniform. Verlander’s arm is moving back up to where it used to be, before the core muscle injury, before the intentional drop to three-quarters. This allows him to pitch in a particular way.

I’ll borrow now from Texas Leaguers. Here’s a comparison of Verlander’s release points in May 2017 and May 2018:

Here are fastballs from May 2017 and May 2018, with the lower slot being from last year:

And here are sliders from May 2017 and May 2018, with the lower slot being from last year:

What can be the consequence of someone raising his arm slot? For one glimpse, I’ll return to Brooks Baseball. For Verlander’s fastball, slider, and curve, here are his year-to-year average vertical movements:

When a pitcher raises his arm slot, he can be more able to move pitches up and down. Breaking balls are more 12-to-6; fastballs have less run. What we can see with Verlander is more vertical separation. Now, the slider has changed for a couple of reasons — that isn’t just because of the arm-slot adjustment. But the separation in vertical movement between Verlander’s fastball and slider is the greatest it’s been since 2012. The separation in vertical movement between his fastball and curve is the greatest it’s been since 2012, as well. Verlander has always had these pitches, yet they’re ending up in slightly different places.

To drive the point home further, here’s another comparison between May 2017 and May 2018. For each Verlander pitch type, you’re seeing horizontal and vertical movements.

The slider has shifted substantially. Again, we talked about that last fall. That’s a part of the story here. But for the purposes of this particular post, focus on the fastballs. It’s not so much that Verlander has added a lot of rise; it’s more that he’s eliminated fastballs that don’t get much rise. There’s a shift up and toward the center. Verlander is throwing exclusively four-seamers. He’s always thrown four-seamers, but from a lower arm slot, sometimes he’d get more two-seam behavior. With the Astros, and especially now, Verlander is getting and staying on top of the ball, and his four-seamer is looking overwhelming.

So Verlander is back around a career-high arm slot. In a sense, he’s pitching how he used to. In another sense, he’s taken that old approach and tweaked it. For the final image in this article, take a look at Verlander’s pitch-type zone rates, covering the previous decade:

Verlander is getting plenty of separation between his fastball and his breaking balls. But now he’s pitching even more fastball-first, in that he’s using his fastball more aggressively. Verlander’s fastball has a career-high zone rate, by a large margin. He’s not the least bit afraid of the pitch staying over the plate. And because the heater is so good, that allows Verlander to mostly keep his breaking balls low. The curveball has its lowest zone rate. The same goes for the slider. The fastball is already hard to hit, and, because of that, the other pitches have become extra unhittable. Verlander is working up and down better than ever before, and as a result, these days he doesn’t even need a changeup. He has more than enough to get hitters out.

When ace-level starting pitchers reach their mid-30s, it’s usually a story of survival. A story of how a pitcher has to make some adjustments if he wants to be able to keep his job. In this and in so many other ways, Justin Verlander is an exception. He’s not pitching to keep a job. He’s pitching to win another award. Maybe another two or three. At some point, it’s inevitable that Verlander is going to break down. No one is able to do this forever. Verlander’s trying. And he’s doing an admirable job of it.

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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5 years ago

This is only one of three times that the Astros have taken a high-velocity starting pitcher who was underperforming and dramatically improved them. Verlander, Cole, and Morton are currently #1, #3, and #26 in starting pitcher WAR.

Made me think of this:

I wonder if the Astros are doing the same thing with each pitcher, or are just really good at finding a pitcher’s strengths and playing to it.

Joe Joemember
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Cole has added an inch in vertical release. Vertical separation on fastball with curve increased by about 2.5 inches and with slider about an inch. Morton doesn’t fit, and most of his change seems to be related to throwing harder.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

How much credit goes to Brent Strom? I hear the Astro’s FO get a lot of credit for developing/molding pitchers a certain way, but I don’t hear that much about Strom himself. During the Pirates run of excellence, I often heard about Ray Searage and his impact on the pitching staff, but when it comes to Houston I mostly hear about the Front Office or the individuals. I think its time to give Mr. Strom his credit for bringing the best out of pitchers who were otherwise special before taking their talents to Houston.

5 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

That’s a good question. I had literally never heard the name before, but every scenario I can imagine has the pitching coach playing a major role in these career changes.

I googled him. Relevant and/or interesting tidbits:

-He became the pitching coach for the Astros in 2014
-Before that, he was a minor league pitching instructor for the Cards

-He was actually briefly a pitching coach for the Astros in the 90s, and then for the Royals for two years (2000-2001).

-The Royals had awful pitchers the years he was there, and the Astros didn’t have any breakout pitchers in 1996 either (some pitchers improved during his tenure, like Darryl Kile, Donne Wall, and Mac Suzuki…but nothing quite like what we are seeing now).

-He was the second player to ever have Tommy John surgery

I would love to know more about this guy. I get the sense he was an adequate pitching coach back in the day, but for some reason he’s really good with sabermetric backing. But that is nothing more than conjecture.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He may not be a national name, but Astros fans are well aware of him. He’s been great and was one of the first people talking about pitch tunneling. Don’t know who is leading the charge, he or the FO, but they are in sync with each other.

Less of a dynamic impact, but their first reclamation project was Collin McHugh who was, to put it mildly, not a good MLB pitcher. They took him off the waiver wire and started working on his great curveball and combining it with a high fastball coming out of the same tunnel.

The FO has thought very highly of him from the get-go as they brought Mark Appel to Houston to throw a bullpen session with Strom back when he was struggling in Houston’s farm system. Obviously, he can’t fix them all.