What If Justin Verlander Figured It Out? by Jeff Sullivan August 26, 2015 A little over a month ago, Dave ran through his annual trade value rankings, and as he likes to do, after all the good bits, he wrote up the bad bit, addressing the game’s least-valuable players. Ranking third on his list was fallen Tigers ace Justin Verlander, whose contract is steady even when the pitching isn’t. Verlander ranked worse than Matt Kemp. Worse than Shin-Soo Choo. He’s making $28 million a year through 2019, and when Dave wrote the post up, Verlander looked like a wreck, after a season in which he also looked like a wreck. Verlander’s contract has been used as one of the reasons why the Tigers might be headed for disaster. And, the Tigers might be headed for disaster. So might you and I be, I don’t know. Who knows anything? One thing I think I know, though — Verlander has turned things around. As the Tigers have faded out of the race, Verlander has seemingly re-emerged, and now it’s worth wondering what he actually is. Just as the world was getting used to the idea of an underwhelming, under-performing Justin Verlander, he’s showing signs that he…might…be…back? What if that were true? Are we open to the chance that that’s true? Let me make things simple. The following table is why this is a post. You see a table with four lines of data. Included, lots of relevant statistics. Now, the lines are labeled mysteriously, and there’s a reason for that. One of the lines shows Verlander’s 2010. One of the lines shows Verlander’s 2011. One of the lines shows Verlander’s 2012. Basically, in that table, you see three consecutive peak Verlander seasons. The fourth line is Verlander, in 2015, since the All-Star break, over just shy of 50 innings. Of course, it’s a smaller sample size. That’s why this is a hint of something, not proof of something. Anyway, do you know which one is recent 2015 Justin Verlander? Probably, you do not, because they’re kind of virtually indistinguishable. Which is interesting. Justin Verlander, compared to himself Time Period K-BB% FIP- xFIP- SwStr% Strike% IFFB% Hard% 1 16% 70 84 9% 65% 12% 26% 2 20% 74 77 10% 66% 11% 22% 3 19% 70 80 12% 66% 15% 24% 4 20% 70 91 12% 67% 15% 23% Four lines. Which is which? The strikeouts are all sort of similar, relative to the walks. Each time period features above-average strikes, and above-average whiffs. Additionally, a good number of pop-ups, and limited hard contact. The FIP numbers are basically the same, and Verlander has a history of beating his xFIP on account of limiting damage on fly balls. This paragraph is all to re-state what was already stated — the stats are similar. If it’s an answer key you want, I didn’t scramble anything. Time Period 1 is 2010. The next is 2011, then 2012, then 2015 post-break. Everything is there. Verlander looks a little bit different in style — more fly balls, more fastballs and sliders, fewer curves and changeups — but the end result is promising. What Verlander used to be able to do, he’s done. He can’t seem to throw 100 anymore, but the recent stretch would serve as evidence that velocity alone isn’t what Verlander needs to be terrific. There was a narrative that, at reduced velocity, Verlander would have to adapt to succeed. He’s succeeding, and while in some ways he’s adapted, it’s not like he’s staying away from his fastball, even though it isn’t what it was. This is an interesting article from the beginning of July. At that point, Verlander was sitting on lousy statistics, but he expressed confidence in himself. Now, a lot of bad players do that, and a lot of them stay bad, but it’s interesting to reflect now. Verlander felt like success was right around the corner. He said he’d been feeling the best he’d felt in a long time, physically and in terms of his throwing. As far as he was concerned, the stuff was there, and he just needed to do some polishing, specifically pointing out his mechanics out of the stretch. Back then, maybe that could all be easily dismissed by cynics. Verlander now looks pretty sharp. Time now to look at some screenshots, and specifically screenshots of Verlander’s follow-through when pitching with runners on base. It can be very difficult to perform a mechanical analysis on a pitcher when you just have the TV broadcast, but someone told me a long time ago that you can see changes by looking at the follow-throughs. Changes earlier in the process lead to changes at the end of the process, so based on that theory, let’s look at four pictures of Verlander out of the stretch before the break, and four pictures of Verlander out of the stretch after the break. Eight total pictures might not be representative, but then, they very well might be. I didn’t cherry-pick to get these. Before the break Mostly, I’m looking at Verlander’s right leg. From the camera perspective, the foot is about even with home plate, and the leg is mostly straight, with a bit of a bend in the second picture, which is Verlander throwing a breaking ball (the others are heaters). In isolation, this might not be real interesting. The next pictures make it more interesting. After the break Generally, a lot more leg bend. The foot is above home plate, from the camera’s perspective, and Verlander appears to have achieved fuller rotation. These pictures just look like pictures of a more stable pitcher, and while I can’t pinpoint what Verlander might’ve done in his delivery, I think the change in the follow-throughs indicates that there was a change earlier in the process. Verlander said he had to polish his pitches out of the stretch. These days, when pitching out of the stretch, he looks a bit different from how he did earlier, when he was plenty less successful. It’s evidence that something’s going on, and I think it helps to support the numbers. Speaking of numbers, I have more of them. Verlander so far has pitched in June, July, and August. His performances with runners on base: June: 32 batters, 5 walks, 1 strikeout July: 41 batters, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts August: 38 batters, 1 walk, 11 strikeouts I shouldn’t need to point out how small those samples are, but they support a theory that Verlander has gotten more consistent out of the stretch over time. At this point, he doesn’t seem to have any problems with runners on base, and a month and a half ago, Verlander considered that to be his final hurdle. If he’s beyond that — which is possible, and not definite — then we might really have something. We might have Justin Verlander again. One theory is that he simply broke down, losing velocity and losing effectiveness. Sort of thing you don’t recover from. But there’s a pretty good alternate theory — Verlander struggled in 2014 because he didn’t get to do all his usual pre-season preparation, and then he struggled to find his mechanics early in 2015 because of an injury. Given time to condition and smooth out the delivery, Verlander could conceivably bounce back, and that seems to be what we’re seeing. Maybe this performance is above his true talent, I don’t know, but this is proof that an excellent Justin Verlander is still in there. Declines don’t have to be linear; not every bad performance is representative of decline. I don’t know what Justin Verlander really is today, but I know it’s too soon to say he’s finished. He’s just not pitching like a pitcher who’s toast. He’s pitching, rather, an awful lot like his old self.