The Justin Verlander Hypothesis

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Justin Verlander isn’t pitching well. No one thinks the results are any good. They’re not. But while his ERA is close to 5.00 and his FIP is above 4.00, it’s not as if he’s throwing 89mph with no life on his breaking balls. The stuff might be diminished, but if you looked at his stuff in a vacuum, you wouldn’t be worried. A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the need to accept that Verlander is going to have more rough starts as he ages and that his days as a superstar were behind him. That’s still true. I’m not worried about Verlander in the long run because he still has above average stuff and should be a perfectly fine starter for several more years. I am, however, worried about his current troubles and how quickly he might turn them around.

With that in mind, let’s dig into things and evaluate the various theories about what’s wrong with Verlander and how he can make it back.

Kate Upton

This is the least interesting one, but I didn’t want to ignore it. Verlander isn’t struggling because of the woman he’s dating. Verlander was seeing Upton in 2012 when he was awesome and it’s not like his previous love interests weren’t attractive women. Sure she’s famous, but he’s pretty famous too. He owns fancy cars and expensive watches. This isn’t a matter of Verlander becoming an uninterested playboy, no matter how many times my mother tells me she thinks Ms. Upton is distracting him.

The Injury

Verlander had core surgery during the offseason which 1) delayed his offseason routine and 2) probably affected his ability to throw a baseball. He claims that he’s 100% healthy, so #2 is out the window. It’s possible, however, that the injury threw off Verlander’s preparations and that he’s trying to accomplish things during the year which he normally does in the Spring. Except Verlander was nails during Spring Training. I know the stats don’t mean anything, but everyone seemed to agree he was on track and healthy. He had a good first month in terms of run prevention, but the strikeout and walk numbers were equally worrisome. If we think about it, it’s possible that Verlander is struggling because the injury has in some way affected his nature range of motion in a way that doesn’t hurt, but limits his ability to find the proper release point and delivery.

Age

Verlander is 31. That’s far from dead for a pitcher, but it’s also around the  time when a pitcher starts to fade. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect Verlander to lose something from his 2009-2012 peak. His fastball velocity has been good over the last few starts, but it was lower early in the season, which could simply be a sign of aging. His other pitches have all looked very good at times, but they haven’t been consistently good. It’s perfectly plausible that the shine is simply off the apple. But the problem with this explanation is that Verlander pitched out of his mind last September and October and he’s only a little bit older. Age hurts you, but it doesn’t all of a sudden crush you.

Approach

This is a bit of a catch all category, but it’s possible that Verlander is just making bad pitches and poor choices. The stuff isn’t 2011 stuff, but it’s more than good enough to get hitters out. The location is off at times. He says he’s tinkering. Trying to find the mechanical tweak that will right the ship, but maybe it’s as simple as feeling the effects of age and injury recovery and not accounting for that in the game plan.

Verlander’s stuff is still good, that’s why this is so weird. Maybe that’s exactly the point. Verlander sees good stuff and thinks, “Hm, I still have it, there must be some problem.” But his stuff isn’t as good as it was three or four years ago. Maybe Verlander doesn’t realize he needs to make a strategic adjustment rather than a physical one. He’s pitching like he has the best stuff in the league and it’s leading to some damage. If he started pitching like he had just plain old good stuff, maybe it would do the trick.

I’ve been watching Verlander for almost a decade and I can’t remember a time when hitters looked so comfortable. This isn’t because he’s not pitching inside or something, but it’s because they don’t have to deal with 100 mph and three amazing secondary pitches at once. The big breaking ball still freezes hitters, but without the ability to hit 101, it freezes them a little less. This isn’t one thing, it’s a tiny little problem in a 100 different places.

Let’s consider a bit of evidence. In 2011, he averaged about 95 on the fastball but averaged 97 with two strikes (via Brooks). This year, he’s averaging 94 and hitting 95 with two strikes. If we use Baseball Savant data (which doesn’t make the same alterations as Brooks, so the numbers won’t match perfectly) Verlander averaged 95.04 mph in 2011 and 93.4 this year on the fastball. With men in scoring position, it’s 97 mph in 2011 and 94.5 mph in 2014.

Verlander isn’t dialing it up to generate strikeouts like he used to with the fastball. He still throws hard, but the velocity loss in “strikeout situations” is greater than overall. It’s not about average velocity, it’s about peak velocity. We can pick out all of these little problems with Verlander. His breaking ball has less lateral movement than it used to, also, but I think it’s ultimately about trying to pitch like he used to. He doesn’t need to make drastic changes, he just needs to not throw 95 up in the zone when he used to throw 101. That’s no longer the right pitch.

It’s almost like a curse. Verlander’s stuff is good enough that he doesn’t realize he needs to change. Take a look at his contact percentage with two strikes in 2011-12 and in 2014.


Screenshot 2014-06-17 at 10.55.26 AM

Screenshot 2014-06-17 at 10.55.37 AM

Verlander’s not getting into as many two strike counts as he used to, but when he does, he’s really not putting hitters away like he should. His strikeout rate when he gets two strikes on a batters used to be in the 40-45% range (even last year) but it’s in the 32% range this year. By my estimate, that’s a difference of 16 strikeouts already this year, not to mention the cascading effect of allowing fewer baserunners and extending fewer innings.

It’s not just one thing, but Verlander isn’t adjusting his two strike approach to account for his different quality arsenal. Throw in 16 more strikeouts and cut back the two strike home runs and his FIP sits at  about 3.46. You can’t just say if this had happened then this would have certainly happened, but you can easily see how much of an effect this could have.

Long term, Verlander will be fine. In the short term, it’s time to start thinking about how he approaches hitters. He’s right that the stuff is good, but he’s wrong that he can pitch like he did as a 28 year old forever. The problem, perhaps, is that Verlander isn’t broken so he can’t accept that a change is needed.

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