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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.

Coming To Terms With Justin Verlander

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

An optimist and a pessimist walk into a sports bar. Justin Verlander is pitching. The pessimist looks at the radar gun, checks the stat line, and looks at the contact. He says to his friend, “What happened to Verlander? He’s terrible now.” The optimist looks back at him and says, “What do you mean, he’s top 20 in fWAR and has a 3.45 FIP, that’s pretty good!” Both are true, depending on your perspective.

The Verlander we knew from 2009 to 2012 is gone. He doesn’t have 101 in the chamber for the 8th inning strikeout. He doesn’t have all four pitches on most nights. He lives 90-93 and touches 95-96 when he reaches back. The bite on the breaking ball shows up occasionally rather than regularly. He gets tired now, apparently. The strikeouts are down, the walks are up, the hard contact lives. Justin Verlander, best pitcher on the planet, is gone. The pessimist is right.

But so is the optimist. Let me write the last paragraph again in a different way:

Verlander sits 90-93 and reaches back for 95-96 when he needs it. He throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, all of which flash plus plus, but are more typically above average major league pitches. He’s not a huge strikeout guy, but is certainly capable of going on a run. He’s had some trouble stranding runners and is having more issues with lefties, but on balance he’s sporting a league average ERA and slightly better FIP after a couple of rocky starts. The optimist is right.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Justin Verlander in his current form is a still a very good pitcher. He’s had a bad string of three starts, but no one thinks the last two weeks represent Verlander going forward. They aren’t meaningless, but you should never project a player to perform at their best forever or their worst forever. We’re probably going to see a lot more 7 inning, 3 R starts than 7 inning 2 R starts. That’s okay. Verlander is 31. The reign of terror wasn’t going to last. We knew that. We talked ourselves into two extra years, but we knew he’d come back to Earth.

I don’t think we can fix Verlander. He’ll be better going forward than he is right now, but it’s wrong to expect him to be a Cy Young starter anymore. He’ll still have four or five starts in a row that will be excellent like last year’s postseason, but things are catching up with him. He has a little less in the tank than he used to. The stuff isn’t quite as good. He’ll tweak things and get out of the present funk, but there will be more funks in the future because that’s what happen when you age.

We’re done with Justin Verlander the 7-9 win player and now living with Justin Verlander 4-5 win player. That’s still plenty good. Just because he isn’t the Verlander of old doesn’t mean he won’t be good. And he’ll learn to adjust. He still has above average stuff. The problem is that he’s trying to pitch like he still has elite stuff. He need to change his approach. The walks will come down. The strikeouts will come back a bit. It’ll get better as he matures.

Last year, for all our strife, Verlander was a 5.0 WAR starter. This year he’s actually on pace for close to that. ZiPS thinks he’ll do it and Steamer things 3.5 to 4.0 is more realistic. Even if he walks the lower bound, he’s still an above average major league starter. Still plenty good enough to help the team win.

There’s a lot of concern about the size of his contract given his declining skills, but he doesn’t have to be that good for the deal to come out fine. He’s got 6 years and $160 million left if you include this season. On the free agent market, a win will cost you about $6 million (and it’s trending toward $7M). So Verlander needs no more than 27 WAR from now until the end of 2019. That’s a 4.5 WAR pace per season to make the deal a fair value factoring in no inflation. That’s not out of the question. If you call it $7M/WAR, it’s a 3.8 WAR pace. That seems like the right expectation. Verlander can earn the contract, or get somewhere close.

He’s done being the man, but that doesn’t mean he’s worthless. You can’t overreact to three starts, but you also have to accept the overall trend. Maybe he’s still recovering from the injury, but I think these are just normal signs of aging and a pitcher going through a transition from power pitcher to regular human being.

He’s going to be good, he’s just not going to be the guy you lined up to see. He’ll have those nights. He might even have a lot of them. But the guy who owned the league is gone. The guy who’s pretty good and will occasionally make you remember those summer nights chasing no-hitters is still here.

There’s a lot left in Verlander, but our expectations need to adjust. The fact that he’s been this good and this durable for this long is some sort of medical miracle. Just look around at all of the promising young starters losing UCLs. We made it through Verlander’s peak without losing him for a single start. Imagine that. He hasn’t missed a start in nine major league seasons. He’ll finish this year somewhere near 49-50 career fWAR. He’s probably going to the Hall of Fame. We were treated to the greatest show in sports. There will be a lot of great nights, but they won’t all be great anymore.

The pessimist and the optimist are both right. Verlander’s done and Verlander’s fine. There’s no magic fix this time, but there doesn’t need to be. Nothing that good lasts forever.

Verlander Has Surgery, Nobody Panic

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

So today I started a new gig at the SB Nation MLB news desk. It’s just another part-time writing job to add to my ever building portfolio of part time writing gigs, but as serendipity would have it, my second assignment was to write about Justin Verlander’s surgery. WAIT, WHAT?!

Those are not words I knew could go together. Justin Verlander + Surgery? That doesn’t seem right, but here we are. It’s a core muscle tear, a lot like Cabrera’s and it requires about six weeks of rehab before being evaluated. Dombrowski expects Verlander to participate in Spring Training and they hope he’ll be ready to make his seventh Opening Day start.

Verlander has been crazy durable – seven straight 200+ inning seasons – and has never even thought about going to on the DL. I’m not sure he would even know what to do. Is it an actual list that he has to sign?

The tone from Verlander and the Tigers is positive, but anytime a player goes under the knife you worry and Verlander has 6 years and $160 million left on his contract, so it’s important that he comes back healthy. We’ll know more about how this will affect the team in a few weeks but the Tigers are now down to four healthy starters and Verlander. Six weeks ago they had six above average starters. Things change quickly.

It’s always the opinion of New English D not to panic, but this is a panicky type announcement. Also, why did he wait until now to have the surgery. Don’t think about it too much or you’ll start to panic. I told you not to panic.

Justin Verlander’s Billy Butler Problem

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It’s become so predictable that it’s something of a running joke among Tigers fans and followers: Justin Verlander can’t get Billy Butler out. He just can’t do it. Every time Verlander faces the Royals, we accept it as a forgone conclusion that Butler will reach base at least twice against the Tigers’ star pitcher.

To open, Verlander is an excellent starting pitcher despite a somewhat down season, posting an MLB best 31.9 WAR (what’s WAR?) since the start of 2009. In the same period, he has a 3.04 ERA and 3.00 FIP in 161 starts. Even if he’s handed his title of best pitcher alive over to Clayton Kershaw, no one can argue that across the last several seasons, Verlander has been one of baseball’s best.

Butler isn’t a bad hitter, so it’s not like JV is getting owned by some scrub, AAAA player, but it’s not like Verlander routinely has trouble with the game’s best hitters. Butler’s ownership of Verlander is unique to Butler and not to good hitters. Since 2009, Butler has turned in a very impressive 128 wRC+ (what’s wRC+?), good for 34th among qualifying hitters. He’s mostly a DH and this post is about hitting, so we really don’t care about anything else Butler does.

Since 2007, Verlander and Butler have squared off quite a few times thanks to intradivisional play at things don’t look good for Verlander at all. In 71 PA, Butler is hitting a robust .435/.507/.597, good for a 1.104 OPS. To give you an idea, Miguel Cabrera currently has a 1.141 OPS. When you put Butler in front of Verlander, Butler turns into the best hitter in the league. That’s hilarious and strange.

Here are all 71 PA. Scroll down to get a sense of what we’re dealing with:

PA Play Description
1 Double to RF (Ground Ball)
2 Lineout: 1B (2B-1B)
3 Single to CF (Line Drive)
4 Single to CF (Line Drive to Short CF); DeJesus Scores
5 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak SS)
6 Walk
7 Home Run (Line Drive to Deep LF)
8 Flyball: LF
9 Lineout: CF (Deep CF)
10 Lineout: RF (Deep RF)
11 Single to LF (Ground Ball thru Weak 3B); Gordon to 2B
12 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
13 Single to RF (Line Drive to CF-RF)
14 Flyball: LF (LF-CF)
15 Lineout: 3B (Weak 3B)
16 Groundout: 2B-1B
17 Flyball: CF
18 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF-CF); Guillen to 2B
19 Flyball: LF (Deep LF-CF)
20 Single to CF (Line Drive)
21 Flyball: RF (Deep CF-RF)
22 Double to RF (Line Drive to RF Line)
23 Flyball: LF (Deep LF)
24 Home Run (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
25 Strikeout Swinging
26 Double to RF (Line Drive to Deep RF Line)
27 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak SS); Maier to 2B
28 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B)
29 Groundout: SS-1B (Weak SS)
30 Single to RF (Line Drive); Getz Scores; DeJesus Scores; Podsednik to 3B
31 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
32 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B)
33 Double to LF (Ground Ball)
34 Walk
35 Groundout: SS-1B (Weak SS)
36 Walk
37 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF-CF)
38 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
39 Strikeout Looking
40 Strikeout Looking
41 Flyball: CF (Deep CF-RF)
42 Groundout: P-1B (Front of Home)
43 Single to RF (Fly Ball to Deep 1B); Gordon Scores; Hosmer to 2B
44 Groundout: 2B-1B
45 Flyball: RF (Deep RF Line)
46 Single to LF (Line Drive)
47 Strikeout Swinging
48 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B); Gordon to 2B
49 Hit By Pitch; Gordon to 2B
50 Strikeout Looking
51 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Gordon Scores
52 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Gordon Scores
53 Strikeout Swinging
54 Intentional Walk
55 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF Line)
56 Strikeout Swinging
57 Single to LF (Ground Ball thru Weak SS)
58 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Escobar Scores
59 Walk
60 Single to RF (Line Drive to Short RF); Escobar Scores
61 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF Line)
62 Single to SS (Ground Ball)
63 Walk
64 Strikeout Swinging
65 Single to LF (Line Drive to Short LF-CF); Gordon to 3B
66 Walk
67 Groundout: 3B unassisted/Forceout at 3B; Hosmer to 2B
68 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
69 Lineout: RF (Deep RF)
70 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
71 Walk

By my count, Verlander retired Butler in more than 3 consecutive plate appearances just one time out of 71. We’re talking about a pitcher who, over the last 5 seasons, typically allows less than three out of every ten hitters he faces to reach. Since 2009, he’s allowed a .225/.281/.345 batting line. Butler has a higher batting average against Verlander than the rest of the league does slugging percentage.  Even if we go all the back to Verlander and Butler’s first meeting in 2007, Verlander’s line against is .230/.293/.351. If we include his poor 2008 season, it’s still great. MLB hitters get on base less than 30% of the time against JV and slug around .350. Butler gets on base 50% of the time and slugs about .600.

He owns Verlander. It has to be something about Butler’s approach that allows him to get to JV. Verlander puts most hitters away pretty easily, but not Butler. What does Butler do that most hitters don’t?

Since the start of 2012, they’ve met 29 times and Butler has reached base in 18 of those PA, good for a Bondsian .620 OBP. You might say small sample size, but the pattern has held across 71 PA for the most part and I don’t want to overload the analysis. What you see in the data is that Butler lays off Verlander’s stuff outside and looks to swing at pitches on the inside part of the plate:

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And you’ll also see evidence of this in the spray chart:

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Butler ignores most pitches unless they are inside fastballs and when he gets one, he pulls it to left for a hit. The pattern is the same dating back to 2008 (when Pitch F/X data became available), but it’s a less clear visual. In fact, Verlander throws Butler fastballs about 60% of the time overall despite obvious evidence that Butler can handle it. Verlander has relied less on his fastball as he’s matured overall, but he still seems to be throwing it a lot to Butler and Butler doesn’t mind.

Everyone seems to have their Kryptonite  and Verlander’s just happens to be the Royals’ DH. He can’t seem to get him out. It’s not getting better, it’s not influenced by a cluster of data points, and it doesn’t seem like something that will get better. Butler knows Verlander’s plan and Verlander hasn’t adapted despite lots of evidence that his current mindset isn’t working.

Luckily for Tigers’ fans, Butler only shows up in the other box for 18 games a season and Verlander can’t pitch in more than six of those games because when Butler steps into the box, Verlander doesn’t seen Billy Butler, he sees Miguel Cabrera. And that’s a terrifying sight.

A Quick Verlander Release Point Recap

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

About two weeks ago I wrote a piece explaining how Verlander’s troubles this season can be chalked up to his inconsistent release point. You can read the entire thing here, in which I lay out the problem in the results, the causes of those problems, and the root cause – release point – that is behind the whole thing. I’ll trust that you’ll believe me or go back and read that piece so I don’t have to repeat myself here.

It’s August 6th and Verlander just twirled 8 excellent innings against the Indians and the initial thing that will catch your eye is his increased fastball velocity (average 96.9, top 100.8). But as you know, I’m not interested in the velocity issue, I’m interested in his release point. So how’d it look?

First, let me show you full season graphs from 2012 and 2013 to get you up to speed on what we’re looking for (from catcher’s perspective):

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The difference is obvious. In the initial post I isolated it by pitch type, but let’s just keep it going. You’ll notice our goal is to keep everything to the left of the imaginary -1.5 line. You want the data points between -2.5 and -1.5. That’s the sweet spot. Also between 6 and 7 feet vertically, but that hasn’t been an issue this year.

How’d he do tonight?

First allow me to apologize for using a different plotting source. The graphs above are from FanGraphs, which won’t update until tomorrow. Below is from Brooks Baseball. I’ll make two notes. One, I’ve looked at the actual numbers from the source and they confirm the graphic. Two, I’ve drawn in the lines of interest because I’m a super helpful guy.

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The danger zone is empty. If you look at the source data, there are a couple points that are technically less than an inch over the -1.5 line, but the first two graphs aren’t super precise, so that’s not an issue. I would also like to point out, that thanks to  reader suggestion, I checked to see if the Cleveland Pitch F/X setup could be influencing these results. Comparing Sanchez’s start on Monday compared to his last start at Comerica Park showed no systemic bias. In fact, if anything, my exploration of other Sanchez starts indicates that the Cleveland setup might actually be working against Verlander in the example I’m about to show you. I’m not going to wager my life savings on this, but JV’s improvement seems to be showing up despite any sort of technical issues.

If you take a look at the movement charts, there is still room left to improve. The curveball had nice depth, but it needs more horizontal tilt. That said, the velocity is up and the release point looks great. I’m encouraged. The process was good and the results were there against a very good offense. Want more evidence? Below I’ve done the plotting myself for consistency. The first is a terrible start against the worst offense in the AL, the second is tonight against the very good Indians:

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Need I say more?

Guys, I think he’s back. The American League is on notice. (Editor’s note: The velocity and release point gains carried into his next start. Details here)

What’s Going On With Verlander?

verlander

Justin Verlander was baseball’s best pitcher over the last four seasons, but this year Verlander has regressed all the way down to being, like, baseball’s 10th best pitcher. We’ve overblown his struggles because we’re used to him never struggling. He’s not 2009-2012 Justin Verlander, but he’s still better than almost anyone else in baseball.

That said, despite a respectable 3.69 ERA, 3.35 FIP (what’s FIP?), and 3.0 WAR (what’s WAR?), there are some signs of trouble. He has the lowest K/9 and highest BB/9 since his 2008 struggles:

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The strikeout drop isn’t dramatic, but the walk differential is a bit concerning. He’s allowing a higher batting average against and a higher BABIP (what’s BABIP?) so some of this could be luck, but it could also be because he’s easier to hit. His line drive, fly ball, and ground ball rates are almost identical to his 2012 numbers .

The key for JV is a little bit of batted ball luck, but mostly it’s a strikeout to walk ratio problem. Try this on for size, in 2012, 32% of Verlander’s total batters faced ended in a walk, HBP, or strikeout. In 2013, it’s exactly the same. He’s allowing the same percentage of balls to be put in play as last season and he’s allowed the exact same line drive, fly ball, and ground ball mix. Exactly the same.

The difference for Verlander in 2013, we can say, is that he’s walking batters during at bats in which he used to strike them out. This is evident when you consider opposing hitters are chasing pitches outside the zone against Verlander less often and he’s getting fewer swinging strikes. Basically, batters aren’t chasing Verlander’s pitches and he isn’t inducing as many swings and misses as he did last season. As a result, instead of striking out a batter chasing on 3-2, he’s walking them which extends innings and makes the hits he does allow more costly in terms of run prevention.

He’s not allowing more balls in play as a percentage of batters faced, but he is allowing more overall because walks are extending his innings and giving other teams more chances to cash in. In 2012 he faced 3.7 batters per inning on average. In 2013 it’s 4.3. The problem with Verlander is that he’s doesn’t put hitters away with a strikeout and instead grants a walk. Everything else unravels from there.

What’s behind all of this?

I have two basic answers with one common cause. None of it has anything to do with his velocity. We’ve seen Verlander pitch effectively with lower velocity before and he’s been successful this season when he didn’t have a good fastball and he’s been bad this season when he has had the 95+mph.

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This is something different. It’s something fixable. It’s not something we should worry too much about. Let’s break it down.

1. Movement on His Breaking Balls

Last season his curveball averaged 6.3 inches of horizontal movement and 8.5 inches of vertical movement (these are Pitch F/X numbers and are based on where the ball would be expected to finish based on a baseball that wasn’t rotating). This year, he’s at 5.2 and 7.7 inches respectively. It’s easier to see graphically (All graphs from catcher’s perspective. H/T to Brooks and FanGraphs):

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Notice how his curveball has as much horizontal break as his slider this season when it used to have more in the past. Now let’s look at horizontal and vertical movement together.

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You can see the problem in his slider too a little bit, actually. The curveball isn’t breaking horizontally enough and the slider doesn’t have enough vertical depth. Both pitches are blending into a hanging breaking ball. The slider is faster, but it lacks the vertical depth needed to get hitters (especially lefties) out. The curveball is essentially just a slower version of the slider with some vertical depth. Neither is what it was in 2012. In order for Verlander to use these pitches effectively, they need to have different properties. The curveball is a slower pitch with more break and the slider is faster with less. They need to be different in all three dimensions – velocity, horizontal, and vertical – and they need to both break more in general than they are this season.

As a result, hitters are laying off the sliders that they used to swing through and more of those sliders are getting called as balls. The curveball has still been an effective weapon at times, but he’s throwing it less often because it isn’t moving the way he wants it to.

This is a bit convoluted so I’lll try to make it clearer. His curveball is getting more swings than it used to and the contact against on it is up because it isn’t moving the way it used to. The slider is less effective because hitters are swinging less and it’s not landing in the zone. The curveball is more hittable and the slider is less enticing. This is problem number one.

2. Fastball…Movement

In the charts above, you could see the breaking ball problems if you looked at overall averages from each game. They are clear as day. But the fastball doesn’t look much different other than a bit of a drop in average velocity. But as I pointed out earlier, two of his rockiest starts have come when he had his best fastball. The success isn’t about velocity. It’s above vertical movement on his fastball and you can’t see the problem if you don’t look at every pitch.

The horizontal problem with the curveball and vertical issue with the slider are evident overall because they are a consistent problem. But the fastball issue is only some of the time, take a look at 2012 and then 2013:

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Notice that missing cluster of fastballs in the 0-5 vertical movement section? Those are gone. He’s missing a subset of his fastballs that drop significantly on their way to the plate. You can see it in the horizontal and vertical plots too, 2012 and then 2013:

pic8 pic9

A cluster of fastballs (and changeups because of some Pitch F/X confusion) is missing that are just down and to the left of center. They are gone. It’s not like there are fewer or they aren’t moving as much, they are totally absent. And this isn’t a classification issue because we’re not talking about these being fastballs OR changeups, there simply are no pitches thrown in that location on the chart.

His fastballs all have the same general horizontal and vertical movement as each other this season when Verlander used to be able to go to a fastball that had more sink on it in 2012. Not having that pitch in his arsenal is likely the cause of a nearly 3% drop in his fastball swing and miss rate from 2012 to 2013. Verlander used to get more whiffs on the fastball and now he isn’t anymore and when they do make contact they do so for more line drives. They’re squaring up his fastball more because there is less variation in its movement.

So now that we’ve established the problem and the connection to the results, we have to ask what is responsible for this? Everyone wants to talk velocity, but two of his worst starts were two of his “best” fastball days. No friends, this is something much more technical.

Release Point

Let’s take a look at his release points form 2012 and 2013:

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That looks awfully different. Terrifyingly different, one might say if they were prone to hyperbole. Let’s take a look at just curveballs and sliders first:

pic12 pic13

That’s a big difference. The scale is in feet. We’re talking about release the ball 6-12 inches different from normal in some cases, and at the very least it’s a more inconsistent release point that we saw in 2012. Let’s try fastballs and changeups:

pic14 pic15

Again, this is a big difference. I don’t even need to describe it to you. He’s releasing the ball closer to first base on his breaking balls and on his fastballs and changeups. This is the difference. It’s a mechanical issue that he needs to correct. I’m not a master of .gifs and screenshots, but I’ve seen the tape from 2012 and 2013 and can tell you he’s falling off to the first base side more in 2013 than he used to. His body is taking him away from the plate and it’s preventing him from getting on top of his pitches – which makes sense that he can’t get the vertical movement on some of his fastballs but the horizontal movement is just fine. It also explains the problem with his breaking balls. Less depth on the slider and less horizontal break on the curveball.

I’m not a pitching coach and I didn’t pitch growing up (I caught, so I can diagnose the problem even if I can’t fix it), but I can clearly see the problem. I don’t know if Verlander is out of whack in his timing or if he’s favoring a lower body injury, but this is what’s going on.

The problem with his pitches lines up with the problems in results and this release point problem explains it all very nicely. Something else could be wrong, but this definitely is. It’s right there in front of you.

This is good news for Tigers fans because it’s really easy to fix compared to an injury. Verlander can just straighten out and get back to being himself. He just signed a huge contract, so it’s good to see this might not be him wearing down but rather him just being out of sync. That’s actually the explanation he’s given the press. It seems to be true.

It also explains why he’s shown flashes of himself. Sometimes he does throw the ball from the right spot and those pitches do their thing. The problem is when he gets out of sync and he loses it, things can turn quickly. Have you noticed how it’s tended to blow up in some innings but rarely across entire games. This is Verlander fighting his delivery, not fighting his body.

And he can fix it. Heck, Scherzer has a way more complicated motion and he’s repeated that like a champ so far this season. It’s going to be okay Tigers fans, the ace isn’t fading, he’s just going through a bit of a rough patch. And he can find a way to fix it. (Here’s a post from August 6th, showing improvement!)

How Was The Game? (May 5, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Almost.

Tigers 9, Astros 0

It’s hard to imagine that on a day in which the Tigers jumped out to a big early lead behind four homeruns and completed a four game sweep that pushed their record to 9-1 in their last 10 and 19-11 on the season that we would feel slightly unfulfilled. That lack of fulfillment comes at the faunt of Justin Verlander (4-2, 46.1 IP, 1.55 ERA, 1.96 FIP, 2.0 WAR) who taunted us again with his brilliance and held the Astros hitless through 6.1 inning before allowing a single to erstwhile Tiger Carlos Pena. Just four major league pitchers have thrown 3 no-hitters in the modern era and Verlander was making yet another run to join that club. In failing to do so, he still managed to throw 7 shutout innings and struck out 9 Astros. His pitch count was slightly elevated all afternoon, but the uncomfortable moments for Leyland were avoided as Verlander allowed a hit before he crosses into 120+ pitch territory. The Tigers will take tomorrow off to bask in their victorious weekend and will head to DC to face the Nats behind Anibal Sanchez (3-2. 39.2 IP, 1.82 ERA, 1.31 FIP, 2.0 WAR) on Tuesday.

The Moment: Verlander takes a no-hiiter into the 7th inning.

Justin Verlander Conquers April (with graphs!)

verlander

 

This particular pitcher, Justin Verlander, is widely considered to be one of the best in baseball. You may disagree with that statement, but he’s certainly one of the very best pitchers in the entire league. Yet he has become the game’s best without doing very well in the season’s first month over the course of his career. Even in his Cy Young/MVP season, his April ERA was 3.64. In 2009, it was 6.75!

It’s been a bit of a thing among Tigers fans that Verlander isn’t that good in April. But he’s getting better and that should probably terrify you if you are a major league hitter.

Let’s take a look at his ERA and FIP in April across his career:

era

 

There was a time in which Verlander allowed a lot of runs in April and pitched in a way that suggested he would allow runs. ERA tells you what happened, FIP tells you what generally happens to pitchers who pitch a certain way. But over the last few years, he’s conquered April. His 2013 April ERA was 1.83. Imagine what he can do this season now that he isn’t trying to play catch up.

This trend is evident in his K/9 and BB/9 numbers as well:

k bb

 

Verlander has made noticeable improvement in April walk rate over the last few seasons and the strikeout rate hasn’t suffered.

Now maybe Verlander won’t take this great April and turn it into a season better than 2009 or 2011 or 2012, but he very easily could. If he continues his pattern of pitching better in the summer months, then we may be in for a treat. Verlander, I would argue, is nowhere near the top of his game so far this year, but he’s getting good results. When he settles in, it could be awesome.

He’s the richest pitcher in history and his teammates are putting pressure on him to match their great start. Justin Verlander has usually stumbled through April, but he did not do so in 2013. Could this be Verlander’s career year? If April is any indication, clear your calendar for every fifth day and start thinking about a trip to Cooperstown in about 15 years.

How Was The Game? (April 18, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

 

The appropriate length!

Mariners 2, Tigers 0

Just 13 hours after taking the second game of the series in 14 innings, the Tigers and Mariners hooked up for the final game of the three game set and runs were just as hard to come by in this one, but they played the standard 9 innings. The only scoring came in the bottom of the 7th as the Mariners worked two runs across against Verlander who was otherwise brilliant over 7 innings, striking out 12 while walking just one. The bats made some hard contact from time to time but never got anything going against the Mariners. At any rate, the Tigers won the series and head to LA 9-6 after winning four straight series. They will send Anibal Sanchez to the hill tomorrow against Mike Trout and the Angels.

The Moment: Endy Chavez makes a diving catch to keep Prince Fielder off the bases in the 9th

How Was The Game? (April 13, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Closer than it needed to be.

Tigers 7, A’s 3

Needing a boost after a tough 12 inning loss on Friday, the Tigers called on Justin Verlander. Verlander was only able toss six innings thanks to a long, laborious 4th, but he was effective, allowing just 1 run and striking out 6. The offense carried the day thanks in part to homeruns from Hunter, Fielder, and Peralta. The bullpen struggled again with Alburquerque, Coke, and Benoit piecing together the final nine outs while allowing two runs. For a game in which the Tigers offense put up 7 runs and sent Verlander to the hill, this one felt too close in the late innings. The Tigers’ relievers need to get a handle on their command in a hurry or we’re going to have some high antacid bills coming this summer. It certainly didn’t help that Dotel, Downs, and Smyly were unavailable due to workload concerns with the lefties and an elbow issue with Dotel, but you need to be able to trust your bullpen to hold a six run lead. With today’s win the Tigers improve to 6-5 and send Anibal Sanchez to the hill against Jarrod Parker tomorrow looking for a third straight series win.

The Moment: Torii Hunter launches a long 2-out homerun in the 3rd inning.

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