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Justin Verlander’s Declining Skills

Alright, I think it’s finally time to address what might possibly be the biggest elephant in the room during the 2013 season — what the heck is going on with Justin Verlander? And not only that, but is this the end of his reign as an elite starting pitcher?

With six years and $160 million left on his new contract, Tigers management and fans definitely don’t want to start having this conversation.

Now, before we investigate why Verlander has been struggling this year, let’s remind ourselves just how bad the numbers have been.

His 3.73 ERA and 3.54 FIP are easily his worst marks since his disastrous 2008 campaign (4.84 ERA, 4.18 FIP). The same can be said for his 22.0 K% and 8.5 BB% marks this year (18.5 K%, 9.9 BB% in 2008).

In addition to his bloated ERA and lack of control, he’s allowing batters to get on base at a 31.6% clip, which he hasn’t done since his 2006 rookie season (31.8%). In fact, from 2007-2012, Verlander was allowing batters to get on base at a much better 27.9% rate. As a result, it’s not surprising that Verlander has posted an Ubaldo-esque 1.36 WHIP this year.

Clearly something is wrong, so let’s start diving into the numbers shall we?

Pitch Velocity

Recently, we’ve seen another perennial ace deteriorate right before our eyes, albeit at a much older age. Roy Halladay‘s pitch velocity has been a topic of discussion for about three years now, and in the last two we’ve finally seen his career come to an abrupt end.

Now, it’s a well-known fact that Verlander’s lost a little zip on his fastball. However, while his four-seamer has gone from 95.07 MPH in 2012 to just 93.72 MPH this year, his velocity has actually gotten better during the season. Just check out this nifty chart from


(click image to enlarge)

Unfortunately for Verlander, his best months this year came in April and May when his velocity was at its lowest. It doesn’t seem the increase in velocity has done him any favors.

Since there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between his pitch velocity and success this year, we’ll have to dig a little deeper.

Pitch Usage


(click image to enlarge)

The chart above shows Verlander’s pitch usages to both left-handed hitter (LHH) and right-handed hitters (RHH) from 2009-2012 as well as 2013. Noticeable drops in pitch usage this season were denoted with a red arrow.

Note: Verlander’s increase in sliders thrown vs. right-handed batters seems more drastic than it is. He actually started throwing more sliders in recent years so 2013 is merely following that trend.

There are two important tidbits to take from the chart above:

  1. Verlander is showing less confidence in his fastball
  2. He isn’t using his curveball, which is considered his best pitch, as an “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters.

Fastball usage

From 2009-2012, Verlander would throw his fastball ~73% of the time when he fell behind a hitter, which is expected as pitchers generally have the most control over their fastball. There has been a downward trend, however, vs. right-handed batters as Verlander has dipped from ~73% from 2009-2011 to 66% in 2012 to 62% this season. This screams decreased confidence, which could be caused by Verlander’s decreased velocity.

Curveball usage

The second distinction from the chart is Verlander’s decreased usage of his curveball as an “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters. His curveball is regarded as both his best pitch and one of the best in the game — Verlander’s curveball has rated in the top eight in baseball in terms of value per 100 pitches in each of the last two seasons. If it was an effective “out pitch” as recently as 2011 and 2012, then why the drop from 27% to just 18%?

We’ve now recognized two pitches that Verlander has cut down on in situations when they should be used the most. Seeing as he’s relied on these pitches his entire career, we may be onto something here.

Pitch Values


RAA stands for Runs Above Average.

Aha! According to FanGraph’s Pitchf/x  pitch values, Verlander’s worst two pitches have been his fastball and his curveball — they are they only pitches that have rated below average.

Problem Areas


(click image to enlarge)

In this chart we can see how effective each of this four pitches have been both this season and in the past. I was surprised to see his 2013 curveball hasn’t yielded much different results than in the past. Sure, the K% has dipped slightly in 2013, which could explain the dip in using it as an “out pitch,” but overall the numbers are consistent. We’ll get back to this.

The same cannot be said about Verlander’s fastball as there’s a significant dip in K% (19.0% to 14.9%) and increase in BB% (9.0% to 13.3%). Also, batters are smacking his fastball around to the tune of a 25.9% line drive rate, which has led to a higher than normal .294 BAA (vs. .253 from 2009-2012).

It should also be noted that Verlander’s new “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters — the slider — is generating plenty of whiffs (40.0%), but when batters make contact they are hitting it hard (27.4 LD%).

Finally, Verlander’s changeup doesn’t seem to be as effective, mainly in the strikeout department. He’s seen a major decrease in whiff rate (37.1% to 28.5%) and K% (25.7% to 14.3%).

Curveball movement

It didn’t sit right with me that Verlander’s curveball was being used less often and was less effective, yet the results were generally identical to the rest of his career. Sure, maybe he’s picking his spots better, but there had to be something else.

I found the culprit, thanks to some help from my fellow Professor Bryan Curley, in Verlander’s pitch movement data:


(click image to enlarge)

Note: Negative vertical values indicate downward movement; positive horizontal values indicate movement away from a right-handed hitter.

Since 2012, Verlander’s curveball has become flatter. His vertical movement has gone from -8.0 inches in 2012 to just -7.3 inches in 2013, and his horizontal movement has decreased from 6.8 inches to 4.9. In 2013 alone, his vertical movement has decreased each month and his horizontal movement has hit career low marks in the last two months.

Add in the fact that his curveball velocity continues to decrease and you have a pitch that is flatter, straighter, and slower — that’s not a good combination.


So, what does this all mean in the end? Well, it means that Verlander isn’t pitching to the level of effectiveness we’ve become accustomed to over the last seven seasons. Should Tigers fans be worried?

Yes and no.

He’s a guy who has spent the better part of the last seven season throwing 200+ innings and constantly hitting in the upper-90s on the radar gun so would I be shocked if his arm is starting to wear down? No, in fact we are starting to see some evidence in his decreased velocity.

This doesn’t mean I am declaring 2013 the end of Verlander’s career. Not even close. However, I do believe we are seeing the curtains close on Verlander’s “Act I.”

He’s an uber-talented pitcher who will have to learn to rely more on his secondary pitches and utilize his fastball more as a set-up pitch, much like we saw Halladay do in his late stages.

Verlander will turn 31 in February, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him play out the majority of his new contract, which ends in 2019. However, his remaining years won’t be comparable to the Felix Hernandez‘s or Clayton Kershaw‘s of the league, but more the James Shields or Mat Latos echelon of starting pitchers.


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Updated: February 8, 2014 — 3:46 pm
  • Christopher James Hayden

    I’m pretty sure Roy Halladay’s career isn’t over.

    • George Fitopoulos

      It might as well be. He’s been useless this year and is a 36-yr-old free agent at the end of the year.

      • Jim Trotter

        I’ll take Roy on my team. He’s not a rockhead like Verlander.

  • Kansas_City

    Very interesting. I guess Detroit has money, but why give a 31 year old pitcher such a rich contract extension.

    • BooJays33

      um because when he signed the deal he was (arguably) the best pitcher in baseball…he’s your franchise guy and thats what he was worth and able to command.

      • Bryan Curley

        Doesn’t mean it’s right. I agree you sometimes have to give long contracts to franchise players, knowing that the back end will cost you a lot of money, but the “back end” is coming sooner than expected.

        • George Fitopoulos

          Agreed, contracts like Pujols and Verlander are constructed to be market-value deals for the first 2-3 years, ok values for the next 2 years, and then the team pays for it in the final couple years.

          Unfortunately for these two teams it seems like their big contracts are going to have a lot more years where the team “eats it”

      • Kansas_City

        Short version, big mistake. He had two years left on contract and they still gave him five more years, starting at age 32. At the point they gave him the contract, he was able to command nothing. Pure lunacy.

  • JWT

    Theory, as he has matured, his body has gotten a little thicker including fingers.. This may cause an almost imperceptible change in his pressures on the ball. Not enough for him to notice, but enough to affect rotation. Solution, drop a little weight.

    • Bryan Curley

      Fat fingers. That’s a new one for me, but I like it!

      • Jwt

        If my wedding band fit changes daily, and my 61 year old forkball changes, why not the games top tier which might well be more sensitive to physical changes of pressure. Thanks for responding.

    • George Fitopoulos

      He has to lay off the salty foods these days

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